Skip to main content
Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Vapors

A Southern Family, the New York Mob, and the Rise and Fall of Hot Springs, America's Forgotten Capital of Vice

David Hill

Farrar, Straus and Giroux


Part I




APRIL 4, 1935

Two hundred dollars and I’ll throw in the girl.

Hazel wasn’t sure where she was headed. She was barely sixteen years old, sitting shotgun in her daddy’s Plymouth. They were driving down Highway 70 on the outskirts of Hot Springs, and they weren’t heading back toward Ohio.

Clyde Welch turned off the highway onto a dirt road, the dust kicking up around the car like a brown storm cloud delivering them to their destination, a little farmhouse at the top of a big green hill. Clyde parked the car and looked toward the house. There on the wooden porch waiting for him was a tree trunk of a man, a long white beard draped on top of his dusty overalls. Clyde took a deep breath before he got out of the car, then headed up to meet the old man. Hazel knew this house and this old man. She watched from inside the Plymouth as her daddy shook hands and conversed with the father of Hollis Hill, the young man she had taken up with while she and Clyde were staying in Hot Springs. She was surprised that Clyde even knew about the boy. She couldn’t have known what to make of the two fathers having a conversation on the Hill family porch on Clyde and Hazel’s way out of town. Whatever it was about, it probably wasn’t good.

Hazel and Clyde Welch had come to Hot Springs, Arkansas, from Ashland, Ohio, in that Plymouth four weeks earlier. Clyde was a horse trainer, or tried his damnedest to be one at any rate. The Oaklawn Park racetrack first opened in Hot Springs in 1905, but had been shuttered off and on since the state government banned betting on horse racing in 1907. There had been many efforts over the years to change the law and bring horse racing back, but they had always been defeated.

It was ironic that the racetrack had remained dark, because for many of those years Hot Springs was “running wide open,” with casino gambling happening in full view of God and everybody. Horse racing was experiencing a surge in popularity across America, in part a consequence of the phenomenal racehorse Man o’ War winning twenty out of twenty-one races in the years after World War I. Across the country, states were lifting their prohibition on horse betting to meet the public demand for the sport. But Arkansas’s state legislature, led by conservative Baptists from other parts of the state, didn’t follow suit, and Oaklawn’s out-of-state owner, the St. Louis real estate tycoon Louis Cella, chose to keep the track closed rather than operate in defiance of the law like the casinos. He also owned racetracks in Memphis, New Orleans, Detroit, Buffalo, and several other cities. He was content to wait for the political winds in Arkansas to shift, however long that might take.

When the Great Depression that had set upon the rest of the country finally made its way to Hot Springs, the casino owners were the ones who took action to get the Oaklawn Park racetrack reopened. Horse racing, they reckoned, would be just what they needed to keep the tourists flowing to Hot Springs through the tough times. It was the casino operators, along with Mayor Leo McLaughlin, who reached out to Louis Cella in 1934, and promised him that if he opened back up they’d make sure he wouldn’t get in any trouble. They weren’t just blowing smoke. They had clearly figured out how to operate illegally without consequence. But in 1934 their good fortune was a fairly recent development. For many of the years that Oaklawn was closed down, the casinos had plenty of trouble with the law, consistently getting raided and shut down, moving their dice tables from one back room to the next. Louis Cella likely remembered those days. He also likely remembered how back in 1907 the original owners of Oaklawn had said to hell with the law and tried to open up and hold horse races anyway. They were greeted on opening day by an armed state militia.

This, however, was a new day in Hot Springs. In 1928, the voters had chosen as their mayor Leo McLaughlin, a gregarious man who paraded around town in a boater hat with a carnation on his lapel and rode to and from the courthouse in a horse-drawn viceroy carriage. He promised the citizens that if he was elected he’d let the gamblers open up shop, laws be damned, and he’d made good on that promise. He taxed the craps games and the brothels, paved the roads and strung up electric lights, and everyone was happy. McLaughlin handpicked the sheriff and the prosecutors, and he kept the governor at bay. Thanks to the new, more permissive administration, Cella was finally swayed. Oaklawn Park would be open for business for the 1934 season.

