Revisiting Atlantic City's Historical 1920s Crime Summit

Al and Nucky stroll; they are the ones with hats.

As a historian, Marc Mappen doesn't like people who deal more in myths than facts when writing about the same subjects he does.

In Mappen's new book, "Prohibition Gangsters: The Rise and Fall of a Bad Generation," he raises serious doubts about a legend about Atlantic City that has survived for more than 80 years - the 1929 gangster conference that supposedly involved mobsters from multiple cities, including Al Capone from Chicago and Lucky Luciano and Frank Costello from New York.

Mappen, a Highland Park resident, believes only Capone and other Chicago underworld criminals were at the conference at that time in Atlantic City.

"The evidence from the time - 1929 and shortly thereafter - doesn't have all these big mob leaders, Lucky Luciano and all these mob leaders from around the nation" in Atlantic City, the historian said.

Mappen doesn't believe the the focus of whatever meeting took place was on attempts to work out a national crime syndicate.

Instead, he believes the meeting was much more regionally focused.

"When you read the stuff from the time, it's more focused on Chicago. It could have been entirely focused on Chicago and solving the differences there and maybe plausibly trying to reign in Al Capone," Mappen said

Current Atlantic City Mayor Lorenzo Langford, 56, was born long after the Atlantic City gangster conference, but he has heard about it.

The local folklore suggests all the organized crime mobsters of that time attended the meeting. They divided the country into different sections for the different families to run, Langford said.

"That has been part of the local Atlantic City lore that I have grown up hearing about time and time again," Langford said.

If you go by the evidence of the time, you have got to go with the small conference theory of only Chicago criminal figures, Mappen said. The stuff about the large conference, did not come out until decades later, he said.

There are two conflicting interpretations, which Mappen covers in his book, because the conference received no coverage in any newspapers of the time. There were no printed agendas, membership lists or minutes of the meeting. One photograph survives from the conference, but only two of the six men shown walking on the Atlantic City Boardwalk in a New York Evening Journal photograph are identified: Capone and "Enoch "Nucky" Johnson, who was the master of the resort.

"The big conference view" of the Atlantic City gangster meeting was the only view that was accepted for so long because it makes a great story, Mappen said.

"It's a wonderful story of Al Capone versus other mobsters, establishing a nationwide syndicate that controlled organized crime, having arguments, having Lucky Luciano there," said Mappen, a lecturer in the history department at Rutgers University. "People don't want to give that up. There's junk that has been written about it because it is melodramatic."

In a 1975 book, titled "The Last Testament of Lucky Luciano," the Atlantic City conference is covered. Mappen doesn't like the book because of made-up dialogue.

"The images... It's great. The guys roll up their pants. They are standing the surf and the stuff about the women and the debauchery that's going on there," said Mappen about incidents in the Luciano book that can't be verified. "The fact that it is milestone in creating a national syndicate, a top-down syndicate (in the Luciano book), it's really appealing... It's a nice legend. It fits all together and makes a dramatic story."

Mappen heard about the big conference before he started writing his book and thought it was true.