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.
"I thought, 'Boy, it would be great to write a book about the Atlantic City conference because it's so important in the development of organized crime, but I kept coming across these things that made no sense. Why does the only picture that survived only show Al Capone, and these bodyguards and Nucky Johnson in it? Where's Lucky Luciano?"'Mappen asked.
Mappen's work is different from the dozens of books written about 1920s gangsters because he looks at them from a generational prospective. He said that's one good way of looking at history. All of these men, who are either Italian or Jewish, were born in a certain time period and were in their 20s when Prohibition came along.
"A lot of stuff about gangsters from that era doesn't look at the larger picture. They look at who shot who, and this guy did that, but they don't look at what was going on in the United States at that time, so I talk about what happened when the Depression came along," said Mappen, 68. "I tried to put it all together, to have a narrative of a generation, that and looking at outside factors like immigration and ethnic prejudice."
Only 33 pages of Mappen's 266-page, hardcover book refers to Atlantic City either directly or indirectly, but he thanks Heather Halpin Perez of the Atlantic City Free Public Library and Vicki Gold Levi, an Atlantic City historian, in the acknowledgments section. Mappen said he made several trips to the Atlantic City library to the local history room, so he could see the sources for himself, including old issues of The Press of Atlantic City from 1929, maps of the Atlantic City Boardwalk showing where the old hotels were and old books about Atlantic City and Johnson.
"That was extremely helpful," said Mappen, who added Gold Levi, who he has known for a long time, clued him into other studies of Atlantic City.
Levi worked with Mappen on one of his previous books, the award-winning "Encyclopedia of New Jersey." The New York Times has called Mappen "the eminent New Jersey historian."
"He shed some new light on the conference held in Atlantic City. It's thoroughly researched and well written," Gold Levi said.
Contact Vincent Jackson:
The Rise and Fall
of a Bad Generation'
By Marc Mappen
Rutgers University Press