Fortunately, we don’t read much about mobsters in Arkansas these days. There are exceptions, of course, such as the occasional traffic stop on an interstate highway which yields an inordinate amount of illicit drugs — with rumors abounding that the shipment was destined for an out-of-state criminal syndicate.
Back in the late 1950s when Arkansas Sen. John L. McClellan and his chief counsel, a young Massachusetts lawyer by the name of Robert F. Kennedy, investigated organized crime via a series of high-profile congressional hearings in Washington, speculation suggested the Arkansas lawmaker had not endeared himself with the mob. The March 2, 1957, disappearance of Maud Crawford, an attorney with McClellan’s former law office in Camden, led some to conclude certain unsavory characters had taken extreme measures to get the senator’s attention. That bizarre and mysterious case has yet to be solved.
A full generation earlier mobsters regularly arrived on the Arkansas scene, most making a beeline for Hot Springs. In 1926, mayoral candidate Leo McLaughlin’s platform included a promise to make Hot Springs an open town. When McLaughlin won, he kept his word and the quaint resort city operated on an anything-goes basis — as long as everybody remained reasonably well-behaved.
Meyer Lansky, Frank Costello, Bugsy Siegel and Al Capone were among the city’s notorious visitors. In fact, Capone’s suite on the fourth floor of The Arlington Hotel is marked with a plaque and is a favorite with guests. While many accounts claim the community provided a safe haven for those operating on the fringes of society, Capone might have felt otherwise. On March 14, 1927, another Chicago mobster by the name of Vincent “The Schemer” Drucci tried to kill Capone in Hot Springs as he left the Belvedere Country Club, but his shotgun blast missed its mark. When Drucci’s life came to a tragic end a few weeks later, Capone was seen smirking at the graveside service.
But the real boss in Hot Springs from the mid-1930s until his death in 1965 was Owen (“Owney”) Madden. He was a prominent underworld figure in New York City who reportedly killed at least five members of a rival gang before reaching his 19th birthday. During his reign in New York, he owned the famous Cotton Club in Harlem, handled such boxers as Rocky Marciano and Max Baer, and underwrote the film careers of both George Raft and Mae West. Following an assassination attempt, doctors removed six slugs from Madden’s bullet-riddled body but left five others in place. Seven days later, six of the 11 rivals who’d attempted to murder him were dead.
In 1932 Madden got caught up in a politically motivated crackdown on crime ordered by New York Gov. Franklin Roosevelt who was pulling out all the stops in his campaign for the Democratic Party’s presidential bid. As a result, Madden wound up serving another stint at the infamous Sing-Sing prison (his first incarceration followed a manslaughter conviction in 1915) on an alleged parole violation charge. After his release, Madden — growing tired of constant police pressure and apparently in cahoots with the National Crime Syndicate — moved to Hot Springs and soon married Agnes Demby, the daughter of the local postmaster (whom he’d met several years earlier during a visit to the popular resort city).
On the surface, Madden was a model citizen in “Bubbles” — the nickname bestowed upon the city by visiting underworld dignitaries. He supported a variety of worthy causes, with special devotion to Boys Club. On one occasion Madden bought the complete sporting goods inventory of the local Stearns Hardware store and gave the stockpile of baseballs, gloves, bats, boxing gloves and other gear to the club.
But there was another side to Madden. He acquired an interest in the Southern Club on Central Avenue, a longtime favorite gambling and entertainment haven for locals and tourists alike, along with silent positions in other gaming venues to include the Vapors. He regularly entertained his high-powered gangster friends when they came into town, often taking them to Lake Hamilton for rides in his sleek Chris Craft speedboat, a gift from George Raft. Working with Carlos Marcello, the famed New Orleans mobster, Madden established a network of telephone wires which connected every bookie joint in Hot Springs.
That relationship with Marcello caught the attention of the U.S. Department of Justice. In 1961, shortly after his brother’s inauguration as president, Attorney General Robert Kennedy took aim at Hot Springs, in particular one Owen Vincent Madden. “How can he [Kennedy] do this?” Madden asked his attorney. “I was in partnership with his father back in the bootlegging days.” After getting his subpoena, Madden flew to Washington where he was questioned by Sen. McClellan, his good friend and also the recipient of many campaign contributions from Madden and his associates. Madden stated his occupation as retired, and then took the Fifth Amendment for most of the remaining questions. He flew back to Little Rock on the same plane with McClellan — and that was that.
Beginning in 1933, J. Edgar Hoover tried to get his hands on Madden and ordered his agents to collect everything they could on the man. Constantly berating his staff, Hoover fired off directive after directive, demanding a photograph of Madden for his treasured “Hoodlum Album.” Decades went by, and finally, on May 12, 1964 — after countless botched attempts using concealed cameras, telephoto lenses, and blatantly obvious stakeouts — the FBI got a satisfactory picture, the only official shot of Madden since his prison days.
In the spring of 1965, Madden died of chronic emphysema at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Hot Springs. His funeral attracted hundreds of friends, many of whom flew in from Chicago, New York, New Orleans and Los Angeles. He is buried in Greenwood Cemetery beside his beloved Agnes who died in 1991.
There’s no question that Madden wasn’t the typical American mobster. For one thing, he passed away in his sleep at the ripe old age of 73.
Joe David Rice, former tourism director of Arkansas Parks and Tourism, has written Arkansas Backstories, a delightful book of short stories from A through Z that introduces readers to the state’s lesser-known aspects. Rice’s goal is to help readers acknowledge that Arkansas is a unique and fascinating combination of land and people – one to be proud of and one certainly worth sharing.
Each month, AY will share one of the 165 distinctive essays. We hope these stories will give you a new appreciation for this geographically compact but delightfully complex place we call home. These Arkansas Backstories columns appear courtesy of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies at the Central Arkansas Library System. The essays have been collected and published by Butler Center Books in a two-volume set, both of which are now available to purchase at Amazon and the University of Arkansas Press.