Gangsters > Louis Kuehnle

Louis Kuehnle

Background

Louis Kuehnle - Louis Kuenle (1916)

Birth: December 25th, 1857 - New York City

Death: August 6th, 1934 - Atlantic City

Early Life

Louis Kuehnle also known as the Commodore was a politician and businessman who is widely considered the pioneer and visionary of Atlantic City in New Jersey during the late 1880's and the early 1900's. Kuehnle eventually became the leader of the Republican political machine that was akin to Tammany Hall in New York City.

Earning the nickname Commodore by being the chairman of the Yacht Club during the height of his power, Kuehnle helped build Atlantic City by constructing Gas, Telephone, Waterworks and Transportation Companies to help aid in the construction of the city into a major Eastern seaboard metropolis.

Kuehnle built Atlantic City into the haven of vices that it was during the early part of the 20th century. When an enigmatic Woodrow Wilson pursued Kuehnle power in Atlantic City was left to Enoch Johnson, the inspiration for HBO's Boardwalk Empire.

Louis Kuehnle provided inspiration for the character Louis Kaestner in Boardwalk Empire, with many notable differences between fact and fiction however.

Political Career

Louis Kuehnle was born to a man named Louis Kuehnle Sr. and was the owner of Kuehnle's Hotel at the corner of South Carolina and Atlantic Avenue. There was a popular saloon within the hotel called the Corner which was a popular meeting place for politicians. This is most likely where Louis Kuehnle got involved in politics and it was commonly frequented by Enoch Johnson's father, the sheriff Smith E. Johnson who was one of the three politicians that ruled Atlantic City at the time.

Kuehnle's father died when he was 18, leaving him the hotel and prime to get involved in politics himself. When one of the politicians of the table died in 1900, Louis took over his spot at the meetings and then onto the political club itself. From here he began to rule Atlantic City and grew in both popularity and power.

It was during this time that Kuehnle created the Republican political machine that would be used to not only run the entire city of Atlantic City but help elect a future President Warren Harding as well. Over the next 11 years until his imprisonment in 1911 he rapidly built Atlantic City into the Prohibition haven it was in the early 1920's.

Building a City

Kuehnle while being involved in politics also considered himself an entrepreneur who wanted to transform Atlantic City into a major metropolis like New York or Chicago. When he took over Atlantic City, the existing telephone and gas companies charged very high rates for their service. Kuehnle countered this by creating his own telephone and gas companies called the Atlantic Coast Telephone Company that helped lower prices.

In addition to creating the Atlantic Coast Telephone Company, Kuehnle also built the Boardwalk and established a Waterworks Company in Atlantic City. This company helped increased the amount of fresh water available to the town by building a waterline from the mainland to Abescon Island where Atlantic City is really based. They also build an artesian well to help store the water in anticipation of many tourists.

Next, Kuehnle helped modern the intra-city transport system by building a trolley system so that citizens could easily move around.

Kuehnle was very popular among the citizens of Atlantic City because as he built the city, they got better lives as well. He was looked at as a leader and a protector of the city and would often use the state militia to calm the community whenever a Newspaper article was published that defamed the city. Being charitable, Kuehnle also supported and was well liked by the African-American community.

Corruption

In addition to building legitimate companies to help build Atlantic City into Kuehnle's vision of a sea-side resort, vices such as prostitution, gambling and alcohol were all freely available at his hotel. These were seen as necessary in order to meet the demand of the tourists that would flock to the city in droves. However, while seen as necessary in Atlantic City, some members of the government still saw this as illegal.

In order to run a gambling room or brothel in Atlantic City, one had to pay a protection fee to Kuehnle and his party machine that helped control Atlantic City. No one got a job within the government without "earning it" and he forced employees to give 5-7% of their salary to the Republican Party so they can continue to buy votes and bribe politicians.

Kuehnle and his political party engaged in rampant election fraud and would pay black voters $2 per vote. The Republican ward bosses would arrange for transportation to voting stations where they would cast ballots in the names of deceased who were still registered to vote.

1910 Election

In 1910 Kuehnle and his political machine attempted to exert their political power outside of the city by increasing the scale of the fraud so that they could elect a Governor of New Jersey. Despite their efforts they failed and Woodrow Wilson was elected governor. Wilson knew all about the forces that were conspiring against him and when he was elected to the office he vowed to stamp out corruption in Atlantic City.

Wilson soon investigated the election results and noted that over 3,000 Republican votes were found to be fraudulent. He elected a commission to prosecute but nothing ever came of it. However, Wilson never gave up and continued his investigation.

Arrest

What did Kuehnle in actually was his personal connection to the companies that constructed the utilities and infrastructure of the city. The Republican Party which Kuehnle controlled would give out city contracts, however they would not always be for the lowest bid. Mostly these contracts were awarded to businesses that Kuehnle owned and Wilson saw this as blatant corruption.

He prosecuted Kuehnle on the 1909 building of a waterline from the mainland to Abescon Island. The company that built the waterline was partially owned by Kuehnle and Kuehnle was also sitting as Chairman of the Water Commission and approved changes that increased the payments. Kuehnle was easily convicted in 1913 of conflict of interest corruption and was sentenced to one year hard labor plus a $1,000 fine. After serving six months he was released and he traveled to Bermuda for vacation and then took an extended trip to Bavaria, Germany where his family descended from.

Soon he got bored and wished to return to Atlantic City and the empire he had passed down to Enoch Johnson after his arrest and imprisonment.

Return to Atlantic City

When Kuehnle returned to Atlantic City he tried to reassert power over his empire, however in his absence Enoch Johnson had assumed the title of boss of the city. Kuehnle initially challenged Johnson for the leadership of the city back, however he soon lost.

Louis Kuehnle - Louis Kuenle Portrait

Louis Kuehnle Portrait (Date Unknown)

Not to disrespect what his predecessor had built, Johnson helped Kuehnle run for City Commissioner of Parks and Public Property, a position which he was elected to in 1920 and every four year term until his death. Kuehnle was still a respected member of the Atlantic City community however, he held no real power in terms of the criminal underworld at this point.

Death & Legacy

On August 6th, 1934 Kuehnle passed away ajd was buried in Egg Harbor City. When he died the City Hall draped his chair in the Commission Chamber and the City Hall in black out of respect and all of the flags were held at half mast.

Kuehnle once famously said:

"They'll build a monument to me someday; I built this town"

Louis Kuehnle

However, the only thing that is reminiscent of him today in Atlantic City is a street name called Kuehnle Avenue.

Sources

Primary Sources

Secondary Sources