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Will the Real Nucky Thompson Please Stand Up?

If imitation is really the sincerest form of flattery, Nucky Johnson should be pleased as punch. If he hadn’t died 43 years ago, I mean. That’s right – Nucky Johnson. The carnation-wearing county sheriff-turned-treasurer was the real-life inspiration for the character Steve Buscemi plays on Boardwalk Empire.

In 1908, 25-year-old Nucky Johnson took over the sheriff position when his father vacated it; Johnson parlayed that into a career in government. Much of what you see about Nucky on the show after he became county treasurer really happened, right down to the part where a woman appealed to him for help with her gambling-addicted husband (though the real Nucky didn’t have the husband killed, nor did he order hits on anyone, for that matter). He earned the nickname “The Czar of the Ritz” for his command of a suite of rooms there; he liked to live it up at a speakeasy called Babette’s and he gained his position when his predecessor, nicknamed “Commodore,” was sent to jail for voter fraud. Legend has it that he began drinking when his wife Mabel died at a very young age. Oh, and he was known for doling out money to people like he was a mint – and for his trademark red carnation. “When I lived well, everyone lived well,” he once said. Any of that sound familiar?

Obviously we don’t know what’s going to happen in season two of Boardwalk Empire, which premieres on Sunday, but if it continues to follow the exploits of Mr. Johnson, we can make a pretty good guess.

Despite the fact that he flagrantly ignored the law he was once paid to uphold, it wasn’t the illegal drinking, gambling, voter fraud or acceptance of bribes that finally stopped Johnson in 1941. In the end, the charge that ended his reign was the same one that brought his acquaintance Capone down: tax evasion. And really, a guy as smart as Nucky should have seen that one coming – though he lived a flashy lifestyle in a very public setting, he continued to claim he only made $36,000 annually. Records later showed that he was pulling in about a half a mil every year. Obvious much?

The day before he went to jail, Johnson married Florence “Flossie” Osbeck, a former showgirl 25 years his junior (that’s them on their wedding day in the picture).

Nucky never really rebounded after his four years in prison. When he got out, he took a pauper’s oath claiming that he was totally destitute so he didn’t have to pay the $20,000 fine he owed. He never tried to regain public office, though he still showed up at events around town wearing his famous red carnation. He died in 1968 at a nursing home.

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Date
September 24th, 2011

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Stranger to the World

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