The Real People of Boardwalk Empire: Part 4 – Nan Britton to Richard “Peg Leg” Lonergan

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Vaudeville was one of the dominant forms of variety show entertainment from the 1880s to the early 1930s, which was very popular in the United States and Canada during the 1920s. A typical performance was made up of a series of unrelated acts groups together on a common bill. Acts could consist of popular and classical musicians, singers, dancers, comedians, trained animals, magicians, male and female drag shows, acrobats, illustrated songs, jugglers, one-act scenes from plays, athletes, lecturing celebrities, minstrels (hopefully not to a black audience), and even movies. This kind of entertainment developed from many sources including the concert saloon, minstrelsy (unfortunately), freak shows, dime museums, and literary American burlesque. It’s no wonder it’s called “the heart of American show business,” since it brought us people like Charlie Chaplin, Cary Grant, the Marx Brothers, the Three Stooges, Eddie Cantor, Buster Keaton, Mae West, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Abbot and Costello, Bob Hope, Judy Garland, Sammy Davis Jr., Jack Benny, and George Burns. Still, it’s a dominant form of entertainment in Boardwalk Empire filled with many showgirls that all the gangsters can screw. Nevertheless, in this selection, we’ll meet political figures like President Warren G. Harding, Irish revolutionary and politician Eamon De Valera, New Jersey Governor Edward I. Edwards, and Atlantic City Mayor Harry Bacharach. We’ll also be introduced to Al Capone’s son Albert Francis, alleged Harding mistress Nan Britton, Arnold Rothstein’s wife Carolyn, ragtime composer James Scott, and famous criminal defense lawyer William J. Fallon. And of course, Boardwalk Empire won’t be without the gangsters in which we have in this selection Big Jim Colosimo (the mustachioned guy who was killed in the pilot), Chicago Outfit adviser and Capone Associate Jake Guzik, as well as White Hand leaders “Wild Bill” Lovett and “Peg Leg” Lonergan. So without further adieu, here are some more real life historical figures from the world of the Emmy-winning Boardwalk Empire.

40. Nan Britton (1896-1991)

Nan Britton may or may not have been Warren Harding's babymama but she did cause a sensation with her 1927 book alleging that. Still, I wonder how she got the fur stole.

Nan Britton may or may not have been Warren Harding’s babymama but she did cause a sensation with her 1927 book alleging that. Still, I wonder how she got the fur stole.

Known in Life as: Associated with the Warren G. Harding Presidency because she publicly claimed in a tell-all book in 1928 that Harding had fathered her illegitimate daughter shortly before his election as president in 1920.
Character or Inspiration? She’s a character on the show.
Similarities: Was infatuated with Harding since she was a teenager and before he started his political career (who was a friend of her dad). Also, had his love child according to DNA evidence.
Differences: Was about 24 in 1920 and worked as a secretary in New York City. Had her daughter in 1919. Also, despite that she claimed that Harding fathered her daughter, Elizabeth Ann, there’s little concrete evidence that an affair between them ever took place and might’ve just existed in her head (save maybe an occasional hook up prior to his presidency). If so, then we’re sure that Harding wasn’t her baby daddy because he was said to be sterile (though DNA evidence has rebuked this). Also wasn’t hidden away until the 1920 election to avoid political scandal because that honor went to a woman who was Harding’s mistress but for very different reasons.
Ultimate Fate: Died in Oregon of natural causes in 1991 at 94.

41. Eamon De Valera (1882-1975)

John McGarrigle may not be a surrogate for Eamon De Valera but he did share a lot of his personality and wore glasses. Nevertheless, Valera would be a dominant figure in Ireland during the 20th century until his death in 1975.

John McGarrigle may not be a surrogate for Eamon De Valera but he did share a lot of his personality and wore glasses. Nevertheless, Valera would be a dominant figure in Ireland during the 20th century until his death in 1975.

