Museum of the American Gangster

Art & Culture | History

Housed in an Historic Speakeasy this Tiny Museum is a Great Stop for any History Buff

Museum of American Gangster Entrance Sign East Village

About Museum of the American Gangster

 & why it made the Carpe City list

  • During Prohibition, 80 St. Mark’s Place was an elaborate speakeasy run by bootlegger Frank Hoffman and fronted by restaurateur Walter Scheib.
  • To transport the illegal booze, Hoffman used secret tunnels in the basement that went all the way to the East River.
  • While the speakeasy was known to get rowdy, with big crowds, infamous mobsters, and a raucous swing-band, the bar, which opened in 1922, was never shut down.
  • The sole entrance to the speakeasy was through Scheib’s butcher shop on 1st Avenue. Patrons, dressed in their evening finest, would enter the shop, walk through its meat locker, out to the back alleyway and then to a basement door where a password was required for entrance.
  • The museum is open from 1pm-6pm, with scheduled tours at 1 pm, 2:30 pm, and 4 pm, which we highly recommended over just browsing on your own.
  • The museum is filled with artifacts like moonshine stills, bullets from the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, and even Henry Hill’s (of Goodfellas fame – more on him below!) bloodied icepick murder weapon.
  • After the tour, be sure to go downstairs and check out the William Barnacle Tavern.  Get a drink at the bar where Al Capone once sat.
  • In keeping with the speakeasy theme of the building, William Barnacle Tavern specializes in Absinthe, which was banned in the US until 2007.
  • Also downstairs is Theatre 80 St. Mark’s Place, an off-broadway venue where famous musicians like Frank Sinatra, Lord Buckey, and other jazz greats once performed.
  • The theater is also famous for premiering the musical comedy You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown based on the characters from Charles Schultz’s Peanuts.
Walter Scheib
Walter Scheib

Carpe City Trivia

Was there a Secret Cash Stash in the Basement?

Rumor had it that Frank Hoffman had two safes filled with his bootlegging earnings — a total of $12 million. In 1933 Hoffman mysteriously disappeared and his second-in-command, Walter Scheib, took over the bar. Shortly after, Prohibition was repealed and Scheib’s Place became one of the first legal bars in the city. Scheib did not open the safes out of loyalty (but mostly fear) of Hoffman if he were to return. Inevitably, in 1964, Scheib sold the bar to actor Howard Otway, who discovered the safes. Scheib laid claim to the belongings in the safe but made Otway open them. One was empty, but the other held $2 million worth of gold certificates as well as the pungent remains of a 40-year-old clam linguini dinner. Another surprise Hoffman left was the myriad of explosives he lined the basement with in preparation for an escape from a police raid.

Museum of American Gangster Safe
Basement Safe in The Museum of the American Gangster

Witness Protection?? Puhuhleease!

Henry Hill, that guy we mentioned who donated some artifacts to the museum, was played by Ray Liotta in the movie Goodfellas. You may be wondering, “How did he contact the museum? Wasn’t he in the Witness Protection Program?” Well, yes, kind of, maybe. Hill was quite an interesting man. Henry Hill hated his boring, conventional life in the Witness Protection Program, so naturally, he hosted a neighborhood BBQ where he got drunk and high on numerous drugs and announced his real identity. This proclamation happened a couple more times, and eventually, Hill was expelled from the Witnessed Protection Program. (Yes, Hill was awarded the “Most Talkative” superlative in his high school yearbook.) Hill returned to his beloved New York City and, in 2010, hosted a screening of Goodfellason its 20th anniversary at the Museum of the American Gangster. He also donated a bloody icepick, his suit from the Lufthansa Heist, and a painting of the New York City skyline. While it is speculated whether the stories behind the icepick and suit are actually true, it’s never good to let the facts get in the way of a good story!

By: Kelly McDermott

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