Anyone who is watching HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” – the series about prohibition-era Atlantic City and some of the city’s characters – would agree the scent of our city is all over the new hit program.


The images, the personalities, the style and the nonsense – it was all here as well as in Atlantic City during prohibition-era 1920’s.

Joseph Bilby, co-author of “Asbury Park: A Brief History” sees the new television series as engaging fictionalized history.

I called Joe in anticipation of his presentation Sunday (Oct. 10), to talk about Asbury Park’s prohibition-era past.

TBP:  The main character in the HBO series is Nucky Thomson, inspired by Atlantic City’s actual political boss during the 20’s Enoch “Nucky” Johnson.  Asbury Park’s political boss at that time was Francis Hetrick.  How were Hetrick and Johnson similar?

Bilby:  The main thing about both of them was that they were both very progressive Wet Republicans – Republicans who were not in favor of prohibition.

Hetrick appointed the first woman to an Asbury Park city job and the first African American to the police department.  He also saved a falsely accused African American man from lynching.  This was all unheard of in the 1920’s and doing this gave Hetrick huge community loyalty and therefore power in the area.  He made use of his power just like Johnson did in Atlantic City.

There is a story that a woman Hetrick helped asked him what she could do to thank him.  “Vote Republican,” he replied.  That is the kind of operation he ran.

TBP:   What was the relationship like between Hetrick and Johnson?

Bilby:  They were competitors.  Johnson’s Atlantic City was bigger but Hetrick’s Asbury Park had more status.

Hetrick can be credited with modernizing Asbury Park.  He headed the new regime after James Bradley’s no booze and old

Steve Buscemi as HBO's Nucky Thompson

 amusements era.

He wanted the city to look good and attract visitors, businesses and residents.  After a mysterious fire burned the previous buildings, Hetrick built the Casino building and Convention Hall to compete with Atlantic City.

What Hetrick did though, is run Asbury Park into massive debt.  Ironically, he was considered a financial wiz-kid and the treasurer of Neptune Township prior to making his mark on Asbury Park.

Hetrick and Johnson are both complex characters.  They had their faults but redeeming qualities, too.

TBP:  Can Hetrick’s influence be seen today in Asbury Park?

Bilby:  Definitely – it is in the architecture.  After the Casino and Convention Hall, there is the eleven-story skyscraper downtown, built by the Atlantic Coast Electric Company – the first elevator building on the New Jersey shore.

Hetrick had his office in that building for years but nobody knew what he did there.

TBP:  The speakeasies are now gone now – except for the secret bar that pops up on the boardwalk on Saturday evenings from Madison Marquette – but what would Hetrick say about Asbury Park today?

Bilby:  I think the fact that the producers of “Boardwalk Empire” wanted to shoot in the city is very significant.  It shows that so much of the ambiance Hetrick created remains.  Atlantic City has been spoiled.  And now that Asbury Park is experiencing a revival, the beauty and character of old are still there which makes it unique and special.

Asbury Park and Prohibition: An Oral History by authors Joseph Bilby and Harry Ziegler, Sunday, Oct. 10, 4 pm.  McLoones Supper Club.  732.774.1155.  Buy Joe’s book at