Traveling Around: Hot Springs, AR: Gangster Museum of America (Capone, Luciano, Karpis, etc)
The museum is in an unassuming store front type building on Central Avenue in Hot Springs. It's in the downtown area and across the street from the national park and the hotel/spas that are the attraction to the area.
Hot Springs is located about 50 miles west of Little Rock. Easily reached by driving I-30 and US 70, it took us well less than an hour. It's some 180 miles north of Shreveport, LA, and it took us about 3 hours when we continued our trip in that direction.
We were there on a Sunday and it was very busy. Being unsure that we could find parking was a little unnerving but as luck would have it, we discovered a city parking facility directly behind the museum on Exchange St. It is a multistory very large facility that has both reserved and open parking. Information about the facility can be obtained by calling (501) 321-6778.
We'd been in Hot Springs some 30 years ago and the town has changed dramatically. Perhaps it was time of year that made the difference but automobile traffic is more congested and there were lots of people on the street on Sunday morning about 11 AM.
We located an empty parking spot on an upper level of the parking facility and took the elevator down to the ground level that opened directly onto a patio area and to the museum about 1/2 a block away.
The entry to the museum is not impressive. Initially a person finds themselves in the gift shop that is full of interesting touristy type memorabilia. A small waiting area is provided for attendees that just miss the beginning of a tour. The waiting area is beside what appears to be a giant wall safe that a bank might use but is in reality the entrance to the first of 7 galleries in the museum.
When prohibition became the law in the United States in 1920, it set the groundwork for Hot Springs to prosper. Already renowned for it hot springs, it gradually built a base of spas and luxury that began to attract tourists in droves. The museum provides a chronological history of the men and women involved in the growth of gambling, illegal booze, and prostitution in the resort city. The spa-like atmosphere lent itself to the business of providing alcohol to the revelers as well as the business of gambling and prostitution. As these less reputable businesses grew, the clientele began to boast major criminal figures as visitors.
Each gallery has a video presentations as well as a knowledgeable tour guide that narrates the progress of the town and its attractions. Hosting such celebrities as Owney Madden, Al Capone, Ben Siegel, and Lucky Luciano, the notoriety of the town grew. By the mid 1930's, it was well on its way to becoming the largest gambling town in the country and it prospered until the political climate began to change and in the late 1950's effort began in earnest to close the illegal operations.
Gambling was finally closed down permanently in 1967 by two officeholders, Governor Winthrop Rockefeller and Circuit Judge Henry Britt. Together they stopped the graft and payoffs that had allowed the gangsters in Hot Springs to do things as they wished. With gambling gone and income curtailed, the other illegal operations quickly ceased..
As we left the museum to continue our trip, there was a group gathering for the next tour. I would think that during the height of the season, prospective tourists should call ahead to assure space available. There is a lot of information available on line at their website.
We spent about an hour touring the museum and found it a lot of fun and very interesting. It was well worth the detour, the admission, and the time expended. The tour guide was very knowledgeable and able to tell us about the history and highlights in a manner that enabled us to understand about Hot Springs and its gangster clientele.