Review: The Mob Museum (Las Vegas)
Outlaws have long been the object of a peculiar fascination. Fictional or real, from Robin Hood to Bonnie and Clyde to Joe Valachi to Don Corleone to John Gotti, we’ve obsessed over celebrity-criminals in life and even apotheosized them in death. Many of us know more verses from The Godfather than either the U.S. Constitution or the Bible.
I feared that apostasy may be celebrated when The Mob Museum first opened in Downtown Las Vegas in 2012. Until now, I had consciously avoided making a visit. I had zero desire to attend a shrine which presumptively glamorized criminal-punks who created so much misery for so many millions of innocent people over the course of more than a century. It’s distressing enough, I figured, that we’ve made celebrities out of the talentless. But I drew the line at deifying leeches who became famous simply because they looted and terrorized and murdered for a living. The Mob Museum wasn’t anything I cared to see. Why honor violence? What next….a museum to political assassins? Maybe, serial killers?
My father’s visit to Las Vegas altered this avoidance and even stoked a bit of curiosity as to how organized crime would be portrayed. After all, museums typically honor good people and valiant deeds. Having lived and worked in Washington, D.C. for many years, I’d seen more than my share of museums and historical markers. Accordingly, I couldn’t possibly imagine what a “Smithsonian to the Mob” might look like. Lawlessness isn’t something to celebrate.
And so, I visited one of Las Vegas’ newest attractions this past Wednesday afternoon. The museum attracted a busier than expected crowd on this day, but swarms of tourists never posed an obstacle to fully enjoying the experience.
General admission tickets cost $26.95. However, the museum also offers a deep discount for locals. Tickets are just $16.95 for residents of Clark County. Given what many shows and other popular attractions cost around the city, the ticket price is a good value.
The Mob Museum is self-contained within the Old Post Office Building, which retains its classic outside facade and 1920’s-era interior, making it an ideal backdrop for creating an atmosphere of what life was like during the heyday when organized crime in America thrived. The museum provides a continuous self-paced walking exhibit across three floors. The layout, which uses various rooms to focus on certain periods and components of organized crime, is well-organized. The helpful staff is present at various junctions along the way which allowed a carefree experience free of any fear of a wrong turn or missing out on any of the novelty features. A normal visit takes about two hours, although more serious enthusiasts of the subject matters could spend considerably longer time if inclined to stop at every display. The final verdict is — there’s plenty to see and do.
The walking tour begins on the third floor. The building’s top level features the history of organized crime in America since the late 1800’s, focusing largely on familiar Mafia dons and wiseguys we’ve come to know in movies and popular culture. Displays include lots of photographs, short films, and interactive displays.
The second floor is primarily dedicated to the history of organized crime in Las Vegas. I learned a number of things that I didn’t know before — about how skimming worked, casino cheating, and other aspects of organized crime’s infiltration of gambling culture. This part of the museum was like watching the movie Casino with the actual bad guys and real artifacts at the fingertips.
The first floor was equally as intriguing. Here, we saw what organized crime means today, not just inside the United States and here in Las Vegas, but throughout the world. We learn the criminal underworld remains very much entrenched in many spheres of daily life and even impacts the price of the things we buy. La Costa Nostra has been largely replaced by Russian mobsters, the Triad (Asia), and drug cartels.
Perhaps the most interesting display was a huge wall containing the portraits of perhaps 100 mobsters, headlined with the epitaph: Where Did They Go? One by one, we learn the fates of each of these mobsters. Many were gunned down by law enforcement. A large number were killed by their own criminal brethren. Some died while in prison. Others are still alive. I couldn’t help by notice Whitey Bulger’s display hadn’t yet been updated (he was murdered in prison a month ago).
The Mob Museum does a remarkable job of creating some sense of drama as visitors walk through the displays. Organized crime reached It’s zenith at about the time the Federal Bureau of Investigation weaponized under J. Edgar Hoover. However, slowly but surely, mob bosses and their underlings met their ultimate fates — arrested, charged, tried, imprisoned, overthrown, and murdered. The museum encompasses this arduous struggle through a labyrinth of displays. Room by room, conviction by conviction, bullet by bullet the mob meets it’s end.
I was quite pleased to see law enforcement agencies who were pivotal in breaking the iron grip of organized crime given such a prominent place inside the museum presumably dedicated to the criminals. These men and women who wore badges and did legal work were the real heroes. Many risked their lives. Some actually gave their lives. Fittingly, their deeds were honored while the bad guys were ultimately revealed to be moral derelicts, who largely deserved their deathly fates.
It should also be noted the museum doesn’t sanitize any of the salty language or brutal violence that was/is the criminal underworld. Numerous photos are shocking to look at. It’s one thing to see someone gunned down in the movies. But looking at the actual photo of a poor victim pulled out of an oil drum in Hudson Bay after decomposing for six months is pretty gruesome. Similarly, surveillance tapes of actual wiretaps on mobsters which can be heard contain words unsuitable for younger audiences.
This sense of realism was refreshing in a city largely built on illusion and myth. But visitors with children should take note.
The museum concludes with an interactive crime lab which allows visitors to see firsthand how evidence is gathered through forensics. Finally, there’s an optional speakeasy and complimentary shot of moonshine booze (for those over 21) in the basement bar. The last stop is predictably, the gift shop.
The Mob Museum was a pleasant surprise. I highly recommend paying a visit for those interested in quite a different portrayal of American history that isn’t taught in schools or textbooks. Indeed, this is our history. Perhaps that’s not a reason to celebrate the mob and revere the evil deeds they did. But it certainly justifies learning about this darker aspect of Las Vegas and American history. It’s also a lot of fun and one of the more unusual things you’ll see in a city that would be markedly different today, for better and for worse, if it were not for some of the people featured in the museum.
I recommend giving The Mob Museum a shot.
Visit The Mob Museum official website HERE.