“The Vapors: A Southern Family, the New York Mob, and the Rise and Fall of Hot Springs, America’s Forgotten Capital of Vice” by David Hill— The True story of America’s Original and Forgotten Capital of Vice

Hill, David. “The Vapors: A Southern Family, the New York Mob, and the Rise and Fall of Hot Springs, America’s Forgotten Capital of Vice”,  Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2020.

The True story of America’s Original and Forgotten Capital of Vice

Amos Lassen

There was a time when Hot Springs, Arkansas, a little Southern town was a premier destination for the American leisure class. It was home to healing waters, Art Deco splendor, and America’s original national park and horse racing, illegal casinos, countless backrooms and brothels and some of the country’s open criminals.

Gangsters and  gamblers came to Hot Springs where small-town hustlers and bigtime high-rollers could make a lot of money and hide from the law. “The Vapors” is the extraordinary story of three individuals and spans the golden decades of Hot Springs, from the 1930s through the 1960s. The lavish casino whose spectacular rise and fall brought them together before tearing them apart.

Arkansan David Hill shows us the trajectory of everything from organized crime to America’s fraught racial past, examining how a town that has been known for white gangsters  also supported a growing black middle class. We see that Hot Springs was also home to veterans hospitals and baseball’s spring training grounds. This is a look into a bygone era of American vice.Hill tells this story through a few ‘key’ players in Hot Springs history—Owney Madden, an ex-New York City mobster, Dane Harris, who Owney guides and who and becomes the boss gambler in Hot Springs, and Hazel Hill, the author’s grandmother, who represents what life was like for the everyday inhabitants of Hot Springs. Hill’s focus on his main characters shows how each was involved in or impacted by the lifestyle and the effect it had their lives. We get an idea of what it must have been like to live in this town through the descriptions of the lives of three individuals who worked in or ran the gambling industry in this Southern town. Hill does not cover over the uglier aspects of running a gambling town and we read of the crimes of murderous gangsters, corrupt politicians and the desperate struggle of local people who just wanted to live a decent live.

Hill brings together true crime and Southern history to chronicle the transformation of Hot Springs, Arkansas, from a spa town into a hotbed of horse racing, prostitution, and illegal gambling and he does it well.

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