Before there was Las Vegas, there was Hot Springs, Arkansas. Most people are unaware that a sleepy spa town in rural Arkansas was once the center of the organized crime universe in the United States. The Gangster Museum of America in Hot Springs, Arkansas features several rooms dedicated to the history of gangsters, gambling, and seedy good times.
In the 1800s, Arkansas became a popular vacation destination for travelers seeking relaxation and rejuvenation. As the name implies, the town of Hot Springs was home to a collection of thermal pools that were rumored to have curative properties. By the early 20th century, Hot Springs had blossomed into a lucrative resort town that caught the eye of several organized crime bosses who saw a golden opportunity to open a series of casinos that would turn a wicked profit.
By the mid-1920s, some of the biggest names in the organized crime world began to set up shop in Hot Springs. Legendary gangster Al Capone was connected to some of the city’s gambling operations. Hot Springs residents reportedly remember Al Capone quite fondly. Capone had a special love for soaking in the town’s thermal pools and was a very gracious tipper who treated every person he came into contact with in Hot Springs with great respect.
By 1940, Hot Springs, Arkansas had fully evolved into America’s first Sin City. The increasingly glitzy resort town was home to over 100 casinos. There were plenty of ladies of the night in the mix as well. What happened in Hot Springs stayed in Hot Springs—unless your wife somehow found out about it.
The Gangster Museum of America features authentic photos, roulette tables, and even a few decommissioned machine guns—all of which help bring the nefarious past of Hot Springs to life. The museum features several audio and video clips which introduce visitors to the underbelly of Arkansas. The commentary of Hot Springs madame Maxine Harris Jones about the levers of power in the town is absolutely priceless.
Visitors can have their picture taken with a smartly dressed wax figure of Al Capone, pretend to try their luck on a vintage slot machine, and pose with an inert machine gun which is rumored to have been confiscated from an actual mobster. There is also a gift shop full of gangster-themed goodies for the Godfather lover in your life.
Hot Springs, Arkansas may seem like a sleepy spa town on the surface. The Gangster Museum of America offers plenty of proof that looks can be deceiving. Some of the most celebrated celebrities, athletes, entrepreneurs, and criminals of the 20th century made history in Hot Springs. The steaming thermal pools of Arkansas were the backdrop for countless decisions that changed the course of history. The first blueprints for the glamorous hotels and nightclubs of Las Vegas were conceived in the curative waters of Hot Springs, Arkansas. A stroll through the Gangster Museum of America will leave you wondering what other life and death decisions the mineral pools witnessed and hosted.
Al Capone’s only involvement in the gambling in Hot Springs was as a player. He held no interest in the operation of any gambling house in town.