Today, for both visitors and residents of Hot Springs, Arkansas, a stroll down Bathhouse Row can be the cherry on top for a relaxing day in the Spa City. In 2021, it’s hard to imagine that just 100 years ago, the city, particularly the downtown area, was crawling with gangsters and illegal activity.
Starting in the late 1800s through the mid-1900s, Hot Springs was a popular spot for some of the country’s most infamous gangsters. In the mid-to-late 1800s, the Spa City’s illegal gambling activities were controlled by the Flynn and the Doran families. The two families’ feud over the city’s gaming rights eventually led to the famous Hot Springs Gunfight in 1899.
So, it’s no surprise that long before Las Vegas became the world’s casino playground,
Hot Springs, Arkansas, was a playground for the most notorious names in U.S. organized crime.
Perhaps the most notable gangster in Hot Springs history was Al Capone, who first came to the city in the early 1920s. He and his boss, Johnny Torrio, stayed at the Majestic Hotel before Capone purchased his suite on the fourth floor of the Arlington Hotel. Back then, Room 443 in the Arlington Hotel contained a closet that led to a secret getaway. The closet has since been boarded up.
Today, the room, now known as the Al Capone Suite, is popular among visitors who want to experience a significant piece of Hot Springs history. It offers a prime view of what was once Capone’s favorite place for nighttime entertainment, the Southern Club, directly across from the Arlington Hotel. A century ago, Capone’s lookouts would plant themselves at the club and signal to him through the window when it was safe to leave his suite and cross over Central Avenue.
Another one of Hot Springs’ notorious gangsters was Owen Vincent “Owney” Madden, also known as The English Godfather. Madden, a convicted killer, made his grand debut in the Spa City in 1935 after being granted permission from the New York State Parole Board to leave New York under the condition that he never return. Madden lived in Hot Springs until he died in 1965.
After Madden’s arrival, more and more gangsters began flocking to Hot Springs, as word spread that the city was the perfect hideout for criminals running from law enforcement.
The bulk of this activity happened during Leo McLaughlin’s reign as mayor of Hot Springs. When he was elected in 1926, McLaughlin fulfilled a campaign promise to allow illegal gambling, using voter fraud and other unlawful tactics to drive his political machine.
According to Mark Palmer, a tour guide at The Gangster Museum of America in downtown Hot Springs, Arkansas, mobsters felt at ease in the Spa City. Not only were they protected by local authorities, but even their own rivals weren’t allowed to bother them.
“They had a rule you couldn’t kill each other here,” Palmer tells museum tour groups. Murder would bring too much attention to the city, and no one wanted to risk having their illegal activities shut down.
Other Depression-era criminals such as Frank “Jelly” Nash, Alvin “Creepy” Karpis and Charles “Lucky” Luciano were once regular visitors of Hot Springs, Arkansas.
Gangster activity in Hot Springs ended in the 1960s due to a federal crackdown on what the government called “the site of the largest illegal gambling operation in the U.S.”
So, the next time you set off to Las Vegas for a weekend of fun in the world’s most
famous gambling city, don’t forget: Hot Springs, Arkansas, did it first.