A new museum scheduled to open this month in Hot Springs will reveal a slice of history that up until now has mostly been stuff of legend. The Gangster Museum of America will focus on the 1920s-40s era of the town, when gangsters such as Al Capone and Lucky Luciano vacationed there.
According to Robert Raines, director of the museum, there are no other gangster museums in America. “Las Vegas will have a museum slated to open in 2012 that will begin, time-wise, where we leave off,” he said. “We are in contact with their designers and plan a lot of cross-promotion. Unlike other museums, our artifacts are all indigenous to the area, and we are located on the very street where all of our history took place. That’s why we’re on Central Avenue, because this is where it all happened.”
The idea for the museum came about when Raines was helping a friend move into a business on the infamous street. ”I fell in love with the “New York feel” of the downtown area and was fascinated by its history,” said Raines. “Then came the last season of The Sopranos, and I guess I wasn’t ready for the series to end, so I created my own, and called it the “The Gangster Museum of America.” Believe it or not, just at the right time in my life, doors began to open that revealed Hot Springs’ legacy as a gangster/mob “hangout.”
According to Raines, the endeavor is a new kind of museum that the industry refers to as “edu-entertainment.” “It will be Arkansas’s newest attraction and located in a very pleasant section of Central Ave. on Antique Row,” he said. “We will also be one, if not the only, downtown attraction open at night.”
Since news of the museum first hit the underground grapevine, Raines said there has been ongoing interest in the endeavor from around the country.
The museum will highlight the stories of many notorious gangsters such as Lucky Luciano. Luciano was an Italian-American gangster who, according to the FBI, “organized” organized crime in the U.S. In many ways, he was the inspiration for the character Don Corleone in The Godfather. He evaded arrest and survived attempted assassinations only to meet his downfall while vacationing in Hot Springs in 1936.
The city was well known as neutral territory for gangsters from Chicago and New York who visited the town to enjoy the baths and racing. In Chicago, Detroit, New York – when the FBI and police were after criminals because of a robbery or murder – gangsters knew where to go to find a safe haven. Hot Springs was a sanctuary from both prosecution and enemies. When visiting, Al Capone and members of his mob frequently occupied the entire fourth floor of the Arlington Hotel. During one stay, as the popular story goes, Capone’s archenemy (Bugs Moran and his gang) checked in to the Majestic Hotel, just one block away. Contrary to what one would expect, there was neither conflict nor violence since both were on vacation.
The museum’s galleries are set to host photographic displays, audiovisual presentations and artifacts (such as weapons) related to this era when the healing powers of the city’s hot mineral baths attracted visitors from around the world. During this period, the city was a popular destination for the rich and famous, drawing the likes of Babe Ruth and Andrew Carnegie. According to Raines, the museum will tell the story of a political dynasty and its ultimate upset. Visitors will get an inside look at the lives of Owen Vincent Madden, the kingpin of crime in Hot Springs, as well as Capone, Luciano, Frank Costello, Bumpy Johnson, Maxine Harris and many others.
It is Raines’ hope that the museum’s stockpile of intriguing stories associated with the city will not only enhance visitors’ appreciation of the area’s history, but also create a unique “wow” experience unlike any other. So what is the most misunderstood aspect of the city’s mysterious “gangster” era? “That will be up to each guest to determine,” said Raines. “I can only say that if I told ya, I might have to kill ya!”
More information about the museum can be found at www.tgmoa.com