Known in Life as: One of the dominant figures of early 20th century Ireland whose political career spanned from 1917-1973 with roles from revolutionary to several terms as head of state and government. Led the introduction of the Constitution of Ireland. Was in Sinn Fein and founded Fianna Fail. Political creed evolved from militant republicanism to cultural conservatism.
Character or Inspiration? Inspiration for John McGarrigle (though not necessarily a stand-in but close).
Similarities: Well, they had similar appearances and personality. Both fund-raised for the IRA in the US.
Differences: Born in New York to a Cuban father. Was a devout Catholic man who once considered becoming a priest yet might’ve prevented doing so because of his possible illegitimate birth (out of wedlock children couldn’t enter into the secular or diocesan priesthood at the time, though he could’ve been a priest of a religious order {like Erasmus}. Still, his half-brother was a priest though). Happily married for 65 years and fathered 7 kids. Was a math professor before getting involved in Irish politics. Was never assassinated unlike McGarrigle.
Ultimate Fate: Died in Dublin of natural causes in 1975 at 92. Body lay in Dublin Castle and was given a full funeral at St. Mary Pro-Cathedral, which was broadcast on national television.

42. Warren G. Harding (1865-1923)

Warren G. Harding did make a dandy looking president in the early 1920s. Too bad that he was a horrible judge of character that Teapot Dome happened.

Warren G. Harding did make a dandy looking president in the early 1920s. Too bad that he was a horrible judge of character that Teapot Dome happened.

Known in Life as: 29th President of the United States from 1921-1923. Republican from Ohio who served in the state and US Senate but was nominated on the ballot for being an inoffensive compromise candidate and used advertising experts to publicize his presidential appearance and conservative promises like “a return to normalcy,” an end to violence and radicalism, a strong economy, and independence from European intrigues. Though appointed great minds in his cabinet like Andrew Mellon for Treasury, Herbert Hoover for Commerce, and Charles Evans Hughes for State, he also rewarded friends and contributors with powerful positions who were known as the Ohio Gang. Presidency was famous for multiple cases of corruption exposed both during and after his death, including the notorious Teapot Dome scandal which was “greatest and most sensational scandal in the history of American politics” before Watergate. Seen as one of the worst US Presidents, despite setting up what would eventually become the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.
Character or Inspiration? He’s a character on the show.
Similarities: Well, he was a womanizer and frequently cheated on his wife. Had to have a mistress hidden away during his 1920 presidential campaign. And had a love child out of wedlock to Nan Britton according to DNA evidence. But both these things didn’t apply to the same woman.
Differences: Born and spent most of his life in Ohio as well as owned a newspaper. Actual mistress who was to be hidden away wasn’t Nan Britton, but his mistress of 15 years Carrie Fulton Phillips (who he certainly did have an affair with since there are 1,000 pages of intimate letters between them which may be available online), a wife of a department store owner and a close friend. Yet, she was hidden away due to her vocal support for Germany during WWI and was deliberately blackmailed by the Republican Party with an all-expense paid vacation to East Asia. Also said to be linked to two of his wife’s friends named Susan Hodder and Grace Cross. Heavy drinker and gambler. Still, wasn’t as much a crook and more like a bad judge of character.
Ultimate Fate: Died in office under mysterious circumstances in San Francisco in 1923 at 58 (Mrs. Harding refused an autopsy. Still, even if Flossie didn’t poison her husband {and it’s highly unlikely she did}, we’re not sure what killed him. He was officially said to succumb to apoplexy and recently had a heart attack as well as food poisoning {from seafood} that led to pneumonia in Alaska but it may have been stroke, congestive heart failure, food poisoning, or heart attack. It’s also widely believed that Harding might’ve been a victim of medical malpractice since the doctor treating him when he died was a homeopath {a field of medicine that’s now considered a pseudoscience}.)

43. James “Big Jim” Colosimo (1878-1920)

Big Jim Colosimo with his lawyer. Notice that he used to wear that white suit to lure women into his prostitution cathouses. Still, you probably remember him for getting killed in the Boardwalk Empire pilot.

