Fact From Fiction: The Real History Of ‘Boardwalk Empire’

Monday, September 26 by
President Warren G. Harding? Sounds fake. 

As a sucker for historical dramas, I’m big fan of Boardwalk Empire. I love the fact that there are so many characters who are based on historical figures. In honor of last night’s premiere of the show’s second season, I decided to do a bit of research and see just how the characters compare to like their real-life counterparts.

The series is adapted from Nelson Johnson’s book, “Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City.” The lead character in the show is Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, played expertly by Steve Buscemi. Thompson is based on the real-life political kingpin, Enoch L. Johnson. Show creator Terrence Winter may have decided to portray a fictionalized version of Nucky to allow the writers to create a show worth watching, but they seem to have captured his persona completely. Here’s a look at how Nucky and the rest of the show’s colorful characters compare to their real life counterparts.

Enoch “Nucky” Thompson/Enoch L. Johnson

Buscemi’s character does great justice to the real-life Johnson. He may have ruled the underworld of Atlantic City, but to the public he was a savior that rode in a chauffeur-driven limo yet gave generously to those who needed help. In the show as in real-life, Nucky lived like a king, wearing expensive designer suits with his signature red carnation in his lapel, and strolling the boardwalk after waking up from his comfy bed in his suite on the eighth floor of the Ritz-Carlton.

“The Commodore” Louis Kuehnle

Nucky would have never have risen to power without the help others. Before “The Commodore” Louis Kuehnle was convicted on corruption charges, he established the system of kickbacks that made him and then Nucky rich. After his fall from grace, Johnson was able to take the reigns of power. The show has Dabney Coleman playing the Commodore, who is also Jimmy Dormady’s (Michael Pitt) father. This father/son story line may be pretty cool, but unfortunately it’s not true. And although “The Commodore” did challenge Nucky’s leadership, in actuality, the two eventually reconciled, and Johnson backed Kuehnle’s successful campaign for City Commissioner in 1920, a post he held until his death.

Sheriff Elias “Eli” Thompson/Alf Johnson

Sheriff Elias “Eli” Thompson (Shea Whigham) is his brother and henchman on the show. His character is based on the real-life Alf Johnson, Nucky Johnson’s actual brother. Alf, Nucky and their father all rotated in-and-out on the office of County Sheriff. And while this is depicted in the show, the time line is off, as Alf didn’t make it into office until after 1920.

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