This three-story former courthouse contains the actual courtroom where Senator Estes Kefauver held his famous syndicated crime hearings in 1950 and 1951. Watched by 30 million people, the most for any televised event of the time, the trials made it incontrovertibly clear that organized crime did exist in the U.S. This famed, and beautifully restored, courtroom is the centerpiece of the museum and gives heft to the idea that a new museum should open here, in a city where the majority of museums last no longer than mob stooges.
To avoid that fate, the designers and founders have added a healthy dose of razzmatazz to the proceedings: a fascinating 10-minute film on mob movies narrated by Nicholas Pileggi, slot machine-like displays of video testimonials, the opportunity to take part in a line up, and fake machine guns to fire.
The museum also makes a gripping case for the idea that mob history may actually be the truest history of the United States. “If you go deep enough, you can see the mob’s fingerprints on everything,” one bit of wall text grimly asserts, followed by exhibits on fixed elections, presidential assassinations, and labor disputes. It’s a dark vision, enhanced by the unrelenting gore that assaults the visitor (this is NOT a museum for kids), with pictures of blood splattered crime scenes adorning at least half the walls in the place. (They start to look like grisly Rorschach Tests after a while.) Though, to its credit, the museum does not glorify crime. You’ll learn not only about the battle for the soul of Las Vegas (and the country) from the mob side, but also from that of law enforcement.
The museum recently expanded its scope to include modern organized crime, offering striking, but educational exhibits covering human trafficking, money laundering, the international drug trade, and other rackets from around the world. Other new additions include an interactive crime lab where you can match your fingerprints to famous criminals in history, or perform an autopsy on a digital cadaver (warning: this gets a little graphic!). Also on the graphic side is the Use of Force Training Experience, which immerses visitors in situations from the perspective of law enforcement officers. Guests undergo a brief, but intense training that was created with the guidance of local and national police officers. You are then given a CO2 pistol and put into a simulation where you get to understand that split-second decision of when—and when not— to shoot. It’s a timely, yet touchy subject in this day and age, but cops who have gone through the exhibit themselves have praised it as accurate and realistic.
In a town where it’s easy to get caught up in the fantasy that’s spoon-fed to visitors, this is a welcome, must-see attraction that will help you understand exactly what sins this city was built on.
Two notes: If all this crime talk has made you in desperate need for a drink, you only have to head down to the basement, where the museum has built its very own speakeasy known as The Underground. Complete with a full bar and distillery, you’re transported back in time to Prohibition. Don’t worry, this booze wasn’t made in a bathtub, and you don’t need to know the password to get in.
Secondly, you can get your full vintage Vegas experience for a little less scratch with a ticket combo that gets you into both the Mob Museum and the Neon Museum.