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New Mob Museum highlights Las Vegas' history

A wall of images of mobsters is displayed Feb. 13 at The Mob Museum in Las Vegas. The museum, also known as the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement, opens on Feb. 14. The museum chronicles the history of organized crime in America and the efforts of law enforcement to combat it.


The promoters of Las Vegas’ newest museum would like you to say hello to their little friends. Opening on Feb. 14, The Mob Museum chronicles the lives — and often gruesome deaths — of Al Capone, “Bugsy” Siegel and a rogue’s gallery of crooks, hoods and Mafioso.

“You can’t tell the story of Las Vegas without talking about organized crime,” said Jonathan Ullman, the museum’s executive director. “It’s part of the genesis of the city as the destination that it became.”

Or, as three-time mayor and former “mob attorney” Oscar Goodman puts it: “Las Vegas is unique. Our founding fathers were alleged mobsters.”

Capone, Gotti, Luciano - all infamous, and all now part of a notorious collection. TODAY's Amy Robach got an offer she couldn't refuse to visit the first-ever mob museum.

Goodman, in fact, had a seminal role in the development of the downtown museum, proposing the idea 10 years ago when, as mayor, he oversaw the transfer of Las Vegas’ federal courthouse and post office to the city. The building, it turns out, had been one of the sites for the landmark Kefauver hearings, a U.S. Senate investigation of organized crime in the early 1950s.

The museum, which operates under the full name of the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement, features 17,000 square feet of exhibit space, which, according to Ullman, is fairly evenly split between a history of the mob and the efforts of the G-men, police and elected officials who fought it.

Isaac Brekken / AP

Former "mob attorney" and Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman is pictured Feb. 13 at The Mob Museum in Las Vegas.

Among the former, exhibits tell the stories of Siegel, Meyer Lansky and other early Vegas operators, along with those of latter-day thugs, including Sam Giancana, John “the Teflon Don” Gotti and Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal, the role model for casino owner Sam “Ace” Rothstein, aka Robert De Niro, in “Casino.”

Signature exhibits include the wall from the infamous St. Valentine’s Day massacre in 1929, the barber’s chair in which Albert Anastasia met his gruesome end in 1957 and a film that explores Hollywood’s ongoing fascination with wiseguys, goodfellas and other made men. Given the subject matter, it should come as no surprise that some exhibits include graphic images depicting violence, prostitution and other illicit activities, and while there are cautionary signs throughout the museum, it may not be appropriate for small children. 

On the other side of the law, visitors can explore the efforts of famous mob-busters, including Eliot Ness, J. Edgar Hoover and Joe Pistone, who is perhaps better known by the name he adopted during six years undercover in the Bonanno and Colombo crime families: Donnie Brasco.

According to Michael Green, a history professor at the College of Southern Nevada and a consultant to the museum, the goal is not to glamorize gangsters but to tell both sides of a story that encompasses immigration, Prohibition, the criminal justice system and the influence of popular culture.

“History is sometimes beautiful and oftentimes ugly,” he told msnbc.com. “If we can tell the truth, people will come out not feeling that we glamorized it but that we informed them.”

As for Goodman, he, as is his wont, clearly hopes people will also be entertained. When asked if he’d contributed any of his (alleged) mob-related memorabilia, he mentioned one item in particular, the briefcase he used while defending the likes of Lansky, Rosenthal and Tony “The Ant” Spilotro.

“I used to leave Las Vegas with it empty,” he said, “and come back with it full of Mr. Green.”

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Sin City is a major entertainment center and business travel destination, known for its carefully cultivated image, gambling and nightlife.

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Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him at Twitter.