Like every other horseman in America, Clyde Welch caught wind that Oaklawn was opening back up at the start of 1934. It was welcome news. The Depression had set upon Clyde Welch, too. He had diabetes and he couldn’t afford to see a doctor. Terrible pain in his legs and feet made him limp. Welch didn’t have a stable of stakes horses. He was a blue-collar, lunch-pail horse trainer who stayed on the road working a circuit that took him from one end of America all the way to the other, and sometimes even down into Mexico. But lately he hadn’t had any horses to train at all. When he heard about Oaklawn, he knew there’d be a lot of excitement—Clyde had been to Hot Springs before and knew it was a wild place. Even the residents used to brag that it was “the sin city of the whole world.” He figured he could hustle work away from other trainers with an ace up his sleeve—he’d agree to work on commission, getting paid only when he won. Without a horse or even a promise of one to train, he packed his sixteen-year-old daughter into his Plymouth and headed down south from Ashland, Ohio, to see if he couldn’t convince an owner or two to take a chance on a Yankee trainer with only one good foot.

Despite the town’s reputation, not everyone in Hot Springs was a sinner. Even the gambling clubs and taverns would close up shop on Sundays. There were more than a few true believers in Hot Springs. One of them was an old-school Baptist minister named Luther Summers. He made his way in the world preaching in Tennessee tent revivals, dunking heads in the water and saving souls at a furious enough rate to get the attention of church leaders throughout the South. He preached fire and brimstone against the ills of society—chief among them liquor and gambling. His crusade eventually brought him to Hot Springs in the late 1920s, where he took over the pulpit at the Park Place Baptist Church—known in its Sunday live radio broadcasts across the South as the “little white church in the valley.”

Summers caught wind of the effort to reopen the racetrack, and he tried to organize a united front among the clergy to oppose it. He appealed to Governor Junius Marion Futrell to send in the militia. For his efforts, Summers received a letter in the mail with a crudely drawn skull and crossbones that read “Your church will burn and you will be among the missing.” He took the letter to the police. They told him if they were him, they’d leave town. So that’s what Summers did. He bid his congregation farewell and moved away from Hot Springs. The little white church in the valley found itself a new preacher, one who was more charitable toward the town’s tourist trade.

* * *

THE RACES BEGAN ON March 1, 1934, in open defiance of the law. The militia didn’t show up, but tens of thousands of visitors did, day after day. Clyde and Hazel were among them. Throughout the twenty-seven-day race meet, Clyde was able to scare up plenty of horses to train for free. Hazel did her part, too. She worked on the backstretch, scurrying around the track collecting zappers, the electric buzzers jockeys would use to cheat by shocking the horse to get an extra jolt of speed out of them. The jockeys unscrupulous enough to use them would toss them into the dirt on the backstretch at the end of the race. Hazel would pick them up and sell them back to the cheating jockeys. On April 4, the final day of the race meet, over fifteen thousand people attended the races—the largest crowd to witness a sporting event in Arkansas history. The most successful race meet in Hot Springs history wasn’t much of a success for Clyde Welch, however. Despite finding plenty of horses to work, Clyde didn’t make much happen with any of them. Hazel might have made a few bucks hustling zappers, but Clyde was flat busted. After the last day of racing, Hazel and Clyde packed up the Plymouth and headed out of town, making one quick stop on the way at the Hill family’s farmhouse.

Richard Hill, the hulk Clyde was gabbing with on the porch, had a sister who owned the café next door to the apartment Clyde and Hazel had rented for the month. Hazel killed a lot of time in that café during those four weeks and eventually met Hollis, Richard’s twenty-two-year-old son, who drove a milk truck and made deliveries to his aunt’s café every day. Hollis was handsome, charming, and confident. He had a thin mustache and, when he wasn’t working, wore a fedora with the brim pushed up in the back in the style of the time. He flirted with Hazel in the café, and before long he was taking her out to the dances at Fountain Lake, a sprawling array of swimming pools, water slides, and beer bars surrounding a small natural spring on the outskirts of town, where many locals, especially the younger folks, liked to hang out when the downtown clubs were filled with tourists.

The whole thing was scandalous as hell, since young Hollis was six years older than Hazel and married to boot. At the time this didn’t much matter to Hazel. She was just passing through. When the last race had been run she figured she’d be on her way to the next town. Yet here she was, sitting in her daddy’s car outside the Hill house instead of watching Hot Springs disappear in the rear window of the car.

