We’re starting a brand new, two-part series, The World Is Your Crime Scene. This was inspired by our previous series on film locations. But details locations of an entirely different sort.
I’ve long been a firm believer that you can learn more about history by visiting where it took place. It comes much more alive when you can see where famous events really took place. This can be especially true of crime scenes.
JFK Assassination (Dallas)
My wife and I visited Dallas this past January, just before the plague, and top of our list was the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza. We’ve seen dozens of films and documentaries about the JFK assassination, but nothing prepares you for seeing the actual location and looking out the windows of the Book Depository. The thing that got me was how close the car was to safety. It was the end of the parade route, and only seconds away from an overpass that would have provided cover. The museum also walks you through JFK’s presidency, the events of that terrible day, and the investigation afterward. A really emotional and moving experience.
Ford’s Theater (Washington, DC)
Speaking of emotional and moving, that perfectly describes Ford’s Theater. This is probably the first crime scene I ever visited, and yet another example of where seeing it in person is so different than what you get from history books. First of all, the doorway to the box is accessed from the balcony. Mere feet away from the audience. It’s also very tiny. And the jump to the stage is a good distance. It’s no wonder Booth injured himself. Downstairs is a museum, like JFK, dedicated to Lincoln’s presidency and the events of that terrible day. Across the street you can visit the room where he died. And see his blood-stained pillow. Just unbelievable.
Manhattan Murder Well (New York City)
If you’ve seen (or just listened to the soundtrack of) Hamilton, you’ve heard of the first murder trial in America. In 1799, Levi Weeks was tried for the murder of Gulielma Sands, who was strangled and dumped in a well. Weeks was defended by founding fathers Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr (Sir), who won an acquittal. The well used to be in the ancient basement of a bistro and hard to visit. These days it’s in the easily accessible, renovated ground floor of a COS clothing store at 129 Spring Street in Soho.
Murder Alley (New York City)
You would think a place in NYC called “Murder Alley” would have something to do with the Mob. And you’d be half right. While it’s close to Little Italy, it’s actually in Chinatown, and always has been. Doyers Street runs between Pell and Chatham Square/Bowery. It’s a narrow, winding road that’s also known as the “Bloody Angle.” In the early 1900s, it was the battle ground of rival Tongs who operated gambling houses, opium dens, and brothels. From 1904 up through 1913, the On Leon Tong and the Hip Sing Tong regularly murdered each other with pistols and hatchets. Hence, it is long rumored, the term “hatchet man.”
John’s of 12th Street (New York City)
This Lower East Side restaurant is one of my favorites. First of all, its been serving great Italian dishes since John Pucciatti opened the doors in 1908. Second, the decor (much of it from Italy) hasn’t changed much since. Which is why both The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire filmed there. Every time I go, I have to check for a gun behind the toilet. Third, they used to make their own hooch during Prohibition. Which is why they have a giant candle in the back that’s been burning since the repeal in 1933. And finally, on August 11, 1922, Mafia hitman Umberto Valenti ate his last meal there. On the orders of Joe “The Boss” Masseria. Valenti tried to run and was gunned down on the corner of 12th and 2nd Avenue. Legend has it that the trigger men were Vito Genovese and Lucky Luciano. Leave the gun, take the cannoli.
The Park Central Hotel (New York City)
This notorious location is famous for not one, but TWO major Mafia hits. First, on November 4th, 1928, Arnold Rothstein (famous for fixing the 1919 World Series) arrived there for a meeting regarding an unpaid gambling debt and was later found by a service door with a slug in his gut. He died two days afterwards, refusing to name who’d pulled the trigger. History repeated itself 29 years later. On October 25, 1957, retired Mob executioner Albert Anastasia and his godson went into the barbershop for a shave and a haircut (two bits!). As soon as they settled into the chairs and had their faces covered with towels, two gunmen stormed in, pushed the barber aside, and filled Anastasia with five slugs. His godson was unharmed. The Park Central is still there. But the barbershop, like everything else in NYC, is now a Starbucks.
The Biograph Theater (Chicago)
Chicago is second only to NYC for its rich crime history. This is where Capone ran his kingdom and John Dillinger met his end. After a long manhunt (and several daring escapes) from the newly formed FBI, prostitute and madame Ana Cumpănaș (aka The Woman in Red, who was actually wearing orange) tipped off the Feds to keep from being deported (it didn’t work). On the night of July 22, 1934, agents staked out the theater and gunned down Dillinger as he was leaving. Thankfully, the Biograph still stands (and operates as a live theater) and the outside looks much the same as it did decades ago. With just a little set dressing, it was easily transformed to its former 1930s glory for Public Enemies (2009) with Johnny Depp and Christian Bale.
Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre Garage (Chicago)
Probably the most famous event in Mob history, the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre took place on the morning of February 14, 1929. This was one of the last salvos in the Mob war between North Side Irishman Bugs Moran and South Side Italian Al Capone. Moran and several of his men were meeting at a garage/warehouse at 2122 North Clark Street. Moran was late and turned back when he saw a police car pull up. Two gunman disguised as cops ordered everyone against the wall. Two more gunmen with Tommy guns rushed in and murdered them all. With extreme malice. The garage was torn down in 1967. Bricks from the wall are now at the Mob Museum in Las Vegas. The site itself is oddly peaceful. It’s just a grassy lot outside of a condo for seniors. But at least it’s not a Starbucks.
Next time we’ll offer Part 2, which takes us from New England to the South, and finally to Hollywood.