EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP – Writing a biographical book can be painstaking work. It can be so time-consuming that a book on the same topic by another author can be finished before yours, celebrated and turned into a hit television show.
That is where Frank Ferry of Egg Harbor Township found himself when Nelson Johnson’s “Boardwalk Empire” about Atlantic City in the 1900s was released and picked up by HBO for the television show of the same name.
“I have been working on mine for 13 years,” said Ferry, a Ventnor attorney who recently self-published the book “Nucky.”
Ferry said he was even interviewed by Nelson Johnson for “Boardwalk Empire,” but didn’t realize Johnson’s book would be published so quickly.
Ferry had been waiting in the wings with the same company that published “Boardwalk Empire,” but after what he felt were too many delays, he decided to switch to the self-printing company Comteq based in Margate.
“People know you’re writing a book and they ask, ‘When are you going to get that book done?’ There gets to be a point that they are probably thinking, ‘Is he really writing a book or just talking about it?’ So I said I’ve got to get this done,” Ferry said during an interview in his historic home on Zion Road in the Scullville section of Egg Harbor Township.
Much of the more than a decade’s worth of research had to be cut during editing to finally get the book into print, but the material that made it paints quite a different picture of the infamous character that figures large in both books – Enoch L. “Nucky” Johnson.
“His story truly has never been told until now,” said Ferry, who worked as one of Nucky Johnson’s attorneys. “This book presents a different view. What I tried to do when I did mine was get primary sources.”
Using his knowledge of the justice system as a former U.S. attorney, Ferry combed through thousands of transcripts, depositions and other documents to glean as much factual information as he could about the man.
“I knew he had been convicted of income tax evasion, so I ordered a transcript of the trial. I know from my experience that the Department of Justice did an extensive background check on him, and through the Freedom of Information Act, I got a lot of those records,” he said, adding he also had access to FBI interviews with Johnson as well as reams of depositions from legal cases throughout the years.
“You get to hear his own words in the transcripts.”
But Ferry also drew from his own interactions with Johnson, who wielded his political power as an Atlantic County sheriff, treasurer and a state Supreme Court clerk and in other government and political campaign positions.
“I saw Nucky when I was growing up in Atlantic City,” said the author, an Atlantic City lifeguard of about 19 when he went to The Cotton Club for a night out on the town.
“All of a sudden the house lights go on, and there is this imposing man standing at the foot of the dance floor with these two beautiful showgirls, one on each side. People started clapping and shouting out his name, and they ushered him right up to the bandstand and set up a table for him, and all night long people were going up and talking to him,” Ferry said.
“He was like a rock star, and I couldn’t get over how excited everyone was over him. That was my first impression of him.”
Ferry said he met him again in 1964 when he was asked by Frank S. “Hap” Farley to represent Johnson in fighting a $20,000 federal government fine imposed on him.
The government eventually stopped the enforcement action, but Ferry told Johnson that regardless of that outcome, such liens would have expired on his death.
“He was extremely happy when I told him that. He said, ‘They’re not going to get it while I am alive or when I am dead.’ He didn’t want to give it to them in the worst way.”
Ferry said that contrary to the image shaped on television, Johnson was a well-respected and powerful political force, but also an altruistic man who helped people make ends meet during a time when there was no unemployment or workers compensation.
“He was extremely gracious with a real rough voice,” Ferry said.
He also helped employ residents when he was able to work behind the scenes to secure local and state support for the construction of Boardwalk Hall, a large undertaking during the Depression.
Ferry is now working on a pictorial book and promises to release it “relatively quickly,” as he already collected several hundred photos while researching “Nucky.”
“Nucky” sells for $35 and can be purchased at Farley, Fredericks & Ferry Law Firm, 5217 Atlantic Ave., Ventnor; and at Ivy Rehab, 3007 Ocean Heights Ave., Dolce Vita, 443 Zion Road, and McCullough’s Emerald Golf Links, 3016 Ocean Heights Ave. in Egg Harbor Township.
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