Saturday, September 10, 2011






My husband and I arrived too late for the tour. They were just about to shut down for the evening. We were traveling with our dogs and I was pleasantly surprised that we were invited in dogs and all. The gift shop was quaint and I bought a beautifully written poem by Betsy Westbrook Burrow called I Judge Not. My husband was talking to the gentleman that runs the place (Robert Raines) and mentioned I was from Galveston, Robert began giving the names of many a gangster from my area that had relocated to Hot Springs back in the day. My husband started to laugh when many of the names he threw out were my relatives. We had a very enjoyable visit and I appreciated their hospitality.

Gangsters In Arkansas
Hot Springs' Gangster Era
Visiting beautiful Hot Springs today, it’s hard to imagine the city as a hotbed for organized crime such as gambling, crime, prostitution, bootlegging, wild nightclubs and notorious gangsters.
But from the late 1800’s through the mid 1900’s, especially the 30’s, that’s one of the things Hot Springs was widely known for.
Al Capone, Frank Costello, Bugs Moran, Lucky Luciano. Some of the country’s most infamous villains came to know this safe, secluded, scenic city as their home-away-from-home.
But in order to understand how and why they ever came to Hot Springs in the first place, it is important to recognize the corruption that had been going on here for decades.
Pre-1930 Spa City
For 50 years, as early as the mid to late 1800’s, the city had been “rolling the dice” on illegal gaming. At that time, two families held the reins to Hot Spring’s illegal activities: the Flynns and the Dorans. The two families constantly fought for control of the city’s gaming rights, a competition that eventually led to the famous Hot Springs Gunfight in 1899.
During this realm of local rule, hotel rooms, saloons and back alleys were the hotspots for cards and craps and casino-type gaming of all kinds.
Though illegal, and a felony under Arkansas law, the betting was no secret to the majority of local authorities. Police officers, judges, and even the mayor turned a blind eye to the industry either because they were being paid off by one of the families, or were participating in the gaming themselves.
So it’s easy to see why Hot Springs became a haven for criminals.
Hot Springs Organized Crime
On top of the local corruption, the
healing hot springs, Ouachita Mountain beauty seclusion, and uptown nightlife, were attractive to the gangster elements from all across America. After all, Hot Springs offered Las Vegas-style amenities before there even was a Las Vegas.
So who was the gangster that began the gangland migration? His name was Owney “The Killer” Madden (today referred to as “the English Godfather”).
Madden arrived in Hot Springs in 1935 seeking slower days than the New York City lifestyle he was accustomed to. Originally from England, Madden grew up in the rough neighborhoods of Manhattan’s “Hell’s Kitchen” and is said to have put the “’organized’ in organized crime” in that city.
Madden settled right into Hot Springs though, and was actually well-respected and liked. He fell in love with and eventually married the local postmaster’s daughter. But his storybook ways ended there. He quickly got his feet wet in the local scene by supplying bettors with gambling lines and race results, opening the Hotel Arkansas Casino and later becoming involved with the famous Southern Club.
Eventually, more and more gangsters arrived. The word spread that Hot Springs was simply the perfect hideout from the big city lifestyle, especially for criminals running from police investigations.
The gangsters came in droves. It was said that Al Capone and his bodyguards would rent out entire floors of hotels.
But even for the bitterest rivals, such as Capone and Moran, Hot Springs was off limits for violence. The two once vacationed in the city at the same time — Capone at the Arlington Hotel in his famous room 442, Moran just a block away at the Majestic Hotel — but bloodshed never erupted, as the truce of vacationing in Spa City trumped any preceding quarrels.
Hot Springs Gangster Museum
The Hot Springs, Arkansas gangster activity came to an abrupt end in the 1960’s thanks to a federal crackdown on what the government called “the site of the largest illegal gambling operation in the U.S.” Some gangsters were finally arrested; others left or died, such as Owney Madden, who died of emphysema.
Today, nestled within the rolling Ouachita Mountains,
Hot Springs is the beautiful laid-back city that it always seemed destined to become.
Remnants of the city’s notorious past can still be found inside The Hot Springs Gangster Museum of America, which features classic relics including old roulette tables, vintage slot machines, Madden and Capone exhibits, gangster weapons and a documentary in the museum’s theater.
**courtesy of the Gangster Museum

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