UNITED STATES

Las Vegas

Mob Museum Charts History of Crime—and Las Vegas

Las Vegas’s Mob Museum tells how America in the 1950s learned that organized crime actually existed

“The Mob in your living room.” The Mob Museum tells the story of organized crime in America, including the country’s discovery that the Mob actually existed. Central to that revelation were the 1950 Kefauver Crime Hearings, which became one of the first big events on the decade’s new-fangled medium, television.
JOHN MASTERS/Meridian Writers’ Group

ONCE UPON A time, in the 1940s, America didn’t believe in the Mob—or the Cosa Nostra or the Mafia, as you will. Organized crime was a fairy tale.

The Mob Museum explains how the nation learned otherwise. Central to the story are the now-forgotten Kefauver Crime Hearings. In 1950 the U.S. Senate, sensing that something was rotten in the state of the union, appointed Tennessee senator Estes Kefauver to hold 92 days of hearings across the country to investigate “crime in interstate commerce.” “The proceedings,” explains the museum, “offered Americans gripping theater—a crash course in organized crime.”

The high point was the final series of hearings in New York City, televised live. This was back when television was brand new, and it was watched by 30 million people, “making it the nation’s first TV event.” The museum shows extracts.

The Mob Museum opened in 2012. It could have set up in lots of places—the Kefauver hearings took place in 14 cities, all with their sordid stories to tell. But the Mob was pivotal in making Las Vegas the gambling and nightlife mecca it became, so putting it here was an easy choice. Better yet, the building the museum is in, once a post office with federal courtrooms on the upper floor, is exactly where the Las Vegas portion of the Kefauver hearings took place. You can sit in the chambers—unchanged since the 1950s—and see witnesses’ testimony re-enacted.

The museum explains why Las Vegas was so appealing to mobsters: it was an “open city,” meaning no one gang had exclusive dibs on it. A diorama shows some of the Mob bosses’ hotel-casinos, among them the Flamingo, built by Bugsy Siegel in 1946 (he was murdered six months later), and the Tropicana, opened in 1957 with Frank Costello as part owner. (After surviving an attempted hit that year, he retired and took up gardening.) Both establishments are still going, presumably clean now.

For crime aficionados, the Mob Museum has some singular items: the Chicago brick wall with the (still-visible) bullet holes from the 1929 St. Valentine’s Day Massacre; the New York City barber’s chair Albert Anastasia was shot dead in in 1957 (comedian Henny Youngman used to own it), Lucky Luciano’s black fedora and silver cigarette case (the latter a gift from Frank Sinatra).

There are also several places to interact with the exhibits: you can join a police line-up and have your friends take pictures of you, fire a Tommy gun and feel the recoil, or sit in a replica of the electric chair that saw off Louis Lepke, “the richest man to die.” It is, a bit depressingly, a favourite place for selfies.

The Mob Museum’s formal monicker is “National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement,” so it also devotes space to crime fighting—methods used and inroads made—but the juicier tale is clearly the crooks’. That’s where the money is, too, as becomes obvious in the gift shop, filled with Al Capone shot glasses, brass-knuckle coffee mugs and Mob fedoras.

 

ACCESS

For more information on the Mob Museum visit its website at www.themobmuseum.org.

For information on Las Vegas go to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority website at www.lasvegas.com.