1916 Atlantic City Police Department Souvenir Book
December 25, 1857|
New York City, New York, United States
|Died||August 6, 1934
Atlantic City, New Jersey, United States
Cause of death
|Complications due to Appendicitis|
|Occupation||Hotel operator of Kuehnle's Hotel|
|Conviction(s)||Conflict of interest|
Louis Kuehnle, (//; December 25, 1857 - August 6, 1934), known as the Commodore, was an American business entrepreneur and politician of German descent. He is considered a pioneer in the growing resort town of Atlantic City, New Jersey in the late 1880s and early 1900s. He was leader of the Republican organization that controlled Atlantic City during the early 1900s. Future president New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson pursued Kuehnle after his 1910 election as part of his campaign to clean up Atlantic City. The effort led to the unsuccessful prosecution of Kuehnle for election fraud and the successful prosecution and conviction of him for a conflict of interest in connection with a government contract. His name then tarnished by scandal, he was succeeded by Enoch "Nucky" Johnson as leader of the organization.
Kuehnle was born in New York City, New York on December 25, 1857 the son of German immigrants Louis and Katrina Kuehnle, where Louis Sr. was a successful chef. In 1858, Louis Kuehnle Sr., moved his family to Egg Harbor City, New Jersey where he began his first hotel, The New York Hotel. The family then moved again, in 1875, to nearby Atlantic City to open another hotel, Kuehnle's Hotel.
Rise to power
Louis Sr. died leaving Kuehnle, aged 18, to take over Kuehnle's Hotel at the corner of South Carolina and Atlantic Avenues. A saloon named "The Corner" was within the hotel and it became a popular meeting place for local politicians. The meetings included three Atlantic County power brokers, one of whom was Nucky Johnson's father Sheriff Smith E. Johnson. When one of those three politicians died in 1900, Kuehnle took his spot at the meetings and eventually took control of the club itself.
Nicknamed "Louie", Kuehnle grew both in popularity and political power in Atlantic City inspiring other young politicians such as Harry and Isaac Bacharach and Enoch Johnson. He is credited as the architect and first leader of a partisan political machine in Atlantic City, and he held great control over the city from the late 1800s until his imprisonment in 1911. He responded to critics of his power by saying, "They'll build a monument to me someday; I built this town".
Kuehnle was responsible for numerous improvements to the city, as he always remembered his goal of transforming Atlantic City into a major United States metropolis. Concerned with high rates for telephone and gas, he created his own telephone and gas companies, resulting in lower prices. His telephone company, named Atlantic Coast Telephone Company, would later be bought by Bell. Kuehnle also helped lower electric prices by supporting a competing utility in the area. He helped build the Boardwalk, and he even increased the amount of fresh water in town by building a water main from the mainland to Absecon Island. To show its possibility, he drilled an artesian well, and created the city's waterworks company. Kuehnle always was an entrepreneur in the transportation industry, helping to modernize the trolley system to improve intra-city transport.
Kuehnle was looked upon by many citizens of Atlantic City as a leader and protector. He would devise non-violent ways to get the state militia to visit and calm the community whenever a Philadelphia newspaper published an inflammatory article. He was charitable too, and well liked by the African-American community.
Joining the Atlantic City Yacht Club during his prime, he later served as chairman and this is essentially where he adopted the unofficial rank of "Commodore", a nickname he kept until his death.
Rackets such as prostitution, gambling and liquor were available at his hotel. Additionally, he extorted gambling rooms and whorehouses, plus a variety of legitimate businesses, to fund his Republican political operation. Because he saw them as appointees, Kuehle would force government employees to "kick back" 5-7% of their salaries to the Republican party.
Election fraud was prevalent, with the Republicans paying black voters $2 per vote. These voters would be taken to multiple voting stations and vote in the names of the deceased who were still registered to vote. Kuehnle's Republicans increased their level of fraud in the 1910 gubernatorial campaign so their candidate would be elected as governor of New Jersey. Despite their work they lost and newly elected governor, future United States president, Woodrow Wilson was elected on a vow of addressing corruption in Atlantic City. Wilson, following his promise, investigated corruption by looking into the election results. He noted that there were more than 3,000 Republican votes identified as fraudulent in Atlantic City so he elected a commission to prosecute. They received indictments but were unable to get a conviction of anyone important.
Kuehnle's projects improved Atlantic City, but at a cost: the Republican Party (which he controlled) gave out city contracts but not necessarily to the lowest-cost bid. Quite often contracts were awarded business to companies that Kuehnle owned. In 1909, Atlantic City awarded a contract to construct a water main from the mainland. The winning bidder subsequently assigned part of the contract to a company in which Kuehnle was a part owner. Kuehnle, as the chairman of the city's water commission, thereafter approved contract changes that resulted in increased payments to the company in which he held an ownership interest. Wilson's team finally had a solid case against Kuehnle for conflict of interest.
In 1913, Kuehnle was convicted of conflict of interest related corruption and was sentenced to one year of hard labor plus a $1,000 fine. After his six-month sentence he traveled to Bermuda for vacation and took an extended trip to Bavaria, Germany, the home to his Kuehnle ancestry.
By the time of his return to Atlantic City, Enoch "Nucky" Johnson had become the unofficial boss of the city. After Kuehnle unsuccessfully challenged Johnson's leadership, Johnson agreed to support Kuehnle, his former mentor, for City Commissioner. Kuehnle was elected in 1920 and reelected every four-year term following that until his death in 1934 serving specifically as Commissioner of Parks and Public Property. As a commissioner, he proved to be an independent who sometimes opposed Johnson's organization.
Kuehnle died on August 6, 1934 and he is buried in Egg Harbor City, his hometown during his middle teen years. On the day of his death, the City Hall draped his chair in the Commission Chamber and City Hall itself in black, out of respect, and the flags hung at half staff on every firehouse. The street named Kuehnle Avenue is the only visible monument to Kuehnle currently in Atlantic City.
In popular culture
- Kuehnle serves as the basis for the character Louis "the Commodore" Kaestner in the TV series Boardwalk Empire.
- Martin Paulsson. The Social Anxieties of Progressive Reform - Atlantic City, 1854-1920. New York University Press: New York, 1994.
- Nelson Johnson. Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City. Plexus Publishing: Medford, NJ, 2002
- Who's Who in New Jersey, Atlantic County Edition. National Biographic News Service: New York, 1925.
- Original Woodrow Wilson Letter: Will Not Pardon Kuehnle Shapell Manuscript Foundation