The Mob Museum Tells About the Mafia in America

From VOA Learning English, welcome to This is America!

I’m Christopher Cruise.

The American city of Las Vegas, Nevada, is known around the world. Las Vegas is famous for excitement, entertainment and casinos -- businesses where lots of money can be won or lost.

In early 2012, a museum opened in a rarely visited part of the city, far from the casinos. The museum tells about organized crime and one of the most famous crime groups in the world: the American Mafia, also known as “the Mob.”

The Mob Museum describes how the Mafia grew out of American cities more than a century ago. Many immigrants who settled in the cities were hard-working, and wanted to succeed. But instead of traditional roads to success, some chose a life of crime. The museum tells the stories of the families of mobsters and how they lived.

The Mob Museum also tells the story of law enforcement efforts to crush the Mafia in Las Vegas and in the United States.

Organized crime is still a problem. U.S. federal agents continue to arrest people they accuse of having ties to the Mafia. These individuals are sometimes charged with murder, drug trafficking and illegal gambling.

Public money helps support the Mob Museum. Critics have said the museum wastes taxpayer dollars. But the museum’s founder says it helps the local economy by bringing more people to a part of Las Vegas that few visit.

The Mob in Las Vegas

Las Vegas is known for destroying old buildings and putting up new ones in their place. Yet the Mob Museum is in an historic, old structure that once held a federal courthouse and post office.

On November 15, 1950, a committee of the United States Senate held a hearing in one of the building’s courtrooms. It was part of a series of hearings about organized crime held nationwide in 1950 and 1951.

Sound of hearings

The hearings showed how the Mafia worked and helped law enforcement bring it under control. Today, the museum has made the second-floor courtroom look exactly as it did 60 years ago.

As a result of the Senate hearings, many mobsters moved their operations to Nevada. They chose the state because gambling was permitted there, but illegal in other states. The Mafia made a lot of money from gambling, as well as from the sex industry and illegally selling alcohol.

Many historians say Las Vegas would not be what it is today if not for the Mafia. The group helped create modern Las Vegas. The Mafia transformed it from a small town in the desert to an internationally known city.

Sound of documentary about Las Vegas

The Mob Museum

The Mob Museum opened on February 14 -- St. Valentine’s Day, an important day in Mafia history.

It was on February 14, 1929 that the “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre” happened. Seven members of a criminal group were shot and killed in Chicago, Illinois. They worked for the Bugs Moran gang.

The killers belonged to a gang headed by Al Capone, one of the most-feared and most-famous criminals of the time. Stories about the killings appeared in newspapers across the country.

Visitors to the Mob Museum can see the brick wall where the seven men were lined up and murdered. It is covered with blood and marked with bullet holes.

Museum visitors can also fire a machine gun, although it does not use real bullets. And they can sit in a real electric chair. Before sitting down, make sure the chair is not connected to an electrical outlet!

Origins of the Museum

Oscar Goodman once served as mayor of Las Vegas. Before his election, he provided legal representation to suspected members of the Mafia. Lawyers who work for, or represent, such suspects are known as “mob lawyers.”

From the 1960s through the 1980s, Oscar Goodman represented many of the men believed to be top Las Vegas gangsters.

Mr. Goodman began planning for the museum in 2002, 10 years before it opened. The museum has a display telling about his life and career.

A few years ago, he told VOA that he wanted to find a way to bring people and jobs to the city’s downtown area. The former courthouse was across the street from Mr. Goodman’s mayoral office. He negotiated with the federal government to take control of the empty building. The government sold the building to the city for one dollar.

Mr. Goodman said Las Vegas is the best place in the country for a museum about the Mafia.

“You know, Las Vegas is different than any other city because of where we came from. Basically we are a product of the Mob, who moved here from other places. And I said ‘This would be a great place to have a Mob Museum.’”

Purple Gang of Detroit is seen outside the Mob Museum
Purple Gang of Detroit is seen outside the Mob Museum
Italian-Americans headed many of the organized crime groups, or “families,” in the United States. Oscar Goodman said some Italian-Americans did not like the idea of a museum about the Mafia.

“There was an awful lot of resistance in the beginning that we would be glorifying the Mob, or that certain ethnic groups would be targeted and it would be defamatory towards them but, I said ‘No, it is going to be an even, even-handed presentation.’”

Mr. Goodman said none of the Mafia suspects he represented in court objected to the Mob Museum. In fact, he said, some of them wanted to donate materials to the museum, hoping their story would be told there.

Sound of Mob Museum advertisement

Criticism of the Museum

The Mob Museum was given $42 million in public money. In other words, the city, state and federal governments provided financing for the project. Thirty million of that was spent repairing the old courthouse.

Some critics say the Mob Museum is not a good use of public money. The Taxpayers Protection Alliance said using tax dollars was “shameful” and “irresponsible.” It called the museum “a memorial to wasted tax dollars.”

The Alliance said it was worried that if the museum does not have enough paying customers, tax dollars will be needed to support its operation.

Drew Johnson is with the Taxpayers Protection Alliance. He also works for The Washington Times newspaper. He wrote a story criticizing the museum.

Mr. Johnson said if a project is good enough, and has the chance to make a profit, private investors will provide the money. He says the need for public money for a project like a museum is proof that the project will lose money.

Recently, Mob Museum officials told VOA the museum needs about $5 million a year to continue. Between 50 and 55 people work there. That is about half the number of jobs museum officials predicted would be created.

The museum has no debt and about two million dollars in savings in the bank. And officials say the museum makes a profit -- in other words, it brings in more money than it spends.

But critics say the museum would not be profitable if it had borrowed the money to build it and had to repay the $42 million.

Sound of interview of Mr. Goodman responding to critics

"You know, and those are morons and idiots who are even suggesting that. We've had meetings every month for 10 years about this. And all of a sudden, these monkeys fell out of bed, and a lightbulb went on when they hit their head. I don't understand it."

Museum Officials Respond

Oscar Goodman told VOA that critics of the Mob Museum can, in his words, “go jump in a lake as far as I’m concerned.”

His wife, Carolyn Goodman, is the current mayor of Las Vegas. She said of the critics: “These people need to get a life.” She said the museum will support the redevelopment of the city’s downtown area. Much of the area is empty, but it is slowly growing.

Earlier this year, the Mob Museum made the first of four required yearly payments of $1.5 million to the city. The money is to repay Las Vegas for some of the money it invested in the museum.

Mr. Goodman presented the money to the City Council. It was all in 100-dollar bills in a suitcase -- just as a member of The Mob might have done it. Using cash enabled organized crime to operate without telling banks or tax collectors about their earnings.

I’m Christopher Cruise.

I hope you will join us again next week at this time for another This is America from VOA Learning English.