Though Las Vegas plays host to many curious attractions intended to bring in tourist dollars, from seedy shows that the tourist brochures do not advertise to family friendly tourist spots such as a simulation of the popular Star Trek television series, some can get quite bizarre. Whether it’s a museum dedicated to the erotic heritage of the United States, a zombie themed burlesque show or a museum devoted to recreating the heady (and radioactive) days of early atomic testing, even the brighter side of Las Vegas can get kind of weird. Though these represent some of the strangest attractions in Las Vegas, there are some other, somewhat tamer attractions to be found in Las Vegas that still incite the curiosity of visitors.
One location of note is the Mob Museum in Las Vegas. Intended to showcase the history of organized crime and its influence on the culture and society of the United States, the Mob Museum has a particular focus on the organized crime syndicates in the area in and around Las Vegas, a city that would be a radically different place without the presence of organized crime. The Mob Museum features a broad range of exhibits built into the city’s former courthouse and post office, all focused on the colorful and almost always a shady history of American organized crime and the impact it has since had on society. Though the heady days of the early mobs have passed, replaced by more subtle, more professional criminal syndicates that shun the press, the mobs of the beginning of the twentieth century are showcased in this museum.
It is hardly surprising, given the importance of organized crime to Las Vegas. When American crime syndicates first arrived in the city, they did so quietly. It was around 1931 when the Hoover Dam, which itself has a colorful and at times dark history, brought in a significant number of workers. New Deal money was paying a massive group of mostly young male construction workers, who found that their wilder appetites could be indulged with a quick trip to Las Vegas. Though these trips were swiftly banned by the federal authorities managing the project, these sojourns continued, eventually becoming a local institution known as the Helldorado Days.
The construction workers were making their way to Las Vegas to visit underground casinos and erotic shows in the city. Though both were officially illegal, there was far too much money at stake for the city not to cater to their desires. Funding these early operations were a group of local Las Vegas businesspeople, a handful of Mormon elders involved in the banking business and a consortium of Mafia crime lords. These three groups transformed Las Vegas from a farming town into a veritable hot spot of vice, particularly gambling and prostitution, both which have continued unabated to this very day, despite the city’s improving image.
During World War II, the United States Army established a gunnery school in the area and forced Las Vegas to end its business of legal prostitution, though they made little impact on the practice of now legal gambling. Still, the local organized crime figures, some of them quite prominent in both the Mafia hierarchy and the public eye, were happy to provide these services to soldiers preparing to fight in the European and Pacific theaters. However, the hotels and clubs remained firmly in the hands of the locals of Las Vegas, who refused to give up the control of the nightclubs and hotels to the mob, and managed actually to hold back the best efforts of the Mafia to take that control.
This ended in the post-war years when infamous gangster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, renowned as both as a skilled professional assassin and charismatic diplomat in the hidden world of the Mafia, and Meyer Lansky, another mob boss, used their connections to the banks to provide a cover of legitimacy to construct the Flamingo hotel and resort in 1946. At the time, Siegel was attempting to end his life of crime and focus more on legitimate business. While he was assassinated in 1947 (the culprit remains unknown to this day, though many theories have emerged), the Flamingo proved profitable, and other Mafia gangs wanted to become a part of it. Though they faced stiff opposition from local police and sheriff’s deputies, these mobsters arrived throughout the 1950s. Using their alliances with the Teamsters Union and a handful of Mormon bankers, the Mafia built some casinos and hotels, finally overcoming the local business owners.
The Mafia, ever looking to expand its interests, used their media connections in New York City and Los Angeles to provide good publicity to the city and bring in even more tourist dollars as images of glittering Las Vegas were beamed into homes across the country through the medium of television.
When desegregation came to Las Vegas, the Mafia proved influential in furthering the cause of desegregation. For some years, most of the casinos and hotels refused to hire or give rooms to non-white workers and visitors safe for the most menial positions or work in entertainment. However, the Las Vegas Mafia groups realized that there was more profit to be made by not dividing clientèle by race and made a noticeable effort to desegregate their clubs. Though many of the Jewish and Italian bosses, themselves once a disdained minority before the end of the war, cited it as a moral imperative, it was also no coincidence that the segregated hotels that were still owned by local interests saw severe damage to their profits. Throughout the 1960s, Jewish crime groups were instrumental in Las Vegas’ racial integration.
With the Valachi Hearings of 1963, the Mafia, once believed to be little more than an urban legend, was forcibly dragged into the light. With the passing of the RICO act, the mob’s influence in Las Vegas began to dwindle. But the Mob Museum stands as a testament to their influence over the history of the city.