Making History at the Mob Museum

Appalachian State University history majors find dream jobs in Vegas discover a fellow Mountaineer, just a cubicle away

The Mob Museum in Las Vegas is a repository of the extraordinary and unexpected.

The actual wall that caught the bullets from the 1929 St. Valentine’s Day massacre is there.

So is the hazmat suit Bryan Cranston wore in his role as Walter White in the hit AMC series “Breaking Bad.”

A larger-than-life Dick Tracy cutout, complete with yellow hat and drawn Colt .45, stands guard over one of the exhibits, a pixelated reminder that crime does not pay.

But the capper, the big surprise?

Against all odds, even in a betting town, two public history majors from Appalachian State University – 2,500 miles to the east – discovered each other working just two cubicles apart.

Carolyn Fisher ’07 is the curator of collections for the museum. On her first day at work a colleague introduced her to the museum’s education manager, pointing out that like Fisher, she majored in public history. When Fisher asked where she had studied, Diana Rafferty ’11 replied, “Oh, Appalachian State. It’s in a little town in the North Carolina mountains. You probably never heard of it.”

“How does that happen?,” Fisher asked, practically squealing. “There are millions of museums and we are miles and miles away from Boone.” The Boone connection was an immediate bond between Fisher and Rafferty. Now it’s part of their ritual to share coffee on Friday afternoons and reminisce about Appalachian and the Boone community. In a series of interviews about their careers and work at the Mob Museum, they spoke repeatedly about their allegiance to the university, appreciation for the professors who introduced them to public history and their mutual love for the Boone community.

Meet the collection curator and education manager of this Las Vegas treasure and get up close and personal with the icons of gangster history.

The Appalachian impact

Fisher grew up all over the world, she said. “We moved a lot. Florida, Texas, overseas in Singapore.” When family members from Charlotte suggested she tour the university, she thought, “‘Why not?’ I fell in love with everything about the town. I decided Boone would be my home, where I’d tell people I was from.”

For Rafferty, who also moved a great deal, Boone was the first place she was able to choose to live. “Appalachian helped me learn about myself,” she said. “I had access to performances – ballet, opera, things in culture I never had before. My history classes were phenomenal. Dr. Joe Gonzalez taught me a class on the civil rights movement. I credit him for many of the opinions I have on the world today. Dr. Tim Silver changed my perspective on my country and where I stand. Dr. Richard McGarry was a mentor. He was actually here not long ago. He watched me as a college student and it was good to have him see what I’ve become. I’ve become the person I wanted to be – post App.”

You can get a job with a history major

Fisher stumbled on public history by accident. She had planned to be a teacher but explored several other majors. She saw a description for public history while scrolling online through a list of Appalachian majors. “Wait,” she said, recalling her excitement. “I didn’t know this was an option. Get a job where you could do historic preservation or archeology or work in museums? I took a historic preservation class and that was when I knew I’d made the right choice. There is a misconception that history is a useless degree. Public history has opened so many doors for me.”

Rafferty, agreed, saying history is a great stepping stone. “You learn about humanity and the way people work when you study history. You can go on to be a lawyer, an activist, a politician,” she said. “It’s great for all kinds of things. (Without knowledge of history) you can’t understand how humanity works, you won’t understand current events. History and current events collide. You don’t have to study history and stay in the past. You can study history and still look forward.”

Rafferty had planned to live in Las Vegas after graduation. She learned about the Mob Museum while still in college and kept her eye out for openings there. “My path was direct,” she said. “I knew the museum was a place I could work with my degree. It was just about to open when I moved there. Within a year I was program associate and within three, education manager.”

As teaching manager, Rafferty is responsible for hiring and training a staff of educators. She oversees summer camps and outreach programs. “I also do a lot of research within the building but also outside of the text that’s on the wall. We address a lot of issues, everything from immigration and prohibition and what’s happening today. I translate what’s traditionally been in the world of academics into something everyone can understand.”

History (BS) - Applied and Public History

Appalachian State University’s History (BS) – Applied and Public History degree helps make history more accessible to the public. It is ideal for students who want to work with archives, museums, national parks and landmarks.