Big Jim Colosimo with his lawyer. Notice that he used to wear that white suit to lure women into his prostitution cathouses. Still, you probably remember him for getting killed in the Boardwalk Empire pilot.

Known in Life as: Italian American Mafia crime boss who built a criminal empire in Chicago based on prostitution, gambling, and racketeering. From 1902-1920 would lead a gang that would be known after his death as the Chicago Outfit.
Character or Inspiration? He’s a character on the show.
Similarities: Was actually a big guy with a mustache. Refused to invest in the alcohol business when Prohibition came around. Had a restaurant and night club called Colosimo’s Café (where Al Capone would work as a bouncer). Was killed in 1920 (but in May not January as in the pilot).
Differences: Born in Italy and immigrated to Chicago in 1895. Recruited Johnny Torrio from Brooklyn and made him his second in command (this would prove to be a very big mistake). Married twice and divorced once (to Torrio’s aunt whom he deserted). Frequently dressed in a white suit as well as wore diamond pins, rings, and other jewelry.
Ultimate Fate: Shot and killed in his café in Chicago in 1920 at 42. Though Torrio is the most likely suspect responsible (who may have hired Frankie Yale to do the deed), no one was ever arrested for it.

44. Albert Francis “Sonny “Capone (1918-2004)

Sonny Capone on one of his wedding days, I think. Still, basically rebelled against his dad by going to college, getting a legitimate job, and not breaking the law.

Sonny Capone on one of his wedding days, I think. Still, basically rebelled against his dad by going to college, getting a legitimate job, and not breaking the law.

Known in Life as: Al Capone’s son.
Character or Inspiration? He’s a character on the show.
Similarities: Well, he was a kid at the time (well, he was 2 in 1920). And he did have hearing problems.
Differences: Wasn’t born deaf and only went partially deaf at age 7 (due to being born with congenital syphilis and experiencing a serious mastoid infection that required brain surgery). Went to high school with Desi Arnaz Sr. from I Love Lucy and attended the University of Miami. Married 3 times and fathered at least 4 daughters. Changed his name to Albert Francis Brown in 1966 in order to distance himself from his notorious dad.
Ultimate Fate: Died in Florida of natural causes at 85 in 2004, after a lifetime as an upstanding citizen with no mob ties (except in genetics). At least a few of his daughters are still alive.

45. Jake Guzik (1886-1956)

Yes, this is a picture of Guzik from 1946 but it was one the few good ones I could find. Still, you didn't want to beat him up or his buddy Al Capone would show his famous violent tendencies in your direction.

Yes, this is a picture of Guzik from 1946 but it was one the few good ones I could find. Still, you didn’t want to beat him up or his buddy Al Capone would show his famous violent tendencies in your direction.

Known in Life as: Jewish American financial and legal advisor as well as political “greaser” for the Chicago Outfit. Had a great relationship with Al Capone.
Character or Inspiration? He’s a character on the show.
Similarities: Was involved in prostitution and protected by Al Capone (hurting him was a quick way to get Al to practically murder you).
Differences: Born in Krakow, Poland and came to the US in the early 20th century. Was incapable of using a gun or killing anyone. Served as principal bagman in payoffs to Chicago police and politicians. Capone actually came to trust and rely on his advice as well as told him to make sure his wife and kid were provided for when his health failed.
Ultimate Fate: He would also go on to work for Paul “the Waiter” Ricca and Tony Accardo. Spent a few years in prison for tax evasion. Died of a myocardial infraction in 1956 at 69. Funeral was said to put more Italians in a synagogue than ever before in history.

46. Carolyn Greene Rothstein (1888-?)

Carolyn Rothstein wasn't too happy with her husband Arnold's life choices but she stuck with him until his 1928 murder. I mean she had to put up with his gambling, stealing, marital infidelities, and having people killed.

