At the new Mob Museum in Las Vegas you can listen to wiretaps, practice FBI-style surveillance and spray pretend bullets from a Tommy gun. The National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement tells the story of how the mob helped create Las Vegas and influenced the rest of the country.
Inside the museum’s elevator, a cop on a video monitor greets you by reading you your Miranda Rights.
Stepping out, you see a huge photo of 1920s-era gangsters. They are standing in a police lineup, wearing fedoras. Then, suddenly, you yourself get routed into a lineup, where a gruff voice from above orders suspects to step forward.
Exhibits like that one blur the line between entertainment and education.
But there’s also plenty of serious history here, starting with the structure itself. This building from the 1930s once served as a federal courthouse.
“We do consider the building to be really our ultimate artifact,” said Jonathan Ullman, the museum’s executive director. “There were numerous cases tried that involved alleged mobsters, mob figures. But most importantly, that it was the site of one of the Kefauver committee hearings.”
Those were a series of hearings that Sen. Estes Kefauver, a Tennessee Democrat, initiated in 1950 to investigate the mob across the U.S., including Las Vegas. The hearings were depicted in the movie "Godfather II."
Now, in the courtroom where those hearings took place, a video recreates the interrogations with actors, including one scene with ex-bootlegger and Las Vegas founding father, Moe Dalitz.
“If you people wouldn’t have drunk it, I wouldn’t have bootlegged it,” Dalitz said in those hearings after the committee questions him about his rum-running days during Prohibition.
“When we started this project, it was really about the organized crime in Las Vegas,” said Dennis Barrie, the museum’s creative director. His wife, Kathleen, is the curator. As they did research, they made a realization.
“That you could not tell the story of organized crime in Las Vegas without telling the story of organized crime nationally, and vice-versa,” Dennis Barrie said.
The Barries are the couple behind the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. Mobsters, like spies, posed a similar challenge – history that was meant to be kept secret.
“People when they shoot somebody, they throw the gun away. The mob doesn’t keep records, OK, they don't keep books, or at least not many,” Dennis Barrie said.
“We did a little list of maybe 10 things we thought you really needed in a mob museum,” Kathleen Barrie added. “And one was a Tommy gun, and one was a brick from the St. Valentine's Day massacre wall.”
In fact, they got the entire section of the brick wall from the 1929 Valentine's Day massacre that Al Capone orchestrated in Chicago. The museum opened on the anniversary of the massacre, Feb. 14.
“This is the actual part of the wall where the seven men were executed,” Dennis Barrie said.
You can see the bullet holes. A video about the event is projected onto the bricks.
“To find these things, you never know how you are going to find them, where you are going to find them,” Dennis Barrie said. “And for example the wall -- they called us. And it was a family in Las Vegas that had inherited it from their uncle who had it in his restaurant in Vancouver after the building was torn down.”
Kathleen Barrie said they found some of their best artifacts by people calling them.
“And they would call and say, 'I don’t know if you think this is of interest, or if this would be good' …”
As Kathleen Barrie is talking, she is interrupted by the sound of a spray of bullets coming from the other side of the room.
Remember that Thompson machine gun, or Tommy gun the couple had on their list? It turns out they got a whole collection. They even created a replica that museum-goers can try out.
“So that is what you hear in the background, the ability to fire a Thompson,” Dennis Barrie said, and then added, “Which you should do.”