If you wanted to open a museum dedicated to the history of organized crime in America, you could do worse than siting it in downtown Las Vegas, where much of the city’s pre-Strip architecture evokes the milieu for much of what powered the mobs in the first place.
Driving up Las Vegas Boulevard takes you past businesses that manage to combine the city’s most lurid images, like Kiss Bailbonds and the Precious Slut Tattoo parlor, with generic Korean and Cuban food outlets, wedding chapels that invoke Elvis but evoke Kardashian, pawn shops and hotels well past their prime or, in cases like the high-rise Lady Luck, looking to make a comeback.
The former federal courthouse and post office where the new 41,000-square-foot Mob Museum opened on Feb. 14, 2012 - on the 83rd anniversary of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and where the bullet-riddled wall from the Chicago garage that was the backstop for that iconic mob moment is the first exhibit that greets visitors - has its own appropriately scandalous history: it was the venue for some of the Senate hearings, led by Sen. Estes Kefauver, that sought to expose organized crime in America.
The group behind the museum bought the unused building from the government for a mere $1 - you might call it a steal - and then pumped another $42 million into 17,000 square feet of exhibition space on three floors divided into galleries with names like “We Only Kill Each Other” and “Bringing Down the Mob,” including approximately $1.3 million in A/V systems and integration, to make it a high-tech celebration of one of the country’s grisliest history chapters.
There’s lots of hardware from the biggest eras of organized crime’s heyday, including the barber chair where Albert Anastasia - aka the “Lord High Executioner” of the Gambino crime family, which operated a gang of hit men and contract killers known as Murder, Inc. - was sitting when he himself was murdered in New york City on October 25, 1957, as well as artifacts belonging to Al Capone, Dion O’Bannion, George Moran, Charlie Luciano, Meyer Lansky, “Bugsy” Siegel, Sam Giancana, Joe Bonanno, Mickey Cohen and John Gotti, including weapons, customized jewelry, personal belongings and hundreds of photographs.
But it’s the museum’s interactive and experiential exhibits that best bring to life the stories of organized crime and those who fought against it, according to Jonathan Ullman, executive director of The Mob Museum. “Visitors can shoot a simulated Tommy gun, listen to real FBI surveillance tapes on wiretapping equipment and take part in FBI weapons training, they will hear actual incriminating evidentiary wiretaps and learn the meaning of what is being said and decoded,” he explains.
The first exhibit, the St. Valentine’s Day massacre wall, is emblematic of both the museum’s mission and the fact that, like history itself, it’s subject to ongoing revision. The bricks that make up the wall had been in private possession for decades and not surprisingly a few are missing, replaced with gray facsimiles. The ones that are original, however, are pockmarked with bullet holes highlighted in red, underscoring their gruesome authenticity. It’s all protected behind a wall of Plexiglas, which makes for a less-than-ideal projection surface.