Carolyn Rothstein wasn’t too happy with her husband Arnold’s life choices but she stuck with him until his 1928 murder. I mean she had to put up with his gambling, stealing, marital infidelities, and having people killed. Ladies, if you want to know what it’s like being a gangster’s wife, you might want to read her book if available.

Known in Life as: Arnold Rothstein’s wife.
Character or Inspiration? She’s a character on the show.
Similarities: Well, she was blond.
Differences: Was a New York showgirl before meeting her husband who interrogated her coworkers and friends after four dates. Was Irish Catholic (as well as half-Jewish) and married Arnold at 21 though he pawned all her jewelry for cash (he got it back after winning $12,000). Though remained married to Arnold until his murder, she didn’t like him being a New York gang boss and gambler. Also put up with his cheating, stealing, and killing.
Ultimate Fate: Wrote a book about her life with her husband after his murder called Now I’ll Tell You that was published in 1934. Well, she didn’t died rich if she survived Arnold by more than 10 years.

47. William J. Fallon (1886-1927)

William J. Fallon was a noted criminal defense attorney who has become the archetype of all sleazy lawyers everywhere. Still, you have to give him credit for him never losing a case pertaining to murder.

William J. Fallon was a noted criminal defense attorney who has become the archetype of all sleazy lawyers everywhere. Still, you have to give him credit for him never losing a case pertaining to murder.

Known in Life as: Criminal defense attorney in New York City who represented the city’s leading pimps, illegal narcotics dealers, embezzlers, and operators. Inspiration for Billy Flynn of Chicago as well as the archetype for the amoral criminal defense lawyer.
Character or Inspiration? He’s a character on the show.
Similarities: Well, he was known to defend a lot of famous morally dubious people. Also represented Arnold Rothstein.
Differences: Son of Irish immigrants. Graduated at the top of his class at Fordham University. Was in the New York State Assembly and was charged in 1924 for bribing a juror but acquitted. Called, “The Great Mouthpiece.” Said to be talented, vain, and flamboyant as well as drank a lot. Was very smart and eloquent but also immoral, dishonest, and self-indulgent. His 120 homicide defendants were never convicted. Married with two daughters. Wore exquisitely tailored suites, had the finest silk ties, and donned no shirt more than once. Yet, left his cobbler made shoes unshined.
Ultimate Fate: Died of heart disease at the Hotel Oxford in 1927 at 40.

48. William “Wild Bill” Lovett (1894-1923)

Yes, he may have an unremarkable appearance, but he's the famous White Hand leader known as Wild Bill Lovett who made money through dockside extortion as well had alcoholic rages that were the stuff of legend. Was shot up dead on Halloween night.

Yes, he may have an unremarkable appearance, but he’s the famous White Hand leader known as Wild Bill Lovett who made money through dockside extortion as well had alcoholic rages that were the stuff of legend. Was shot up dead on Halloween night.

Known in Life as: Irish American gangster in early 20th century New York.
Character or Inspiration? He’s a character on the show.
Similarities: Leader of the White Hand Gang and worked with “Peg Leg” Lonergan.
Differences: Spent his childhood as a juvenile delinquent in various gangs. Served in WWI and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for bravery. Though well-educated and articulate, was a temperamental alcoholic who made even his own men nervous. Took control of the waterfront rackets after the death of White Hand Gang leader Dinny Meehan (and was believed to have killed him). Income came from dockside extortion, burglary and other crimes. Survived a few assassination attempts such as a stabbing and 3 shots to the chest.
Ultimate Fate: Upon his 1923 marriage to Lonergan’s sister, he swore to give up criminal rackets and drinking. Turned power to his brother-in-law and was safe for 3 months, but was up to his old ways and his wife refused to take him back. Beaten and shot up near a store on Halloween night (most likely by Irish gangsters) after leaving a bar drunk. He was 29.

49. Edward I. Edwards (1863-1931)

Edward I. Edwards was governor of New Jersey during the early 1920s and US Senator from 1923-1929. Didn't have it so good after politics since he went broke and later killed himself. Nevertheless, he seems to be a rather distinguished man.

