I once laughed at the idea. Now the museum is on my list of “must-do’s” for anyone headed to Sin City.
By Jim Ferri
When I first heard of the plans to open The Mob Museum I laughed.
“Only in Vegas,” I thought.
Then a few weeks ago, while in Las Vegas and looking for something to do that didn’t involve gambling or a show, I decided to pay the museum a visit.
I’m not laughing any more. In fact, The Mob Museum is now up there on my list of “must-do’s” for anyone headed to Sin City.
Want to stand in front of the actual wall against which Bug Moran’s men were shot in the St. Valentine’s Massacre? It’s there in the Mob Museum. Want to hear some actual wiretaps? Slip on some headphones.
Want to see an electric chair or the barber chair in which the infamous Albert Anastasia was whacked? They’re both there too (the latter bought by comedian Henny Youngman from New York’s Park Sheraton Hotel after the demise of Mr. Anastasia forced the closing of the barber shop).
The Mob Museum, whose actual name is the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement, states that it’s trying to advance public understanding of organized crime and it’s impact on American society. And it does a very good job of it through high-tech presentations, interactive displays, themed environments and artifacts. The same group that designed the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland created it.
The Mob Musuem is located in the old US Post Office and Courthouse, which is now on the National Register of Historic Places, and is much more than just a collection of artifacts. It’s a living, spellbinding history lesson taught in a living, spellbinding way. In fact, you become spellbound as soon as you walk through the door.
You’re asked to start your tour on the third floor and when I got on the elevator a policeman on a little TV inside began reading me my rights as if I had just been arrested. Once I got off the elevator I became engrossed in the incredible exhibition, all of it fascinating. I looked at photos, signage and videos explaining the history of American mobsters ranging from Murder, Inc. and Al Capone to other infamous notables right up to the present time.
And it isn’t just their public persona on display in the Mob Museum. There’s a section devoted to mobsters as family men, as fathers, husbands, philanthropists and community leaders. It includes photos of them with their wives on their wedding days, of members of their families being married, etc., giving it all a very human element. I found a series of videos, in which ordinary people related their experiences during chance meetings with various crime figures, fascinating.
In one exhibit titled “The Mob Goes to War” I was amazed to learn how the U.S. Government turned to the mob to help the country in WWII. The mob’s “service” to the country included everything from securing the waterfronts, which they controlled, to helping as interpreters and providing information on Sicily for the invasion.
Other exhibits –“The Race Wire,” “The Sporting Life,” “Hooray for Hollywood,” etc. – explained how criminal families infiltrated and gained control of those industries as well as trucking, gambling, labor unions, even the parsley trade. Another exhibit shows how the mob bought elections and influenced world affairs.
The building itself is a living history lesson, although you don’t realize that until you come down to the second floor. There you step into the centerpiece of the building, the actual courtroom in which the Senate investigations and hearings into organized crime, launched by Senator Estes Kefauver, were held. This is where Kefauver interrogated subpoenaed mobsters and as you sit in the small courtroom the superb audiovisuals give you the feeling you’re part of the proceedings. Better yet, it explains how the hearings were televised for the first time in history, keeping Americans glued to their TV sets.
And it’s not just all about “made” guys either. One exhibit explain the precepts of the U.S. Constitution, including that you’re presumed innocence until proven guilty and your right to a defense. Another shows photos of attorney Oscar Goodman, the former well-known mayor of Las Vegas (and a museum board member), with some of his mob clients, as well as a video of Goodman in an argument with a reporter as to why he would have gangsters as clients. Goodman’s wife, by the way, is the current mayor of Las Vegas.
Las Vegas isn’t forgotten either. Once section is devoted to the city and explains how a large population was drawn to the state after gambling was legalized and how the Mob infiltrated the business. In one exhibit, in which an interactive screen is set inside an old slot machine, you learn how loaded dice and marked cards are made and used. It’s quite interesting.
On the first floor, in the exhibit call “The Human Factor,” I was riveted by a presentation on wiretapping the mob, and listened to copies of actual tapes that the Feds got from the bugs they put in the mob member’s apartments and hangouts. If you ever wanted to hear mobsters discussing business with one another, here’s your chance.
There are also exhibitions on the Witness Protection Program, weapons training, and numerous other facets of mob life, all brought to life in a bold, beguiling style. If you’re ever headed to Las Vegas this is a must-see.
And by the way, you can forget Elvis and Vegas wedding chapels since the Mob Museum now does weddings, as well.
The Mob Museum provides quite an arresting venue (sorry, couldn’t resist that…).
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If you go:
The Mob Museum
300 Stewart Avenue
Las Vegas, Nevada 89101
Admission: $18 adults, $14 for seniors (and military, law enforcement and teachers); $10 Nevada residents