Old Richard Hill shook Hazel’s daddy’s hand again and then reached into the pocket of his big overalls. He came out with a wad of cash and peeled off a few bills for Clyde. Richard slapped Clyde on the back and sent him limping back to the car.

Clyde still didn’t look directly at Hazel, just stared straight ahead. Hazel was just a girl, but she had a tough disposition, and boy, did she like to boss Clyde Welch around. He was her daddy, but he was a touch afraid of her. Clyde told Hazel he had sold Richard Hill the car for two hundred dollars. How, she asked him, were they supposed to get to the next town without a car?

“I’m goin’ to Tijuana,” he replied. “You’re stayin’ here.”

Clyde explained to Hazel that Hollis was getting a divorce. Richard Hill said that Hazel could live with the Hill family until the divorce was final; then Hollis and Hazel could live together.

Hazel was stunned. On the one hand, she loved Hot Springs. She loved the energy, the excitement, the bright lights. Ashland was far from the South, but it was as country as any place you’d find. Hot Springs felt like a metropolis. It may as well have been New York City, as far as Hazel was concerned. And it didn’t feel like there was any Depression on in Hot Springs. People may have felt it in their pockets, but they didn’t show it. People liked to dance and drink and have a good time, no matter what.

On the other hand, Hazel loved her daddy and her brothers and her mother, and she was only sixteen years old. She hadn’t finished school yet, not that she ever much cared for school. But was she ready to be on her own, to be grown, to be taken in by a man she just met? Hazel, a wife at age sixteen?

There was also something about the arrangement that looked untoward. Two hundred dollars and I’ll throw in the girl. But that wasn’t really how it was. Clyde had had a hard meet in Hot Springs. He wasn’t ready to go back to Ohio empty-handed. He had to follow the horses west in order to earn a living. And Hazel tagging along, whether she sold zappers to jockeys or not, was a drag on his ability to do that. A depression was on. If there was a man with a job who wanted to look after Hazel, then Hazel ought to go with that man. A man with a job was a much better deal for her than an old Yankee horse trainer with a bum foot.

Clyde told Hazel he’d be back for the next year’s race meet, and he’d look in on her when he got back. He got out of the car, took his satchel from the back, and set off limping down the big green hill, away from the Hill family farm, the cow and the chickens, the Plymouth, and his baby girl. Hazel turned to face old Richard Hill, still standing on the wooden porch of the little house. There was so much to figure out in that moment between opening the door of the car and everything else that would follow.


FEBRUARY 13, 1931

Best of all, gambling was, like alcohol, a “victimless crime.”

Four years before Hazel Hill arrived in Hot Springs, a long Duesenberg convertible pulled up in front of the Provincial Coffee House and Gift Mart. Even in a town accustomed to rich folks coming to visit, the car turned heads. The driver wasn’t someone known around Hot Springs. He commanded attention when he spoke in his English accent. His slender frame, bushy eyebrows, angular nose, and permanent scowl gave him the look of a cartoon villain. But Owney Madden was no cartoon. A villain, maybe, but he was most certainly real.

That day in 1931 was Owney’s first visit to Hot Springs. He was accompanying his friend Joe Gould, a former boxer from New Jersey who was traveling to Hot Springs on doctor’s orders to treat his arthritis with the hot baths. One of Owney’s New York City colleagues, the “Beer Baron of the Bronx,” Dutch Schultz, was a fan of the southern resort and had encouraged Owney to tag along with Gould. Schultz also suggested that Owney stop in at the Provincial Coffee House while he was in town. Dutch told Owney that the Brit in him might appreciate the tea and cake, but that the real attraction was the girl who worked the counter.

Visitors from around the country knew about pretty young Agnes Demby, the woman who lit up the dance floor at the Belvedere Club, the popular upscale casino and supper club on the outskirts of town. The attractive thirty-year-old was the postmaster’s daughter. She was single, though she had no shortage of potential suitors chasing after her, wealthy bachelors and visitors from faraway places. She wasn’t interested in settling down. She liked to go out on the town, eat at fine restaurants, dance, and socialize. Owney wandered the aisles of the shop, loading his arms with the most expensive merchandise from among the gifts and jewelry the store sold in the front. He strutted confidently up to the counter for Agnes to ring him up. The total came to over a thousand dollars. Agnes figured the well-dressed man was trying to make an impression on her, but he wasn’t the first rich man to court her in the store. When Owney invited her to dinner, Agnes turned him down.