Edward I. Edwards was governor of New Jersey during the early 1920s and US Senator from 1923-1929. Didn’t have it so good after politics since he went broke and later killed himself. Nevertheless, he seems to be a rather distinguished man.

Known in Life as: Governor of New Jersey from 1920-1923 and US Senator from 1923-1929.
Character or Inspiration? He’s a character on the show.
Similarities: Frank Hague was one of his allies (they’d soon have a falling out).
Differences: Had dark hair even in the 1920s. Married with 2 kids. Studied law in his brother’s office and engaged in the banking and construction businesses. Went broke with the Wall Street crash of 1929 and was implicated in an election fraud scandal.
Ultimate Fate: Was diagnosed with skin cancer and shot himself in 1931. He was 67.

50. James Scott (1885-1938)

James Scott was one of the premiere African American ragtime composers in the early 20th century. A lot of his compositions were used as accompaniment in silent movies and his fortunes went in decline when talkies came around. Still, he has a rather nice hat and suit.

James Scott was one of the premiere African American ragtime composers in the early 20th century. A lot of his compositions were used as accompaniment in silent movies and his fortunes went in decline when talkies came around. Still, he has a rather nice hat and suit.

Known in Life as: African American ragtime composer. Regarded as one of the three most important composers of ragtime music along with Scott Joplin and Joseph Lamb.
Character or Inspiration? He’s a character on the show.
Similarities: Wearing a hat was a trademark of his.
Differences: Born in Missouri and son of former slaves. Worked in a music store in 1902 and wrote his first composition compilation in 1903. A lot of his pieces were used to accompany silent movies.
Ultimate Fate: After his wife died and the coming of sound in movies, his fortunes and health deteriorated. Published nothing after 1902. Died in Kansas City, Missouri in 1938 at 53.

51. Harry Bacharach (1873-1947)
Known in Life as: Mayor of Atlantic City for 6 months in 1912, from 1916-1920, and 1930-1935. Also served as city commissioner.
Character or Inspiration? He’s a character on the show.
Similarities: Well, he was mayor in 1920 but there’s not much on him.
Differences: Tried for election fraud in 1914 for the 1910 mayoral election. Had a Negro League Baseball team named after him called the Bacharach Giants. Him and brother Isaac founded the Betty Bacharach Home for Afflicted Children in honor of their mom in 1924 which cared for kids with polio.
Ultimate Fate: Died in Atlantic City in 1947 at 74.

52. Richard “Peg Leg” Lonegran (1900-1925)

Peg Leg Lonergan may have lost a leg in a trolley accident. Yet, he achieve distinction as the last boss of the White Hand Gang in New York as well as known to be a vicious street brawler and hater of Italians. Killed on Christmas 1925.

Peg Leg Lonergan may have lost a leg in a trolley accident. Yet, he achieve distinction as the last boss of the White Hand Gang in New York as well as known to be a vicious street brawler and hater of Italians. Killed on Christmas 1925.

Known in Life as: Irish American gangster, labor racketeer, and final leader of the White Hand Gang. Led a 2 year campaign against Frankie Yale over the New York waterfront.
Character or Inspiration? He’s a character on the show.
Similarities: Associated with the White Hand Gang and friend of Bill Lovett.
Differences: Was one 15 kids and son of a prizefighter and bare knuckle boxer named John Lonergan. Lost his right leg in a trolley car incident. Childhood friend of Bill Lovett. Believed to have been involved in at least a dozen murders during his career as well as had a reputation as a vicious street brawler. Said to hate Italians
Ultimate Fate: He and his 5 lieutenants were killed in South Brooklyn during a Christmas Day celebration at the Adonis Social Club in 1925. He was 25. Murder has been attributed to Capone but remains unsolved. White Hand Gang disappeared from the New York waterfront which allowed Frankie Yale and eventually the Five Families to take control.

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