The Rise and Fall of a Southern Hotbed of Vice

The resort town’s unofficial motto was “We Bathe the World.” But to the residents of Hot Springs, it had bragging rights as the wildest “sin city” on the planet. And to the New York mobster who set up shop there in the 1930s, its horse race betting, illegal casinos, nightclubs and brothels were the prototype for the biggest and most audacious gambling resort of them all – Vegas.

In The Vapors, David Hill tells the all-but-forgotten story of the Arkansas town that punched far above its weight as one of America’s early playgrounds for the rich and famous – and for millions of others who wanted to hobnob with the one percent. Prizefighter Jack Dempsey set up shop so he could dip into the geothermal baths between training bouts. Babe Ruth soaked his muscles there in preparation for a new season of belting home runs. The flamboyant Liberace was just one of the top-flight acts booked to play its venues. Al Capone took a break from running Chicago’s underworld and stopped by, hoping the soothing waters would treat his syphilis.

At its height in the early 1960s a town with a population of under 30,000 welcomed five million visitors eager to gamble, to be entertained, and to take a walk on the wild side. “On a per capita basis,” Hill asserts, without fear of contradiction, “Hot Springs was perhaps the most sinful little city in the world.”

Hill, a New York writer who grew up in Hot Springs, draws on his insider’s knowledge of the community and deep research into the lives and experiences of three characters to bring this story to life. An obvious choice was gangster Owney Madden, who ran nightclubs, including the famous Cotton Club, when he was not eliminating rivals and doing prison time for murder (his less-than-subtle nickname was “The Killer”). He turned up in 1934 in search of a fresh start, married the daughter of the local postmaster, renounced violence and established the mob’s toe-hold in this gambling El Dorado. Despite his past – and perhaps as a product of his fearsome reputation – Hot Springs was spared the bloodshed that roiled many other hotbeds of vice.

Then there’s Madden’s protégé Dane Harris, a shrewd local boy who emerged as leader of the resort’s gambling industry. “The most powerful man in Hot Springs,” as Hill calls him, brokered deals to keep rival casino owners in line and local politicians and law enforcement (or rather, non-enforcement) onside. He established The Vapors, the casino that gave Hill his title and became the resort’s showcase venue, where Broadway-bound shows premiered out front and gamblers tried their luck in the backrooms. A visiting reporter paid it the ultimate accolade in 1962, describing The Vapors as “a miniature Las Vegas Strip.”

The third strand is the story of Hazel Hill, a high-school dropout who was married off to a man in Hot Springs at age 16 and made a living working in casinos as a card dealer and “shill,” placing bets with the house’s money to whip up enthusiasm among the real gamblers. She’s Hill’s grandmother, and her presence cements his personal link to the seedy history of Hot Springs (the book includes a family snapshot of them together when the author was a child). She also serves as a proxy for countless others who toiled at low-paying jobs to keep the suckers happy and the resort bigwigs flush with cash. Her story, noted a New York Times reviewer, provides “the counterweight to all the good-timey glitz, the darkness behind the neon signs.”          

Hill deftly weaves these stories into the fabric of the resort’s rise from Depression-era despair to its high-rolling zenith and on to its ultimate decline in the sixties. He chronicles Hot Springs’ Faustian dependence on gambling and scoured FBI and court records to expose the thick layers of official corruption – crooked politicians, police, judges – that allowed illegal gaming to thrive. Themes of racial prejudice and religious intolerance surface as he explores the corrosive impact of the vice industry on its host community. 

With his mastery of a mountain of research, his eye for detail and his ability to recreate scenes and insert readers into the lives of his characters, it’s remarkable that this is Hill’s first book. It will be the first of many. 

The saying, “What happens in Hot Springs, stays in Hot Springs” never caught on. And thanks to Hill, we now know what did happen there during a Southern resort town’s tawdry, free-wheeling, vice-filled heyday.

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
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Published July 7, 2020