Boardwalk Empire: The Real Crimes Behind the Fictional Show

HBO's hit series Boardwalk Empire is a show that tells the story of Enoch "Nucky" Thompson, a fictional character based on the real-life racketeer Enoch "Nucky" Johnson. Nucky is a former Atlantic City County Treasurer and criminal mastermind. The series is set predominantly in Atlantic City, New Jersey during the Prohibition Era. Although the show is fictional, it is based on many real events and real crimes. In this blog, we'll take a look at the crimes that made Boardwalk Empire.

Volstead Act

The Volstead Act was first introduced in 1919. By 1920, it was voted into law and became the United States' Eighteenth Amendment. An unintended consequence of Prohibition was an industry of organized crime called bootlegging. It almost sounds fictional to say that there was a time in America's history where alcohol was illegal to own, make, sell and transport, but that's exactly how it was between the years of 1920 to 1933.

What was once a legitimate business became an operation run by gangsters after the Volstead Act passed. Many prominent gangsters we hear about today lived during the Prohibition era and were deeply involved in the manufacture, sale and transportation of liquor. One of such gangsters was Al Capone of Chicago, who is a major character in Boardwalk Empire.

The Rise of the Heroin Industry

Crimes involving heroin were virtually non-existent until the early 1920s. Prior to 1910, heroin was marketed as a substitute for morphine as well as a cough suppressant. At this time, people in the U.S. didn't have to have a prescription to get heroin. In 1914, the legislature passed the Harrison Narcotics Act which made it illegal to possess and use heroin without a medical prescription, and in 1924 the legislature completely banned the substance. This is precisely the time it increased in popularity on the black market. In Boardwalk Empire, characters Meyer Lansky, Lucky Luciano, Valentin Narcisse and others become entrenched in the business of selling and transporting heroin across the United States, a crime today that would be known as drug trafficking.

Currently, heroin is a Schedule I substance which is the highest level on the narcotics scale. Drugs are listed on Schedule I when they have no widely-approved medical uses and have a high rate of addiction. In the show, the men who partnered to sell heroin transport it from Tampa, Florida to Atlantic City, New Jersey and New York City for sale. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, heroin trafficking will warrant the following penalties upon conviction:

  • 100-999 grams – 5 to 40 years for a first offense
  • 100-999 grams – 10 years to life for a second offense
  • 1 kilogram or more- 10 years to life in prison

Arnold Rothstein and White Collar Crimes

Arnold Rothstein is another major character on the show. While a character played by an actor, Rothstein was actually a real person who actually committed many of the crimes that unfold in the plot of Boardwalk Empire. He is the racketeer whom you might know as the man who fixed the 1919 world series between the Chicago White Sox and the Cincinnati Red Sox. The scandal has comes to be known as the "Black Sox Scandal." However, Rothstein was never actually indicted for the scandal, as federal prosecutors could not gather enough evidence to link him to the incident.

Rothstein was also a major player in America's bootlegging industry. He was the man responsible for most of the operations in New York City. As Boardwalk Empire recounts, Rothstein got a majority of his liquor by smuggling it by way of New York's Hudson River. Many believe Arnold Rothstein quite literally changed the face of organized crime in the United States. If Arnold Rothstein were alive today, he may have been indicted under the RICO Act (Racketeer Influence and Corrupt Organizations Act).

Studying the roaring 20s is fascinating, and shows just how much our nation's criminal justice system has changed. The arm of the federal government is much stronger than it used to be. There are more investigations, more arrests and more federal convictions than perhaps ever before.

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