A Fine Man Once Said:

"Part of the 10 million I spent on gambling, part of it on booze, and part of it on women. The rest I spent foolishly."

- George Raft

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Ruminations On A Death Toll (and Other Vague Impressions): Boardwalk Empire

As a show that lives at the intersection where gangsterdom and dandyism meet, it shouldn't come as a surprise that I'm a big fan of HBO's Boardwalk Empire. It features great acting and compelling plot-lines, tied together by some of the best writing on TV. Part of what is so intriguing about historical fiction is that because there is so much that isn't known about the historical characters, the writers aren't necessarily tied down to a particular set of facts, beyond what I hope would be a respectable adherence to general points such as a person's date of death or whether someone might have been in a certain place at a certain point in time. So its entertaining to see a character like Gyp Rosetti who brings a certain level of drama to the plot-lines and the immediate story arc. Of course, one knows that Enoch Johnson ran Atlantic City for a long time after Prohibition ended, which probably doesn't bode well for the Gyp Rosetti character in the long run.

Yet with so many historical grey areas with which to work, I find that the writing at times has sacrificed the historical "tone," for lack of a better word, most likely with the goal of simplifying and furthering the plot in mind. This began fairly early on with the ascension of the Luciano character into something of a right-hand man for Arnold Rothstein in Season One, or about 1919.

Some historical texts allude to  Meyer Lansky first making the acquaintance of Rothstein - at a bar mitzvah, no less. While Boardwalk Empire doesn't necessarily dispute that characterization, it certainly doesn't reinforce the notion of Lansky as the initial conduit to Rothstein. In hindsight, Luciano certainly came to assume the position of preeminent Rothstein protege - he did, after all, assume a place on on Time Magazine's list of the 20th Century's most influential builders and titans. But in 1919, Rothstein had an army of young criminal proteges at his beck and call, some who wielded considerably more influence than Luciano.

That same year, Nathan Kaplan, aka Kid Dropper, assumed control of the lower East Side, with all of its corruption and graft and the attendant benefits thereof. When the Kid was put on the spot in 1923, Jacob "Little Augie" Orgen assumed control of the labor rackets in New York City. Another Rothstein protege, Orgen would have been at the height of his powers in 1923 - certainly with more clout on the street than the bootlegging, dope-peddling Luciano. At the very least, Orgen's army of ruffians - which by that time included other notable Rothstein pupils such as Jack "Legs" Diamond, Louis "Lepke" Buchalter, and Jacob "Gurrah" Shapiro - would have been a useful ally in the current gangwar storyline that has at times pitted Rothstein and Thompson against the seemingly inexhaustible Italian hordes led by the Rosetti/Masseria faction.

As an aside, one could conceivably argue that even The Little Champ, Abe Attell, enjoyed Rothstein's confidences more than Luciano would have in 1919. After all, Attell, a former boxing champion turned Rothstein bodyguard and intimate, was at the nexus of the Black Sox scandal. Depending on which story one chooses to believe, Attell either used Rothstein's name to put the fix over or was acting on precise instructions from the Man Uptown. The latter seems more likely when one recalls that Attell was defended in court after absconding to Montreal by The Great Mouthpiece, Bill Fallon, Rothstein's counsel of choice during this period and the preeminent trial lawyer of the day. Regardless of which version you choose to believe, both stories seem to imply that Attell was a close associate of Rothstein.

In any event, Luciano certainly came under Rothstein's influence at some point in the early 1920s, it just seems unlikely that it was as early as depicted in Boardwalk Empire. There is also another early scene where Luciano speaks down to Frankie Yale, who has been summoned by Rothstein. While properly conveying Rothstein's influence in New York at that time, this scene seems to minimize Yale's position in the underworld in the Brooklyn/Italian underworld in order to inflate Luciano's standing.


More recently, the issue of ever-increasing body counts has become something of a nagging issue for me. Generally, there is a tendency to describe the Roaring Twenties as a period when racketeers and bootleggers were dropping in the streets like flies. Obviously, a never-ending trail of bodies serves to further the plot and keep the viewers, myself included, aptly entertained. However, rampant bloodletting seems to have been the exception rather than the norm during the 1920s and 1930s.

