NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Hollywood movies and television have always given audiences great entertainment when portraying the seedy, real-life world of organized crime, but we’re in an especially fertile period with hit shows such as The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire and movies such as The Great Gatsby.
When fictional gangsters are portrayed in Hollywood, gangster tourism also explodes. If you’re looking for some tours and sites that will teach you about the real underworld past in the U.S., try these:
Atlantic City, N.J.:Boardwalk Empire’s Nucky Thompson is actually loosely based on a real corrupt politician, “Nucky” Johnson, and Great American Trolley Tours will take you on a detailed tour of sites significant to “The World’s Favorite Playground” in the gangster era.
The narrated, 3.5 hour “Roaring 20s” tour of the spots that helped build Atlantic City during its heyday includes lunch at The Irish Pub, stops at the site of the former Ritz Carlton, speakeasies, Gardener’s Basin, Pacific Avenue and Boardwalk Hall, where the facade for Boardwalk Empire is located. Some of the famous buildings no longer stand or have something else in their place, but when the show returns this fall you’ll at least be able to visualize some of the spots mentioned. The cost is $25 per person and includes a tour booklet. Tour runs May 2 through Nov. 15.
Kansas City, Mo.: Kansas City has a long association with organized crime — all the way back to the era of Jesse James.
In the early 20th century, Tom Pendergast was Kansas City’s “Nucky,” and he ruled the city with an iron fist. The Gangster TV tour highlights the Pendergast era with film and photographs from the period. You’ll learn and see how the “Pendergast Machine” controlled the political system and the very fabric of life in Kansas City. The tour highlights infamous crimes such as the Union Station Massacre, in which gangster Frank Nash was shot and killed (there are still bullet holes in the building), shows the locations of speakeasies and gambling halls and explains how liquor flowed freely during prohibition. (The homes and workplaces of crime bosses and the sites of major turf wars are also featured on the $29 tour.)
Boardwalk Empire and The Great Gatsby feature main characters who served during World War I, and Kansas City is also home to the National World War I Museum and Liberty Memorial, near Union Station. According to Kansas City travel expert Diana Lambdin Meyer, a little-known gangster landmark is on Interstate 29 just east of the main Kansas City International Airport exit — a plaque commemorates a shootout with Bonnie and Clyde in 1933.
New York City: From Al Capone to the more recent famous crime bosses, organized crime seems almost synonymous with the Big Apple.
There are many gangster-themed tours in New York, but two of the most interesting include The Gangster Tour of New York, a private, chauffeur-driven tour that provides a taste of real gangster legend and fictional movie and television gangster lore. The tour includes seeing film locations for Goodfellas, The Godfather trilogy, American Gangster, Scarface, Once Upon A Time In America and Mean Streets. If you’re looking for more real gangster sites, you’ll enjoy a visit to a hotel that was once home to Frank Costello, Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel and Charles "Lucky" Luciano. The trip is $148 per person, with a two-person minimum.
If you want a walking tour, take a $35 spin through Little Italy that includes Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Umberto’s (the place where one of the city’s most infamous shootings occurred), the Mulberry Street Bar and the New York County Courthouse where Henry Hill, played by Ray Liotta in Goodfellas, testified against the mob.
Chicago: Young Al Capone, as portrayed in Boardwalk Empire, may call New York City his hometown, but everyone knows he ruled the Chicago Mafia in the 1920s and ‘30s. Untouchable Tours, the company that calls itself “Chicago’s Original Gangster Tour,” will take you on a $30, two-hour ride seeing sites connected to Capone, Bugsy Moran and John Dillinger, including the Biograph Theater, scene of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre; Dion O'Bannion's flower shop; and Holy Name Cathedral. If you want to add some ghost stories to your gangster tour, take the approximately three-hour Blood, Guns and Valentines Crime Tour for the same amount.
St. Paul, Minn.: When thinking of a city that harbored some of America’s most infamous criminals during Prohibition and through the 1930s, you may not think of this Midwestern city, but it was home to the likes of “Ma” Barker, Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, John Dillinger and his moll, Evelyn Freschette. Costumed professionals take groups on a two-hour, $24 Washaba Street Caves Tour includes caves that were transformed into a speakeasy known as Castle Royal during the 1920s, as well as hideouts, nightclubs, bars and other sites that regularly hosted some of America’s most wanted. There’s also a $6 tour (reservations required) of the Landmark Center, where many outlaws were detained, tried in Courtroom 317 or faced down J. Edgar Hoover's G-men on the front steps, or a free self-guided city tour.