9 Ways to Experience
– A Self-Guided Tour –
in Hot Springs, Arkansas
Explore Arkansas’ own sin city with a self-guided tour inspired by a newly-released book that digs deep into Hot Springs’ sordid past: The Vapors – A Southern Family, the New York Mob, and the Rise and Fall of Hot Springs, America’s Forgotten Capital of Vice by Hot Springs native David Hill.
Hot Springs has since cleaned up but the hospitable Southern spa town was once a getaway for notorious gangsters, crooked politicians, and deep-pocketed revelers. It boasted wide-open gambling (and other illicit activities) for nearly a century, rivaling Las Vegas in its corruption, excess, and class. But it came to a screeching halt in the 1960s – the result of local and federal pressure, and a smattering of bombings. Over the years, Hot Springs has reinvented itself as a city of the arts, a modern spa town, and a playground for outdoor enthusiasts, but its past lives on and The Vapors puts it right at your fingertips.
A juicy page-turner, The Vapors tells the story of Hot Springs’ gambling heyday, focusing on the lives of three main characters: Owney “The Killer” Madden, the notorious crime boss who “retired” to Hot Springs; Dane Harris, the local boy who rises to become “Boss Gambler,” and Hazel Hill, the author’s grandmother whose life-long struggles counter the glitz and glamour that surrounded her.
A Brooklyn-based journalist, author, and screenwriter, Hill returned to his hometown for a year to research his book. Along with his family, he rented a 100-year-old Victorian house in “Uptown,” the up-and-coming Park Avenue historic district. Coming from Brooklyn, they appreciated the walkability of the area and the local coffee shops. The place was also a hop, skip, and a jump from The Vapors nightclub which was central to his book.
“I had no idea what to expect when I moved to Hot Springs to work on the book,” Hill said. “What took me by surprise was how inspired I felt actually living there, walking around in the footsteps of the people I was writing about. Being in Hot Springs motivated me to write the book in a way that would be more atmospheric, that would hopefully convey a real sense of the place I was writing about. Southern colloquialisms, pentecostal preachers, buttered biscuits, syrupy prose. I likely wouldn’t have had as much of that flavor in the book if I hadn’t been living there while writing.”
The result is a historical account that reads like fiction, leaping off the pages and placing readers at the center of the action. Spend a weekend exploring the historic Hot Springs Hill writes about. Visit notorious landmarks and former casinos; find the home and the grave of Owney Madden. And if that’s too tame for you, grab drinks and revel in a former cat house or live it up like the high-rollers with an evening of (now-legal) gambling at Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort. Here are some ideas to get you started:
The Vapors, 315 Park Ave.
The lives of Hill’s three main characters converge at one of the country’s most lavish nightclubs. Opened in 1960, the Vapors rivaled anything found in Las Vegas or New York City, with crystal chandeliers and shag carpet throughout, a mahogany bar, and a retractable stage that hosted some of the era’s biggest names in entertainment: Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, Mickey Rooney, and Liberace. Of course, it also had a casino. Owned and operated by Dane Harris in partnership with Owney Madden, the Vapors employed Hill’s grandmother who worked as a “shill player,” someone hired by the house to keep the games going. The club was bombed in 1963 and you can practically smell the smoke as Hill details the watershed moment that shook the club and injured a dozen people. After the casino closed the following year, The Vapors continued to operate as a nightclub and later a disco, before eventually becoming a church. Now under new ownership, The Legendary Vapors reopened in 2020 as a performance venue that pays homage to its history. It is decorated with photos of past entertainers, and boasts the original bar where elected officials, movie stars, and mobsters all bellied up. The new Vapors reopened on Valentine’s Day 2020 with a Motown tribute show in its Las Vegas-style showroom.
The Arlington Resort Hotel & Spa, 239 Central Ave.
If these walls could talk, they’d have a juicy story all their own. Hot Springs’ most iconic hotel has hosted the rich, famous, and infamous throughout its nearly 150-year history. Established in 1875, the Arlington has been rebuilt twice. The current Mediterranean style building opened with a New Year’s Eve gala in 1924. Among its most infamous guests was Al Capone who would book an entire floor for his staff and bodyguards. His favorite room was number 443 where he could look out the window and see the goings on at the Southern Club. Several fly-on-the-wall scenes from Hill’s book take place at the Arlington: Following a change of heart, the postmaster’s daughter tracks down Owney Madden in the lobby bar to see if he still wants to take her out, and later, Charles “Lucky” Luciano is arrested at the hotel. The ensuing saga is jaw dropping and shows just how corrupt local law enforcement was at the time.
The Southern Club, 250 Central Ave.
Opened in 1894, the Southern Club was one of Hot Springs’ most prominent clubs during the era of illegal gambling, and a favorite spot of notorious gangster Al Capone. Its guests were whisked to the casino floor via the town’s first escalator. The club changed hands multiple times and unsuccessfully tried to reinvent itself as a supper club following the crackdown on gambling. It reopened in 1971, under new ownership as the Josephine Tussaud Wax Museum and continues to operate as such, periodically adding to its collection. The museum is home to about 100 wax replicas of prominent figures from history books and fairy tales. (Newer additions include Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump.) A waxy Al Capone serves as a reminder of the building’s past while the marble staircase, original wallpaper and light fixtures showcase its former grandeur. For more about the building’s history, be sure to ask about the secret tunnel. Hidden behind a fake wall in the men’s bathroom, it served as an escape route for gangsters running from the law.
The Ohio Club, 336 Central Ave.
