HISTORY

The Vapors: A Southern Family, the New York Mob, and the Rise and Fall of Hot Springs, America’s Forgotten Capital of Vice

Farrar. Jul. 2020. 400p. ISBN 9781250086112. $28. HIST
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The city of Hot Springs, AR, once possessed naturally hot spring water feeding local bath houses that visitors believed held medicinal properties able to cure various ailments. The real magic of the springs, however, was in converting those beliefs of healing into profitable revenue. Journalist Hill tells the stories of a number of the city’s contemporaries, whose hopes, dreams, and paths crossed during the period of 1931–68 as they tried to will Hot Springs into becoming the Las Vegas of the Midwest. In the process, he describes a tourist destination forced to accept political corruption, crime, and mob interest concomitant with the only industry that could prosper there: gambling. The account centers on mobster Owney Madden and his protégé Dane Harris, as they build the Vapors into the city’s pleasure palace. Hill acknowledges that his exhaustively researched account is interpretive, yet his focus on individuals who engage in greed leaves little room for sympathy, as he portrays a vicious cycle of bribes, payoffs, and investigations.
VERDICT More than a simple crime story, this is a forgotten history of Arkansas in the mid-20th century. Recommended for readers interested in antiheroes, self-made men, and survivor stories.

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