Exploring the criminal element at the Mob Museum

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The Mob Museum is housed at an imposing former courthouse built in the 1930s.
The Mob Museum is housed at an imposing former courthouse built in the 1930s.

With no dazzling lights or garish marquee, an imposing structure that's at once a historical site, a tourist magnet and a repository of knowledge looms in downtown Las Vegas.

Formally known as the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement, the Mob Museum opened in 2012 after an ambitious renovation of the former federal courthouse and post office that was built in 1933. 

Both educational and entertaining, appealing to those who are aware of the influence of organized crime and those who aren't, the museum deftly balances information about the bad guys and the good guys. It boasts artifacts and insights for hardcore researchers and engages more casually curious guests with clever interactive exhibits.

Through state-of-the-art storytelling techniques, visitors learn about organized crime's impact and key events and characters in the continuing battle between criminals and the law. The museum, which has welcomed more than 2 million visitors, has earned accreditation by the American Alliance of Museums, the highest national recognition for U.S. museums. 

The landmark structure, on Stewart Avenue just north of Fremont Street, is on the National Register of Historic Places. It is an example of Depression-era neoclassical architecture built by the federal government during the 1920s and 1930s. It was used as courthouse through 1965 and as a post office through 2005. 

The museum’s Organized Crime Today exhibit.
The museum’s Organized Crime Today exhibit.

The $42 million restoration of the building included the second-floor courtroom, which famously hosted one of the national hearings that helped expose organized crime's infiltration of business and politics. The Senate Special Committee to Investigate Crime in Interstate Commerce held 27 hearings in 14 cities from 1950 to 1951. They came to be known as the Kefauver hearings after the committee's chairman, Sen. Estes Kefauver, and they engrossed the public, who followed the revelations with the new technology of the time: television. 

Among those who testified in Las Vegas on Nov. 15, 1950, were Moe Sedway, manager of the Flamingo Hotel; Wilbur Clark, who built the Desert Inn; and Clifford Jones, then Nevada's lieutenant governor.

The Kefauver hearings inspired many law-enforcement initiatives, including a crackdown on illegal gambling that drove gaming operators to Nevada, then the only state where gaming was legal, which solidified Las Vegas as the nation's gambling capital.

Another highlight of the museum: bricks from the wall of the garage where the St. Valentine's Day Massacre occurred in Chicago's Lincoln Park in 1929. Seven members and associates of the notorious North Side Gang were lined up and shot against the wall amid the struggle to control organized crime in that city during Prohibition.

In addition to seeing the courtroom and the wall, visitors to the Mob Museum learn about the cases against such mob figures as Al Capone, Charles "Lucky" Luciano, Meyer Lansky, Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal, Anthony Spilotro and Whitey Bulger. It takes a recommended three hours to tour the 20,000-square-foot space.

A fingerprint analysis station at the Crime Lab Experience, which was added last year.
A fingerprint analysis station at the Crime Lab Experience, which was added last year.

New exhibits and upcoming events

Last year, a $9 million renovation project added three exhibits:

• The Crime Lab Experience is a 30-minute, multimedia exploration of five forensic science techniques (death investigation, DNA extraction and profiling, fingerprint analysis, crime scene investigation and firearms examination) used to prosecute criminals.

• The Use of Force Training Experience places visitors in the role of law enforcement officers and trained to respond to real or perceived threats with a focus on the use of deadly force.

• Organized Crime Today features a 16-foot-wide touchscreen and explores global syndicates and current criminal rackets, such as drugs and weapon trafficking, money laundering and cybercrime. 

Also included in the redesign is the Underground (open from 9 a.m. to midnight daily), a Prohibition exhibition in the basement where visitors can sample moonshine or cocktails from the era at a working distillery and speak-easy. The cocktails have backstories and evocative names such as Lock and Key, Corpse Reviver No. 2 and Bathtub Fizz. 

Among the upcoming special events at the Mob Museum:

• The History of Las Vegas: Celebrating Our Past on Nevada Day, Oct. 25, 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. Historian Stanley Paher will speak about the birth of Las Vegas. Paher, the author of "Las Vegas: As It Began — As It Grew," will guide audience members through historical photos and cover the city's Mormon roots in the mid-1850s. He will also discuss how railroads, the construction of the Hoover Dam and atomic testing fueled the city's growth. The presentation will be in conjunction with Nevada Day, which marks the state's admission into the Union on Oct. 31, 1864. The event is included with museum admission.

• Halloween, Oct. 31, 5 p.m. to midnight. Revelers in 1920s attire can enter the second annual Halloween costume contest in the Underground. Those dressed as flappers and mobsters, seriously or playfully, can enjoy $10 drink specials and crystal ball readings by Kate Wind, a practitioner of that era's spiritualism. Lady and the Vamp will perform live jazz music from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. The cost is free with the password "heebie-jeebies."

• Kefauver Day, Nov. 15, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. The museum annually commemorates the day in 1950 on which the Kefauver hearing was held at the building. The event is sponsored by Zappos.com, whose headquarters are just a block away, and admission is free for Nevada residents and buy one, get one for nonresidents.

• Repeal Day, Dec. 5. The Underground will host a party to mark the anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, coincidentally the same year the building opened.

For non-Nevada residents, tickets for the Mob Museum's self-guided tour begin at $23.95 online or $26.95 at the door. Audio tours are available in English, Spanish, Chinese, French, Italian, German and Portuguese for an additional $4. Guided tours for groups of 10 or more must be arranged in advance. For more information, visit https://themobmuseum.org.

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