Travel

The Gangster Museum of America Takes Us Back to When Mobsters Ruled Spa City

Grab a soak, smuggle some ‘shine.

Photo by John David Pittman for Thrillist
Photo by John David Pittman for Thrillist
Photo by John David Pittman for Thrillist

On the morning of June 17, 1933, a train leaving from Fort Smith, Arkansas, pulled up to Kansas City’s Union Station. On it were a group of officers and one FBI Special Agent, with federal prisoner Frank “Jelly” Nash in tow. They were transporting the infamous burglar and murderer back to the penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas, from which he had escaped three years earlier.

Waiting to spring Nash at the station were fully armed mob associates Verne Miller, Adam Richetti, and the notorious bank robber Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd. The officers disembarked, and just as they had placed Nash in the front seat of their waiting car, a voice was heard saying “Let ‘em have it!” Machine gun fire sprayed, killing two police detectives, the police chief of McAlester, Oklahoma, and four officers, including the Kansas City Special Agent. Also killed? Frank Nash. Whether that was intentional was never determined.

The bloody incident became known as the Kansas City Massacre and is marked in legal history as the catalyst for stronger federal crime laws-including allowing FBI agents to carry firearms and giving them the authority to make arrests. (Before that, their jurisdiction was much more limited.)

But there’s also something else notable: Frank Nash had been hiding out for years-enjoying underworld protection after breaking parole-in Hot Springs, Arkansas. That wasn’t by accident.
 

Photo by John David Pittman for Thrillist
Photo by John David Pittman for Thrillist
Photo by John David Pittman for Thrillist

The thermal soaking waters of what was then known as America’s Spa City were not just a magnet for Texas oilmen, musicians including Duke Ellington and Elvis, baseball players like Babe Ruth, and tourists who flocked to slick establishments like the Como Hotel, where the glazed white bricks came indented with the word “Tiffany,” manufactured by Leon Tiffany, brother of the jeweler Louis Comfort Tiffany. This was also the preferred vacation destination for mobsters from all over.

Al Capone first visited in the mid 1920s, when he was the right-hand man for Johnny Torrio in Chicago; it’s said Capone would “take the waters” to treat the syphilis that would eventually leave him deteriorated. Capone’s cohort Lucky Luciano made appearances, as did gambling kingpin Julius Salsbury from Baltimore and the brutal Owen Vincent Madden, aka Owney “The Killer”Madden. (He owned New York’s underground. Also, he killed a bunch.) Madden made his affair with Hot Springs permanent: After his second stint in Sing Sing, he was exiled from New York by then-governor Franklin D. Roosevelt. He relocated to the Arkansas town, eventually marrying the postmaster’s daughter and living his days out violence-free in the South.

The gangsters came for the peace. “The politics and the government here were so lax, they protected them, because they came with a lot of money,” says Robert Raines, director of The Gangster Museum of America. “This was a safe place to meet, discuss business, have a good time, and go back and rob a bank somewhere else and get some more money.” He notes that there were no robberies in Hot Springs in the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s, because all the robbers were there on vacation.

Photo by John David Pittman for Thrillist
Photo by John David Pittman for Thrillist
Photo by John David Pittman for Thrillist

You could say the town was, well, asking for it. Before the gangsters even caught wind of the place, Hot Springs-a portion of which had been parceled in 1832 into federally managed land before becoming a national park in 1931-had an underbelly of its own. Gambling in Hot Springs began in the 1870s, and joining it, brothels and illegal auction houses. The divide in the city was striking and literal: On one side of Central Avenue was the federal property of the bathhouses, beautiful and ornate in architecture. And on the other side, lawlessness. Here was a city where Prohibition never happened. Where Al Capone smuggled moonshine out to Chicago in its Mountain Valley Spring Water jugs. At its peak were over 70 gambling locations-all illegally operating-including the Oaklawn thoroughbred racing track, still there today. And it was an open secret: “The FBI in 1963 said in a New York Times article that Hot Springs accounted for $100 million dollars a year of illegal gambling and prostitution,” says Raines. “The rest of the country knew about Hot Springs.” Steps were taken to dismantle the illegal gambling operations the next year.

And, today, it’s here on this formerly lawless side of the street, across the way from the historic Buckstaff Bathhouse, that The Gangster Museum of America now resides.
 

