A SOUTHERN FAMILY: Hazel Hill, the grandmother of author David Hill, is shown here with her sons. Courtesy Larry Hill

Excerpted from “The Vapors: A Southern Family, the New York Mob, and the Rise and Fall of Hot Springs, America’s Forgotten Capital of Vice” by David Hill. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, July 2020. Copyright © 2020 by David Hill. All rights reserved.     

Read a Q&A with David Hill here.

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April 4, 1935

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.

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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.

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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.

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Courtesy Wayne Threadgill
LEO MCLAUGHLIN: The Hot Springs mayor, who let the race track operate illegally, liked to travel around town in his horse-drawn buggy.

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, only getting paid 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.”

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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 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.

Courtesy Larry Hill
HOLLIS AND HAZEL HILL: Hazel’s father, Clyde Welch, left Hazel with the parents of her married boyfriend when he left Hot Springs. She was 16.

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.