In a city famous for tearing down the old to build the new, the opening of the Mob Museum in downtown Las Vegas was a rare event. It saved the 1933 courthouse, where many Mafia trials took place, from destruction. The neo-classical building had also been a post office and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The museum is the brainchild of former Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman, who had previously been a defense attorney for the Mob. He made the city an offer it couldn't refuse and they sold him the building for $1, in exchange for its restoration as a cultural institution. It is now officially the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement, aka the Mob Museum. So it's worthy, but is it any good?
Well, it's so engrossing that we'd been in it for ten minutes and hadn't moved further than six feet from the ticket desk. We were captivated by videos of interviews, showing the all-encompassing nature of the museum: criminals, victims, police, prosecutors, politicians. It's no exaggeration to say that everyone in the United States has, in some way, been affected by the Mob. And the mobsters were nowhere more at home than in the glitz and bling of their playground, Las Vegas.
There's no glitz and bling in a mortuary, though, and we turn to see a huge photo of a foot on a mortuary slab, with the owner's name tied to his big toe: Benjamin Siegel, better known as Bugsy. The Mob Museum is full of shocking images, but it's in no way sensationalist. The displays spread over three floors, and though we arrived at 4pm to give ourselves plenty of time, when they closed the doors three hours later we'd still only visited two of those floors.
There's plenty of humour, too, as both cops and mobsters share a sardonic sense of humour. 'Don't ever say anything you don't want played back to you someday,' mobster John Gotti is quoted as saying, in a fascinating display on how the FBI went about wiretapping phone conversations. You can listen in to actual conversations, just one of the many interactive aspects of the museum.
You begin at the top of the building, where the historical context is set. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, over two million Italians emigrated to the USA, some from Sicily and southern Italy bringing with them their 'Cosa Nostra' ('Our Thing'), which became better known in the USA as the Mafia or the Mob. In many ways their power rose by simply providing services that people could get through no other means. 'When the law said no,' one information board points out, 'the gangs provided gambling and prostitution. When the banks said no, the gangs loaned cash.'
Later, and crucially, when Prohibition was introduced, the Mob were seen for a time as the good guys. They provided a drink to people who wanted one when the government said they couldn't have one. By the time Prohibition was repealed, the Mob was even more powerful and immensely wealthy, including in Havana from where much of the illegal booze was imported. They now had their fingers in many pies, not least in Washington. It's said that the Mob helped the good Catholic JFK get elected, but when his brother Bobby as Attorney General turned round and clamped down on organised crime, the Mob took its revenge on both brothers.
It isn't all chills and history, though. You can have your mug-shot taken (right) behind one-way glass, a strangely unsettling experience as you can only see your reflection and not what's happening in the adjoining room.
This being Vegas, there's a fascinating section on the gambling industry. One-armed bandits have been converted into displays, to show you how scams like loaded dice and marked cards work. Elsewhere you can see devices for tricking the slot machines into paying out their jackpots - by preventing the arm that triggers the start of a payout from going back to the position that stops it again. The machine then coughs up money till it's empty. Simpler tricks included a coin on a fishing line that can be hauled out once it's gone past the mechanism that starts the machine, and so be used over and over again. As most of the casinos were owned in full or in part by the Mob, you were gambling with more than money if you got caught.
In one room is a replica of the electric chair from Sing-Sing prison, while another shows the escalation in weaponry from pistols to tommy guns and beyond. You can fire a tommy gun to get a feel for the powerful kick it gave, both physically and emotionally. Another section deals with the Mob and sport, pointing out that Muhammad Ali, then Cassius Clay, was the first World Heavyweight Champion who was not controlled by the Mob.
The large section on Prohibition opens with a film about the 1929 St Valentine's Day Massacre in Chicago. At the end of the movie the screen rises to a background of machine gun clatter, and you're staring at the actual wall against which the massacre took place, complete with bullet-holes and bloodstains.
After a visit to the Mob Museum you'll see the city of Las Vegas in much more depth than you did before. 'There are two sides to every story,' is part of the Museum's mantra, but adding: 'and then there's the truth.'
300 Stewart Avenue
Las Vegas, Nevada 89101
Oscar Goodman's book, Being Oscar, covers his time as both mob lawyer and 3-time Mayor of Las Vegas.
Visiting Las Vegas