Once upon a time, in the 1940s, America didn't believe in the Mob — or the Cosa Nostra or the Mafia, as you will. Organized crime was a fairy tale.
The Mob Museum explains how the nation learned otherwise. Central to the story are the now-forgotten Kefauver Crime Hearings. In 1950, the U.S. Senate, sensing that something was rotten in the state of the union, appointed Tennessee senator Estes Kefauver to hold 92 days of hearings across the country to investigate "crime in interstate commerce." "The proceedings," explains the museum, "offered Americans gripping theatre and a crash course in organized crime."
The high point was the final series of hearings in New York City, televised live. This was back when television was brand new, and it was watched by 30 million people, "making it the nation's first TV event." The museum shows extracts.
The Mob Museum opened in 2012. It could have set up in lots of places — the Kefauver hearings took place in 14 cities, all with their sordid stories to tell. But the Mob was pivotal in making Las Vegas the gambling and nightlife mecca it became, so putting it here was an easy choice. Better yet, the building the museum is in, once a post office with federal courtrooms on the upper floor, is exactly where the Las Vegas portion of the Kefauver hearings took place. You can sit in the chambers — unchanged since the 1950s — and see witnesses' testimony re-enacted.
The museum explains why Las Vegas was so appealing to mobsters: it was an "open city," meaning no one gang had exclusive dibs on it. A diorama shows some of the Mob bosses' hotel-casinos, among them the Flamingo, built by Bugsy Siegel in 1946 (he was murdered six months later), and the Tropicana, opened in 1957 with Frank Costello as part owner. (After surviving an attempted hit that year, he retired and took up gardening.) Both establishments are still going, presumably clean now.
For crime aficionados, the Mob Museum has some singular items: the Chicago brick wall with the (still-visible) bullet holes from the 1929 St. Valentine's Day Massacre; the New York City barber's chair Albert Anastasia was shot dead in in 1957 (comedian Henny Youngman used to own it); Lucky Luciano's black fedora and silver cigarette case (the latter a gift from Frank Sinatra).
There are also several places to interact with the exhibits: you can join a police line-up and have your friends take pictures of you, fire a Tommy gun and feel the recoil, or sit in a replica of the electric chair that saw off Louis Lepke, "the richest man to die." It is, a bit depressingly, a favourite place for selfies.
The Mob Museum's formal monicker is "National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement," so it also devotes space to crime fighting — methods used and inroads made — but the juicier tale is clearly the crooks'. That's where the money is, too, as becomes obvious in the gift shop, filled with Al Capone shot glasses, brass-knuckle coffee mugs and Mob fedoras.
That was never an official Las Vegas ad slogan, but in the 1950s it might as well have been. From 1951 to 1962, there were 100 above-ground tests of nuclear bombs at the Nevada Test Site, 100 kilometres northwest of Las Vegas. Their mushroom clouds lit up the desert sky and could easily be seen in the gambling capital. The dawn detonations especially were popular with those who'd been in the casinos all night.
The story of the nuclear-bomb testing program at the Nevada Test Site is told at the National Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas. Between 1951 and 1992, when a worldwide nuclear-testing ban went into effect, there were 928 radioactive explosions at the site. More than 800 were underground tests. These, even though they couldn't be seen, were felt in Las Vegas.
"In spite of early attempts to keep detonating times hush-hush," we learn, "the atmospheric tests quickly became must-see attractions for Las Vegas residents and visitors alike."
The tests were part of the arms race during the Cold War with the Soviet Union. The Nevada site was chosen because it had large valleys and dry lakebeds in which to conduct them, mountain barriers to stop close-range observation, and was reasonably remote from large population centres.
The science behind the bombs that destroyed two Japanese cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, bringing the Second World War to an end, is explained in a short film from the 1950s illustrating nuclear fission. A white-smocked scientist primes a mousetrap and puts a small ball — representing a neutron — where the bait would go. "Watch," he says, and tosses his trap into a room whose floor is carpeted by similarly cocked devices. His first trap snaps, ejecting the "neutron," which bounces onto another trap, setting it off. In seconds the entire room is a white flurry of launched balls.
The museum also looks at how nuclear energy was regarded by the American public in the 1950s and 1960s. "Optimism flourished about harnessing atomic power for many wonderful uses," we're told. "Mushroom clouds appeared on souvenirs and atomic cocktails became popular drinks." Las Vegas started a Miss Atom Bomb beauty pageant.
A display case shows how America's fascination with the word "atomic" got translated into commercial uses. Besides an Atomic Disintegrator cap pistol and Gilbert's Atomic Energy Lab chemistry set are less-obvious product pairings, such as salt-and-pepper shakers shaped like Fat Man (the bomb dropped on Nagasaki), Iguana Radioactive Atomic Pepper Sauce, the Lone Ranger Atomic Bomb Ring, mushroom-cloud paperweights, an Atomic Sewing Kit and Christmas-tree ornaments adorned with atomic symbols.
One little-known detail in the story of the nuclear-arms race is that it nearly didn't happen. The museum relates that in June 1946, "the United States unveiled a plan to the United Nations to establish controls, stop the spread of nuclear weapons, and eliminate its own stockpile. The Soviet Union vetoed the proposal in early 1947."
Russia got its first atomic bomb in 1949, and the race was on.
For more information on the National Atomic Testing Museum visit its website at www.nationalatomictestingmuseum.org.
For more information on the Mob Museum visit its website at www.themobmuseum.org.
For information on Las Vegas go to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority website at www.lasvegas.com.