Photo by John David Pittman for Thrillist
Photo by John David Pittman for Thrillist
Photo by John David Pittman for Thrillist

A marquee outside is decorated with dice and playing cards. Formerly a Frankie’s cafeteria-style restaurant, this 10,000 square feet of space is tricked out, stuffed with paraphernalia donated and picked up from auctions, taking cues from its subject matter with immersive elements: tour guides in pin-striped suits and fedoras, original casino games you can play-including an old-school roulette table-and secret passageways. You enter through a bank vault door that blends into the background until, you know, it swings open.

This is the second location of the museum, opened in 2011. The first, in 2007, came about from an idea Raines got from his friend who runs conventions in the city. “He said there are two things that convention-goers ask when they visit,” Raines recalls. “One is, ‘Can I still take a thermal bath?'”(Yes, you can.) “The second is, ‘Did Al Capone really come here?'” Raines, a former computer technologist, actor, and video producer, started digging into the city’s mob history and was surprised at how deep it went. “I don’t think anybody knows why this place is like it was,” he says. “So I thought if I could figure out a way to tell the story where it’s not really talking about gangsters and their way of life, but more or less talking about them as visitors and tourists coming here, and what they did while they were here, then it might be palatable.”Talk to him today and he’s a virtual encyclopedia of the underworld, citing names and dates-and also crimes-with minor prompting. There are seven galleries in the museum, including a Madden Gallery, a Casino Gallery, and a Capone Gallery, which includes a picture of Capone’s cell at Eastern State Penitentiary, his 1930 Time Man of the Year cover, and some examples of those Mountain Valley Spring Water jugs (that guy was always working). Each room features a video hosted by Raines, but there are also interviews with subjects like Deirdre Marie Capone, the granddaughter of Capone’s brother, Ralph Capone.

Raines is currently into outlaws-the rough-and-tumble descendants of Jesse James, different from the slick gangsters whose underlings did most of the dirty work-as he’s researching them for an upcoming book. So ask him about a favorite item in the museum, and he’ll go to robber John Dillinger, specifically the museum’s plaster Dillinger death mask, obtained from author, former Playboy editor, and friend William J. Helmer, who pretty much wrote the book on Dillinger. Helmer’s aunt was working in forensics at the hospital when Dillinger’s body came in; a photo of her working over it is on the wall.

Photo by John David Pittman for Thrillist
Photo by John David Pittman for Thrillist
Photo by John David Pittman for Thrillist

He’s also effusive about the Baseball Room. Major League Baseball’s Spring Training as we know it began in Hot Springs, with owners drawn to the thermal waters. “Originally the owners came here and enjoyed the baths and they said, ‘Well, you know what, these guys are drinking and carousing everywhere anyway, why don’t we get ‘em all here?'” says Raines, the idea being the players would get their jollies out at night and “boil it out” in the morning before practice. The town was small enough for the owners to keep an eye on their activities, and the outdoors of Hot Springs National Park also made for great training grounds: the 1939 Brooklyn Dodgers apparently took 10-mile hikes over the mountain trails to get their limbs in shape.

The players were also entertainment for the mobsters that were there. “All of the mob were from big cities that had baseball teams,” says Raines. “So they could come here and in the mornings go out to Whittington Park, which is a ten-minute walk from downtown, and watch Babe Ruth and the others play for free. Just sit in the stands-which were just five or six concrete steps-and watch ‘em and holler at ‘em.”Baseball luminaries like Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige, all came through. You’ll find their pictures on the walls of the gallery, next to the kind of creepy statue of Babe Ruth, under twinkling lights mimicking a night at the ballpark.

After spinning the roulette wheel or cranking the arm of the one-armed bandit, stop in the last room for a photo with a dapper Al Capone, lounging in all white. Then exit through the gift shop, which now includes The Hatterie, where you can pick up your own retro digs. Here you’ll also find several books on the museum’s subject matter, including the recently published (and New York Times notable) The Vapors: A Southern Family, the New York Mob, and the Rise and Fall of Hot Springs, America’s Forgotten Capital of Vice and Hot Springs: From Capone to Costello, written by Raines. And if you’re thirsting for more info, last year Raines launched a podcast: TGMOA After Dark. Original interviews include one with Colonel Lynn Davis, the director of the Arkansas State Police in August 1967, when Governor Winthrop Rockefeller ordered the gambling in Hot Springs shut down. To execute the command, Davis set up a raid, seizing truckloads of gaming equipment from the casinos, which the state police set on fire. And that was the beginning of the end-only to live on at the Gangster Museum.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTwitterPinterestYouTubeTikTok, and Snapchat!

Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist’s Senior Travel Writer. She wonders if she could pull off a white suit like Capone. (Probably not, she likes spaghetti too much.)

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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