A cool title, a cool job

Fisher’s path was slightly less direct. While at Appalachian, she earned two internships with The Student Conservation Association. For more than five years after graduation she bounced back and forth across the country, working in various positions at seven different national parks. She was a museum technician in Death Valley when she applied for the job at the Mob Museum. “It was a perfect case of being at the right place at the right time,” she said.

“Curator of the collection is a pretty cool title – and a pretty cool job,” Fisher said. “I get to work with all of the stuff, the artifacts. I have keys to the cases! That’s the short story. The longer story is I manage intellectual property rights and the physical well being of the artifacts. My typical day could be from making up a loan agreement, a deed of gift, tracking down inventories for objects, or something more exciting like getting into a case and cleaning an artifact, or acquiring something new for the collection We are always growing our collection.”

Why a Mob Museum?

The Mob Museum opened Feb. 14, 2012, the anniversary of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, and has had more than one million visitors in the four years since. The building, a 1933 courthouse and post office, was purchased from the city for one dollar. Oscar Goodman, former Las Vegas mayor and organized crime defense attorney, championed the idea of a Mob Museum. “It’s one of the few historic buildings in Las Vegas,” Fisher said. “Normally we knock down our buildings and put up something new.“

What’s the attraction, we asked, why is this type of museum important? Rafferty was quick to reply: “I tell our staff, if we aren’t dealing with how history impacts us today, we’re not doing it right. Prohibition informs our drug laws today. RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) laws are still on the books. What happened in ancient Rome, happens here today. Crime still happens. We need to learn to avoid it, or to fix it. Fittingly, a recent installation is a replica of the prison cell belonging to El Chapo, the Mexican drug trafficker, who twice escaped from high security prisons.”

“History is telling stories,” Fisher added. “Whether we’re on a tour or restoring an artifact, our job is to tell that story… and show what it means to (a person’s) life now and those before us, and after us. Las Vegas has deep roots in organized crime and organized crime was responsible for the development of law enforcement. But the story is bigger than Las Vegas,” Fisher said. “The story of mob history is the story of American history.”

  • Mob Museum: Breaking Bad Installation

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    Breaking Bad, which aired on AMC between 2008 and 2013, was critically acclaimed and beloved by cable TV audiences.

  • Step inside the Mob Museum

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      The actual wall that caught the bullets from Chicago’s 1929 St. Valentine’s Day massacre was reconstructed brick by brick in the museum.

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      Mob Museum Education Manager Diana Rafferty ’11 explained exhibits like this encourage visitors to think through moral decisions and consequences.

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      The making of a mobster – common characteristics and habits.

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      It’s all about the money.

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      The actual wall that caught the bullets from Chicago’s 1929 St. Valentine’s Day massacre was reconstructed brick by brick in the museum.

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      Curator of Collections Carolyn Fisher ’07 inventories every item in the museum – from old photographs to the Thompson “Tommy” submachine gun, the firearm that led to the passage of the National Firearms Act in 1934.

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      This Roaring ’20s exhibit is appropriately framed by whiskey kegs and bottles, the prohibition of which encouraged and expanded mob activity.

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      Take a chair! This exhibit of the electric chair that saw off Louis Lepke, the richest man to die, is interactive.

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      This historic courtroom is a centerpiece of the Mob Museum. It was the location of the famed Kefauver hearings (1950-51) that exposed organized crime.

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      El Chapo’s great escape exhibit is on display until August at the museum and includes an architectural model of the Mexican prison and tunnels tracing El Chapo’s escape route.

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      New York crime boss John Gotti often wore this white suit to court hearings.

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      Actor Joe Pesci’s torso from Director Martin Scorsese’s movie “Casino” with other gangster movie memorabilia.

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    Against all odds and unbeknownst to each other, two Appalachian State University grads landed leadership jobs at the Las Vegas Mob Museum, a unique collection of mob culture and history. Take a visual tour here of the museum exhibits and read more about their careers here.

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