Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Dr. Miriam Kingsberg Kadia. In it, she continues her series of museum reviews with a visit to the Mob Museum in Las Vegas. Photos by Dr. Kadia.
Although most tourists probably don’t associate Las Vegas with museums, the city is in fact home to some noteworthy institutions. One interesting example is the Mob Museum, located downtown in a former courthouse. At $26.95 for out-of-state adult admission ($16.95 for Nevada residents with ID) entry is not cheap, but perhaps a bargain compared with the casinos up the street. One might easily spend as much as three hours perusing the three stories of exhibits and basement reconstructions of a speakeasy and distillery.
The exhibition begins on the third floor with a discussion of the origins of the Mob in the late nineteenth century. Curators narrate: whereas most immigrants to the U.S. were “good,” “a few thought they would choose a shortcut to the American dream.” Evoking Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign comments about “bad hombres,” the museum’s casual scapegoating of Irish, Italian, and Jewish foreigners for mobsterism feels not only misleading but dangerous.
Following some general information on early gangster activity, the museum shifts to local history. Although Nevada never failed to attract its share of criminal enterprises, the legalization of gambling in 1931 rendered the state an especially attractive destination for organized crime, which sought an alternative revenue stream after the repeal of Prohibition. Las Vegas was an “open city,” meaning that no single criminal syndicate dominated. As a result, it became one of the most hotly contested prizes of the underworld. Mob investment in hotels and casinos facilitated its emergence as “a global capital of adult entertainment and extravagance—a place where anything seems possible…a wide open city that drew dreamers great and small, fertile ground for daring ventures, colorful characters, and ingenious schemes.” Nonetheless, the museum denies popular myths concerning the value of gangsters in keeping order and enriching public enterprises, noting that their revenue largely stayed in their own pockets.
The bulk of the second floor is devoted to an exhibition on the Kefauver Committee. In 1950-1951, Estes Kefauver, a Democratic senator from Tennessee, chaired an investigation into organized crime with hearings in fourteen major U.S. cities. Visitors to the Mob Museum can tour the courtroom in which some of these hearings took place and view Kefauver’s briefcase, gavel, and trademark coonskin cap. A brief video plays footage of testimony highlights by Frank Costello, perhaps the most influential gangster in the U.S. during and after World War II; and Virginia Hill, the glitzy erstwhile mistress of Flamingo Hotel developer Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel. The hearings resulted in further investigations and expanded judicial measures against organized illegal activity. Aired on broadcast television, they showed American citizens the depth and complexity of Mob operations for the first time, inspiring “true crime” novels and films and fueling Kefauver’s (unsuccessful) bid for the U.S. presidency.
For the most part, the Mob Museum relies on images and explanatory placards rather than on artifacts to relate the story of the twentieth-century American underworld. However, a few lurid pieces greatly boost the narrative. Perhaps most noteworthy is the brick wall against which seven Chicago gangsters, rivals of the notorious Al Capone, were gunned down in the so-called St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929. Bullet pockmarks and blood spots remain visible today. Other unsettling treasures include Capone’s revolver and part of Nevada’s gas chamber execution apparatus—the first in the United States.
About two years ago I visited New York City’s newly opened Museum of the American Gangster. Located on the site of a Prohibition-era speakeasy and smuggling depot, the museum presented a lively, deeply romanticized portrait of the colorful personalities who defied the national ban on alcohol. By contrast, the Mob Museum, which covers some of the same territory, emphasizes brutality over glamour. Films and images display the mutilated corpses of gangsters who ran afoul of their associates. An entire wall is devoted to explaining the manner of death of America’s most notorious twentieth-century mobsters.
Another important difference between the two museums lies in their treatment of law enforcement. The Museum of the American Gangster teases the “comical and sketchy” nature of Prohibition-era police work, which included tactics that ranged from uproarious to atrocious with little in between. Museum guides’ critiques of extralegal arrests and police brutality are particularly pointed (Philando Castile was killed only a few months prior to my visit). By contrast, the Mob Museum’s mission statement includes the aim of “honoring the accomplishments of law enforcement by celebrating acts of perseverance and heroism in combating organized crime.” It acknowledges the legendary ineffectiveness of Prohibition enforcement, but attributes this failure more to lack of funding, training, and popular support than to police bumbling or corruption. Meanwhile, “many honorable and inventive federal agents defied the odds, with 60 killed doing their duty” upholding the ban on alcohol. Following repeal, in combating gangsters’ burgeoning involvement in narcotics and other illegal ventures, “police met with increasing success—and respect. Kids emulated them. Popular culture celebrated them. And the public, weary of Mob violence, thanked them.” “Cops became cool,” concludes one signboard.
In its enthusiasm for rehabilitating the reputation of the police, I felt that the Mob Museum missed an important opportunity to highlight those they serve: the victims of organized crime. Bugsy Siegel once famously reassured a wary non-Mob business partner, “We only kill each other.” Though Siegel is not known to have been responsible for any “civilian” deaths himself, the same cannot be said of many of his associates, who often viewed bloodshed as mere collateral damage. Beyond murder, illegal activities such as arms dealing, bootlegging, bookmaking, blackmailing, bribery, extortion, fraud, kidnapping, loansharking, money laundering, prostitution, swindling, and trafficking—to name just a few—also took a toll on individuals and groups who are nameless and faceless here, but who deserve to be remembered and incorporated into the larger story of the Mob.
The aforementioned issues notwithstanding, the Mob Museum is refreshingly free of the romanticism that tends to accompany depictions of the twentieth century underworld. Nonetheless, I found its exhibits deeply entertaining and informative. (My sister, who lives in Las Vegas, accompanied me and found our afternoon there worthwhile even on her third visit.) Its distance from the Strip may deter some, but it’s well worth the journey.