The rest of the day Agnes fretted about turning down the man with the English accent in the big fancy convertible. Who was this intriguing visitor from New York? She asked around about him. It turned out Owney Madden wasn’t some run-of-the-mill hoodlum. He was a hoodlum of great import. Owney ran the Cotton Club, the most popular nightclub in New York City. The club’s nightly performances were broadcast over radio stations across America. Like a regular celebrity, Owney was followed wherever he went by magazine photographers. His comings and goings were written about by gossip columnists in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. He was best pals with the Hollywood star George Raft. He dated Mae West. He managed Primo Carnera, heavyweight champion of the world. Ed Sullivan once said of him, “When you wanted anything in New York, you saw Owney Madden.” Furthermore, Owney wasn’t merely a member of the criminal underworld—he was a proper boss. Together with a small fraternity of former Prohibition bootleggers, he helped maintain control of all the vice clubs, rackets, and political machines in New York City. And on his way to the top of the underworld he had killed six, maybe seven people. Maybe even more.

Owney was born in Leeds, England, but he immigrated to New York when he was ten years old. When he was eleven he approached the Gophers, the biggest street gang in Hell’s Kitchen, and let them know that he wanted to join. The leaders of the Gophers told the young Owney that if he could beat up a cop and steal his uniform, they’d let him in. They were only teasing the young boy, but Owney brought a police officer’s uniform back to them that very same day.

The Gophers were known for muggings, raiding freight train cars, hiring themselves out as goons to break strikes, and extortion. Owney found he was especially good at extortion. He offered businesses in Hell’s Kitchen “bomb insurance”: they paid him and he didn’t bomb them. Over the years Owney rose to the top of the Gophers by showing a unique propensity for killing, including rival Gophers when it suited him.

By the time Owney was twenty-one years old he had everything that came along with sitting atop the hierarchy of a powerful gang, both good and bad. He had money in his pockets, young women at his disposal, important people in his thrall, and enemies who wanted him dead. In 1912 Owney was shot eleven times in an ambush outside the Arbor Dance Hall, on Fifty-second Street, by members of the Hudson Dusters, a rival gang. Owney somehow survived the attack. When the cops asked him who did it, Owney wouldn’t talk. “Nothing doing,” he said. “The boys’ll get ’em.” Within a week of Owney’s release from the hospital, six of the Dusters were dead. Owney would eventually go to prison on a ten-to-twenty-year sentence for the murder of a fellow Gopher who challenged his leadership of the gang. He served nine years in Sing Sing before he was paroled.

When Owney got out of prison, the Gophers had broken up, and most of his former associates had gone into bootlegging during Prohibition. He quickly organized a gang to rob and hijack bootleggers in Hell’s Kitchen. After Owney stole a shipment from Big Bill Dwyer, one of the top bootleggers in Manhattan, Dwyer opted to put Owney on the payroll rather than go to war. Together the two men, along with Italian gangster Frank Costello, built an operation that ruled “Rum Row,” the supply line that stretched from the waterways of the West Indies to New York. Dwyer, Owney, and Costello operated their own private armada of ships that carried rum up the East Coast to New York. The contraband earned them huge returns on their investment, and Owney used the money to build his own brewery and brew his own brand of illicit beer, “Madden’s Number 1,” which was proudly served at every West Side speakeasy.

It was a time in America, and particularly in New York, when the right combination of toughness and smarts separated the winners from the losers. The city government was corrupt, the people’s appetite for booze and vice was insatiable, and an influx of immigrants had created enclaves that operated by their own sets of rules. Owney possessed this special combination—he was more than just tough, more than just a killer. In the early days, before Owney was well known by the New York press, he shied away from the limelight. He didn’t spend money garishly and was businesslike in all of his affairs. He made everyone he worked with sign contracts, even other gangsters. He chose businesses to invest in that offered him the greatest return.

Copyright © 2020 by David Hill