: New: Book Report: The Vapors

Once upon a time in the USA, gambling was illegal across the land. A few cities and towns went ahead and had illegal gambling. Those cities stopped one by one until just one was left: Hot Springs, Arkansas. Casinos ran ads in nearby cities' newspapers, encouraging tourists to visit Arkansas. Though the casinos advertised openly, they were still illegal. The city, county, and state governments were all in on the deal, turning blind eyes. This book The Vapors talks about Hot Springs' time as America's last illegal gambling city. We see Hot Springs from the perspective of bosses and citizens.

For the bosses, Hot Springs' situation was tricky but lucrative. E.g. when a new governor got elected, there was the delicate matter of establishing new bribery channels. Or the time when two local judges vied to become the city's boss gambler—so if you got hauled before the court, you weren't worried about whether your judge was corrupt, but rather which faction's corrupt judge would shake you down. There was grumbling from the traditional mobsters when Dane Harris became an important gambler by palling around with a boss on the golf course instead of working his way up via the traditional activities of extortion and murder. It's grim but often funny.

The bosses told themselves they were making life better for Hot Springs' citizens (cosmopolitan entertainment surrounded by Arkansas' natural wonders!), but the book tells the story of a casino shill named Hazel; Hazel's story does not brim with joy. Lots of money flowed through Hot Spring to the bosses, but not so much to the citizens. Those citizens were close to some sophisticated entertainment, but maybe couldn't afford to actually view that entertainment. Hazel, seeking excitement, becomes addicted to pills.

This book isn't all tragedy. There are fun details. Hot Springs started out as a spa town where people would bathe in the, uhm, healing waters of the eponymous hot springs. Among the services offered: post-bath mercury rubbings. For health! Copious election fraud kept gambling-friendly politicians in power. At one point, the fraud is revealed when polling place records indicated that the day's voters had coincidentally shown up in alphabetical order. Also, as you'd expect in a gambling city, there was betting on elections. Not so funny but plenty interesting: racist FBI agents raided black-owned businesses that had slot machines, but mysteriously let illegal casinos operate freely.

Puzzlehunt enthusiasts should be aware that this book's history stops before the epic Midnight Madness games of Hot Springs—but there's plenty here to hold the attention. It's a fun read; check it out.

Tags: book choice entertainment industry

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