Consider that during the entire era of Prohibition, the largest gangland slaying was the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. In that bloodletting, seven of Bugs Moran men were lined up against the wall of a North Side garage and machine-gunned to death. However, the massacre stands alone as an aberration of excessive gangland violence. In recent years, some scholars have gone so far as to attribute Capone's heavy-handed maneuver to the onset of acute syphilis - essentially, the theory being that only a madman would authorize such wanton brutality. In fairness to Capone, he approved of a plan whose aim was to catch Bugs Moran unawares - the decision to gun down seven unarmed men (none of which happened to be Moran, the intended target), was more of an on-the-spot, in-the-field decision made by his underlings on-site.

Following the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, the shootout at the Palace Chophouse in Newark, New Jersey, which claimed the lives of Dutch Schultz, Bernard "Lulu" Rosenkranz, Abe Landau, and Otto "Abbadaba" Berman in 1935 was the second largest gangland killing in the United States (that was not really about bootlegging, but let's not quibble). The physicians on hand did their best to avoid the grim distinction of being second-worst gangland killing in US history, but failed in the attempt - all 4 men died within 48 hours of the shooting. If you're feeling generous and include the shooting of Martin Krompier across the river in Manhattan that same evening as part of the same plot - he was left behind by Schultz to mind the store in New York at a cool $1850 per week - then the count is actually 5 victims. As it happened, Marty lived to tell about the night the lead came at him, and the surgical team at Polyclinic received a glowing commendation from Johns Hopkins for all of the work they did to save Marty.

To hammer home the theme, there was also the Collinwood Massacre in Detroit, where three members of the Purple Gang were executed by other members of the Purple Gang . . . anyway, you get the point. Multiple homicides were isolated incidents that generally received massive headlines because they were not considered ordinary course of business, even by gangland standards. Multiple murders led to investigations and crackdowns, which are generally bad for business, illicit or otherwise.


I like a good premeditated murder as much as the next person, but the proliferation of such events on Boardwalk Empire threatens to dull the significance of such violence. In the last episode, we saw Nucky Thompson shotgun 3 men to death in his hotel suite without batting an eye. The first five minutes alone of that episode (as well as the fatalities behind Chalky White's truck) matched the body-count of the Collinwood Massacre, which only led to the eventual dissolution of the Purple Gang's vice-like grip on the criminal underworld of Detroit in the 1930s.

Then there was the even-more maniacal Ben Siegel mayhem a few episodes earlier. In that scene, a prepubescent Siegel assassinates one waitress, one newsie, and at least two of Rosetti's gunmen - three if you count the one that Rosetti wounded in all the ruckus. That's 5 victims, which equals or rivals the Schultz killing depending on your count. And which is also pretty close to the St. Valentine's Day Massacre tally. Nevermind that the Schultz job was the work of two experienced gunmen from the Murder, Inc. stables - Emmanuel "Mendy" Weiss and Charlie "The Bug" Workman; or that The St. Valentine's Day Massacre was orchestrated by Machine Gun Jack McGurn and carried out by a crew of seasoned killers.

In contrast, the "Tabor Heights Massacre" was executed single-handedly by the teenaged Siegel. While the exact date of the events of Season Three is unclear, if we placed the time-frame around 1923-1924, then Siegel would be approximately 16 or 17 years old. Impressive? Certainly. And not exactly shocking coming from a character based on the man who once contemplated the assassination of Herman Goering and Josef Goebbels while vacationing in Italy.

The Boardwalk Empire writers may want to keep in mind that it has been alleged that Siegel disclosed his body-count in conversation with certain friends and acquaintances towards the end of his life. If those  numbers are to be believed (and there are certainly good reasons to discount Siegel's own words on the subject), then the writers have raced through roughly 1/3 of Siegel's lifetime body count before the age of 18.

How can Ben Siegel be expected to operate efficiently with less than 10 lives to take and almost 25 years left to live? It absolutely boggles the mind.

Eagerly anticipating the season finale,
An Uptown Dandy


  1. Wow nice, you misspelled Enoch and his last name is Thompson not Johnson. Why should anyone read your review if you can't even get the protagonists name correct.

  2. Hi Wade,
    Thanks for the spell-check. I did spell Enoch incorrectly there but Johnson was actually a reference to the "real" Nucky Thompson, upon whom the HBO character is based. Apologies for the confusion and hope that the typo didn't ruin the entire post for you.
    Dan F. (An Uptown Dandy)