On a cold February morning in 1929, four men, two of whom dressed as police, entered a Chicago garage, lined up five gangsters, a former optician and a mechanic and filled them with lead. The site of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre was long ago leveled, but the bullet-pocked wall against which the victims stood still exists in Las Vegas. The painstakingly resurrected artifact of history’s most infamous mob execution is among the exhibits in that city’s Mob Museum, an institution dedicated to education, but nonetheless captivating for its morbid content.
“People are drawn to the characters. They are charismatic individuals with their fingers on the levers of power. People are intrigued by that kind of crime, fascinated by how it works,” says Geoff Schumacher, the museum’s senior director of content, a historian who’s quick to say “I was never in the mob.” But much of what the public thinks they know about organized crime comes from movies and TV. The museum strives to separate myth from reality, while explaining the inner workings.
Appropriately, the facility is located at a former courthouse that once hosted a Kefauver Committee hearing (the Senate crime investigation dramatized in The Godfather Part II). Exhibits like 100 Years of Made Men feature photos and bios of mobsters from small-time crooks to kingpins such as “Lucky” Luciano, Al Capone and Carmine “The Cigar” Galante, who even in gory death still clenched a cigar in his teeth. But the museum emphasizes criminology, with much collected evidence (e.g., coroner reports and slugs removed from bodies) among its artifacts. Its crime lab offers an interactive experience. The Firearm Training Simulator places participants firmly on the side of the law. “We are not in the business of glorifying the mob,” says Schumacher.
While Chicago and New York are famous for racketeering, the Mob Museum shows how organized crime infected the whole country, in places like Kansas City, New Orleans, Detroit, Boston and, of course, Las Vegas. And should the size of society’s seamy underbelly start to weigh on you, you can always visit the basement’s replicated speakeasy, where a working pot still churns out hootch—legal, not bootleg.