Recently, I was given a newsletter that is published by an elite Ivy League private club here in New York. As I was reading through the events section, I saw this, “Here’s Your Chance to Take a Tour of the American Gangster Museum.”
What on earth is that I said to myself?
It turns out that it’s located at 80 St. Marks Place -- near First Avenue. After a web search I came across a restaurant that was suggested for museum visitors. There was only one thing: the copy said that it was located on St. Marks near Avenue A.
Let me explain about Avenue A. Back in the day, saying you were walking to Avenue A was akin to saying you were planning to visit Mars. No one went there. And, if you said you were driving, you’d be asked who was riding shotgun.
All that has changed, so we decided on a 2:30 pm tour at the American Gangster Museum. The place itself is only two rooms: a back and front room where one enters, plus a speakeasy (with a bar that’s been there since 1922) and a cellar where one has to wear a plastic hardhat because the ceiling is so low.
The tour began in the back room where the tour leader, Jessica, gave us fascinating facts about Prohibition. For example, many believed “The whole darn world will go dry.” This feeling was so pervasive that the Yale Club bought a 30-year supply of booze.
From 1920 to 1933 you could not make, transfer or sell liquor BUT you could still drink it – if you could find and afford it. Before Prohibition a shot of whiskey was 15 cents, afterwards it was raised to 75 cents. You could also buy it from your doctor (like medical marijuana today).
Moving on, we all went into the front room that has photos of American gangsters. One wall is for famous Jewish ones, such as Arnold Rothstein who fixed the 1919 World Series and was the inspiration for Meyer Wolfsheim, the shady character that appears in Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
The other walls feature Italian and Irish gangsters such as Bugsy Siegal, Lucky Luciano, and Al Capone who, it is said, was behind the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929 where seven men were shot (as they lined up with their hands on the wall) by two gangsters who were dressed as cops.
The lineup of crooks in this room goes right up to Henry Hill, the mobster behind the Lufthansa heist at JFK in 1978 (which still stands as the biggest cash robbery on American soil). Hill, played by Ray Liotta, is one of the characters in the movie Goodfellas.
The gangsters’ weapon of choice
After getting the lowdown on all these crooks we headed to the speakeasy and the cellar. The tour lasts over an hour. When it ended, we went to St. Dymphnas, the restaurant I mentioned earlier, at 118 St. Marks Place, where we had a delicious dinner of fish and chips accompanied by two glasses of wine each. This was a perfect end to a fun day.
By Shaun Nelson-Henrick
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