Opened in 1905, the Ohio Club is Arkansas’ oldest bar, surviving Prohibition and several crackdowns on illegal gambling. Like many others in Hot Springs, the Ohio Club operated a backroom casino that attracted some of the town’s most notorious visitors, including Al Capone in the 1920s and “Lucky” Luciano in the 1930s. It was also a regular haunt of Hollis and Hazel Hill, who spent their first year of marriage enjoying the local nightlife. The club’s casino was the last to close, following a raid in 1969. Today, the Ohio Club is a popular bar, restaurant and live music venue. It features the original mahogany bar. Also paying homage to its past is a life-size statue of Al Capone, who sits just outside the entrance on a bench, casually smoking a cigar.
Maxine’s Live, 700 Central Ave.
A former brothel turned bar and live music venue, Maxine’s Live takes its name from the madam who ran the joint, Maxine Jones. It was one of the most successful brothels in town, catering to professionals, politicians, and gangsters. Today, the venue pays homage to its sultry past with burlesque shows and drag shows in addition to live music and karaoke. Maxine Jones makes an appearance in The Vapors as Hill details the connection between gambling and prostitution in the spa town. He describes her as “the top madam in Hot Springs,” and writes about how she paraded her ladies around town, propped up on the back seat of her pink Cadillac convertible. In the 1980s, Maxine released her own book, the autobiographical, Maxine “Call Me Madam”: The Life and Times of a Hot Springs Madam.
Soak up Hot Springs’ rich history with a dip in the thermal waters that put the town on the map so long ago. Hot Springs flourished as a health resort from about 1880-1950, peaking in 1946, when over one million baths were taken. In The Vapors, Hill explains how the water — believed to cure a range of ailments—attracted health seekers from across the country, resulting in a diverse community and a full-fledged hospitality industry with gambling houses, saloons, and brothels. Following the advent of modern medicine, the bathing industry went into decline; but Bathhouse Row, with its eight historic, architecturally beautiful bathhouses, continues to be a highlight of Hot Springs National Park. Today, two operate as bathhouses, the Buckstaff and the Quapaw, while the others have largely been repurposed as: a gift shop, a visitor’s center and museum, a boutique hotel, and a brewery which utilizes the thermal waters in its craft beers. Be sure to sample Madden’s No. 1, a prohibition-style Blonde Ale made with the same recipe that Owney Madden used during Prohibition.
Owney Madden’s House, 506 West Grand Ave.
It’s hard to imagine a notorious crime boss living in this pretty, white house with its green roof and white picket fence but this is where Owney “the Killer” Madden made a new life for himself. After being released from prison in 1933, Owney left New York City to “retire” in Hot Springs. He soon met and fell in love with the postmaster’s daughter, Agnes Demby. The couple were married here, at the former Demby home, in a secret ceremony in front of the fireplace in 1935, securing Owney a place in the local community. Among their more infamous guests was Frank Costello of the Luciano crime family, who according to Hill’s book, had a bowl of spaghetti dumped on his head by Agnes after he insulted her cooking. Later in life, the “gentleman gangster” spent his days tending to his garden and raising chickens and pigeons with his wife.
Owney Madden’s Grave
Greenwood Cemetery in Hot Springs is the final resting place of Owney Madden. A notorious New York City crime boss, he was the former owner of Harlem’s Cotton Club and partnered with local boss gambler Dane Harris to open the Vapors nightclub. Owney invested heavily in Hot Springs’ illegal casinos and ran the town’s wire service, which provided sports results to bookmakers. He also served as “a sort of goodwill ambassador to the underworld,” writes Hill in The Vapors. Owney died on April 22, 1965, at the age of 73, after being diagnosed with chronic emphysema. In his book, Hill describes Owney’s funeral: The rain, the eulogy, and the crowd of some 250 people who traveled from across the country to bid him farewell. He is buried next to his wife Agnes. Their gravestone is not far from the archway entrance on Greenwood Avenue. Keep right when the road splits, then veer left at the next split. You’ll find the gravestone on the right side of the road.
Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort, 2705 Central Ave.
Hot Springs’ gambling history is alive and well at Oaklawn, one of the premiere thoroughbred racetracks in the country and the only remaining gambling center in town. In addition to the horse track, Oaklawn boasts a state-of-the art casino with craps and blackjack tables, sports betting, and rows upon rows of slot machines. Established in 1904, Oaklawn operated off and on after the state banned horse betting in 1907. At the urging of then-Mayor Leo McLaughlin, Oaklawn reopened (in defiance of the law) in 1934. If it hadn’t been for that roll of the dice, Hazel Hill might have never stepped foot in Hot Springs. The author might never have been born. Hazel arrived in Hot Springs from Ohio with her dad, a horse trainer looking for work. At the end of the season, he followed the horses to Tijuana, leaving 16-year-old Hazel behind with her soon-to-be-divorced boyfriend and his family. Today, Oaklawn is perfectly legal and growing. In 2019, work began on a $100 million-plus expansion that includes a 200-room, seven-story hotel, an event center, and an expanded gaming area.
The Vapors – A Southern Family, the New York Mob, and the Rise and Fall of Hot Springs, America’s Forgotten Capital of Vice is available for purchase here. Grab a copy and start planning your getaway to Hot Springs. Exploring history has never been so fun!
“The Vapors” book tour was compiled by Leslie Fisher, a media professional with a passion for travel and adventure. She has covered Hot Springs and the surrounding areas for over a decade and enjoys being a tourist in her hometown.