The gangsters that haunted New York City’s Lower East Side in the 19th and early 20th centuries may have never fathomed the day when a museum would tell of their legends and myths. But Lorcan Otway, co-founder and curator of the new Museum of the American Gangster, is up for the task.
In 1964, Otway’s father purchased a property at 80 St. Mark’s Place from gangster and former owner Walter Scheib. During its heyday, Scheib had run a speakeasy in the basement, which was rumored to have the longest bar in the city. After the purchase, Otway’s father came upon two locked safes in the rooms downstairs, where he assumed much of the dirty dealings had taken place in the 1920s. He notified Scheib of the safes, then both men unlocked them, peeled back some folds of yellowed newspaper pages and discovered $2 million in gold currency inside.
Various gangster paraphernalia used to secure such funds were unearthed during the building’s renovations, and are displayed throughout the museum. Though not all of it will be behind glass: One project manager had to turn her discovery into the police when she believed she found human bones in the basement. The museum’s exhibits will portray the history of alcohol trafficking in the U.S. as it centers on the speakeasy, which was infamous in its day. Frank Sinatra is said to have sang and waited tables there before becoming a star.
Visit the exhibit for a $10 suggested fee, and for an additional price, take any of the walking tours led by guides who have consulted authors, families, and estates to relay family stories, photographs and other first-hand information about the time period. The daily $15 Jewish Mob walking tour leads guests into the Lower East Side and into the lives of gangsters Max “Kid Twist” Zwerbach, Monk Eastman, and Benjamin “Dopey” Fein, among others. A weekly $25 tour on Saturdays takes you to the actual homes and haunts of Giuseppe “The Boss” Masseria, Paul Kelly, and “Lucky” Luciano as it explains the birth of organized crime. The museum currently hosts limited previews of the building as it plans for a complete opening later this spring.
Photo: Actors reenact scenes for museum visitors. By Alexandra Cheney/The Wall Street Journal