Ante up in Arkansas

“The Vapors” by David Hill. Contributed by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
“The Vapors” by David Hill. Contributed by Farrar, Straus and Giroux

‘The Vapors’ traces Hot Springs’ gambling history, but family drama is the payoff

If history had turned out a little differently, the popular expression might be, “What happens in Hot Springs, stays in Hot Springs.”

It is not widely known that, for part of the 20th century, the Arkansas city was arguably the gambling capital of the United States, with casinos that briefly out-earned the pleasure palaces of Las Vegas.

"On a per capita basis, Hot Springs was perhaps the most sinful little city in the world," writes author David Hill in his nonfiction book "The Vapors." With the unwieldy subtitle, "A Southern Family, the New York Mob and the Rise and Fall of Hot Springs, America's Forgotten Capital of Vice," the book delivers scrupulous research of the city's high-stakes reversals of fortune while also digging into Hill's own roots.

Hot Springs originated as a resort destination thanks to the thermal pools that gave the community its name. Attracting tourists to “bathhouse row” gradually led Hot Springs to cultivate more attractions such as horse racing and other forms of illicit gaming by the early 20th century. Even though gambling was banned by federal law at the time, the state of Arkansas tolerated it, treating it as a local option, thanks to an elaborate system of bribery and other forms of corruption.

With its mix of seedy betting parlors and more glamorous casinos, Hot Springs becomes a popular spot for some of America’s most notorious underworld figures. “The Vapors” enjoys name-dropping the likes of Al Capone, Meyer Lansky, Frank Costello and even Jack Ruby. When “Lucky” Luciano gets arrested for failing to lay low in the town, headlines scream, “New York Vice Leader Wrested from Spa by Police.”

The Vapors draws on seemingly countless characters including bookies, card sharps, jazz musicians, burlesque performers and crooked sheriffs, but Hill's narrative primarily alternates between the perspectives of three individuals: Owney Madden, Dane Harris and Hazel Hill. Owney "The Killer" Madden was an English-born Prohibition-era mobster known for owning Harlem's legendary Cotton Club and hobnobbing with the likes of Duke Ellington. He flees New York police attention and settles down in Hot Springs to become an innovative figure in its various gambling enterprises.

Madden provides the reader’s entry point to a complicated network of political machines, crime syndicates, law enforcement agencies and other institutions that shape gambling’s viability. Throughout the book, events like the civil rights movement or Fidel Castro seizing control of Cuba have ripple effects that impact Hot Springs’ gambling industry.

Dane Harris is Madden’s protégé, a Hot Springs native who grows up in the trade of post Prohibition-era “package” stores. Part of a group of World War II veterans who challenge Hot Springs’ entrenched power structure, Harris becomes an ambitious figure in the Hot Springs’ gambling operations, eager to legitimize and modernize them.

The book has fun revealing tricks of the trade, such as the way shady casinos cheat their customers with loaded dice and magnets under craps tables. Federal lawmakers trying to prevent gambling seem to play a constant game of Whack-A-Mole with Meaney, Harris and their cohorts. When laws prohibit the transport of slot machines across state lines, the gamblers smuggle their component parts. When the police crack down on that, Harris arranges to build slot machines in Arkansas. And so on. Harris’ crowning achievement is The Vapors, a high-end casino and entertainment venue intended to outclass its local and national rivals when it opens in 1960.

Hazel Hill, the third protagonist and the author’s grandmother, has a strikingly different relationship to Hot Springs. The book introduces her as a spirited teenager drawn to the lights and energy of the city’s nightlife. Hazel becomes a teen bride to an abusive alcoholic who struggles to keep a job while she raises their three sons. Later, Hazel takes up with a new boyfriend and develops her own substance abuse problems with alcohol and pills, all but abandoning her sons.

Hazel occasionally works at The Vapors and vies for a lucrative job as a blackjack dealer, offering a view from the bottom of the casino pecking order. It’s notable, though, that the reader is far more invested in the Hill family’s struggles with poverty than the other chapters’ accounts of multi-million-dollar casino investments and bribery schemes. When Hazel’s youngest son Jimmy and his girlfriend spend a summer rehabilitating an injured dog, it’s more engrossing than the rash of bombings that befall Hot Springs in the 1960s. It’s like the difference between reading textbooks at a library and hearing old stories after dinner at a family reunion.

The book’s epilogue leaves some questions unanswered about certain people and events, but you can give “The Vapors” the benefit of the doubt that the historical record lacked neat resolutions. Even as the book tracks nearly a century of corruption in Hot Springs, it also cultivates nostalgia for the kind of old-fashioned, illicit pleasures the city promised its visitors. “The Vapors” makes Hot Springs in its heyday sound like an enticing place to visit, even if you wouldn’t want to live there.


Explore ‘The Vapors’

By David Hill

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

400 pages, $28

Author Event

David Hill. In conversation with GPB's Virginia Prescott. 7 p.m. July 22. Free. A Zoom event presented by the Atlanta History Center. Password available at atlantahistorycenter.com.