Satan′s Playground

Mobsters and Movie Stars at America's Greatest Gaming Resort

Satan′s Playground

American Encounters/Global Interactions

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Book Pages: 408 Illustrations: 78 illustrations, 4 maps Published: April 2010

American Studies, History > U.S. History, Latin American Studies > Mexico

Satan’s Playground chronicles the rise and fall of the tumultuous and lucrative gambling industry that developed just south of the U.S.-Mexico border in the early twentieth century. As prohibitions against liquor, horse racing, gambling, and prostitution swept the United States, the vice industry flourished in and around Tijuana, to the extent that reformers came to call the town “Satan’s Playground,” unintentionally increasing its licentious allure. The area was dominated by Agua Caliente, a large, elegant gaming resort opened by four entrepreneurial Border Barons (three Americans and one Mexican) in 1928. Diplomats, royalty, film stars, sports celebrities, politicians, patricians, and nouveau-riche capitalists flocked to Agua Caliente’s luxurious complex of casinos, hotels, cabarets, and sports extravaganzas, and to its world-renowned thoroughbred racetrack. Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Louis B. Mayer, the Marx Brothers, Bing Crosby, Charlie Chaplin, Gloria Swanson, and the boxer Jack Dempsey were among the regular visitors. So were mobsters such as Bugsy Siegel, who later cited Agua Caliente as his inspiration for building the first such resort on what became the Las Vegas Strip.

Less than a year after Agua Caliente opened, gangsters held up its money-car in transit to a bank in San Diego, killing the courier and a guard and stealing the company money pouch. Paul J. Vanderwood weaves the story of this heist gone wrong, the search for the killers, and their sensational trial into the overall history of the often-chaotic development of Agua Caliente, Tijuana, and Southern California. Drawing on newspaper accounts, police files, court records, personal memoirs, oral histories, and “true detective” magazines, he presents a fascinating portrait of vice and society in the Jazz Age, and he makes a significant contribution to the history of the U.S.-Mexico border.


“[A]t once a spellbinding story of Prohibition-era corruption in the
San Diego/Tijuana corridor and also a significant contribution to the fields of borderlands and western American history.“ — Evan R. Ward, Western Historical Quarterly

“[Vanderwood’s] book illuminates fascinating aspects of the Southern California criminal underground, as well as showcasing a unique, albeit short-lived partnership between American capitalists and Mexican leaders during a tumultuous period in American history.” — Alicia Barber, Southern California Quarterly

“Hot-blooded history of a hedonistic Jazz Age resort where celebrity and mob culture mingled within gawking distance of the sensation-seeking masses. . . . Charmingly full of life. . . .” — Kirkus Reviews

“Like any good gangster tale, the story begins with a heist, shoot-out, and getaway; it follows the police, press, and private detectives as they close in on the culprits; and it ends with the robbers dead or behind bars. Along the way, Vanderwood supplies us with an extraordinarily rich history of the wheelers and dealers that shaped the San Diego–Tijuana nexus in the boom and bust years between the world wars. . . . It will no doubt be a mainstay of undergraduate and graduate classes on California, Western, and borderlands history for years to come.” — Robert M. Buffington, Hispanic American Historical Review

“Making his way deep into the lost world of Tijuana’s legendary Jazz Age entertainment complex, Paul Vanderwood has produced a truly transnational tale that is masterfully revealed through an array of sumptuous, sometimes spine-chilling, vignettes combined with probing historical analysis centered on the city’s erstwhile upscale resort Agua Caliente. . . . [E]l maestro Vanderwood’s latest offering is a fantastic mixing of history and ‘true crime’ at its finest.” — Andrew Grant Wood, The Latin Americanist

“Paul Vanderwood, who has not only an encyclopedic knowledge of his subject, drawn from sources on both sides of the border, but a deep love for his Southern California home, deftly tells the tale of the inspiration, creation, brief life, and ultimate demise of what was once called the Playground of the Hemisphere....[T]here is much to be savored in this fine book, not the least of which is its delightful prose. That is as good as history gets.” — Richard Oglesby, Montana: The Magazine of Western History

“Vanderwood, professor emeritus of Mexican history at San Diego State University, writes lively history.” — W. David Laird, Journal of Arizona History

“With this study, Paul Vanderwood makes an important contribution to the historical literature on Tijuana and the border region in the twentieth century. But of equal significance is the example he sets for creating a historical narrative with the attentiveness and verve of a historian with a passion for his craft. True to form, Vanderwood has integrated a multifarious assortment of sources, including judicial records, news stories, personal interviews, and even detective magazines. His adroitness as a historian is not only his ability to synthesize these myriad sources into a cohesive narrative, but also his ability to do so in a way that allows the reader to experience the spirit of a different time and place.” — Monica A. Rankin, New Mexico Historical Review

"The use of Agua Caliente as a lens to understanding the U.S.-Mexican border region duringthe 1920s and 1930s is an inspired one, and the book will be welcomed not only by historians but by the general reading public. It is an important contribution not just to regional history but also to the history of both coutnries, with the significance of developments there spreading well beyond the international frontier." — Linda B. Hall, The Americas

“Drawing on newspaper accounts, police files, court records, personal memoirs, oral histories, and ‘true detective’ magazines, [Vanderwood] presents a fascinating portrait of vice and society in the Jazz Age, and he makes a significant contribution to the history of the U.S.-Mexico Border. . . . Satan's Playground is a truly fascinating book of historic importance that I highly recommend.” — Dennis Moore, East County Magazine

“From beginning to end of Satan’s Playground, Vanderwood follows a gangland-style heist and its repercussions, especially for the thugs who pulled it off. . . . The heist, the capture of the hijackers, their trial, and their ultimate fate are skillfully narrated.” — Joe Deegan, San Diego Reader

“This book is an excellent example of how local history can illuminate transnational history and culture. . . . [An] insightful and well-illustrated study of how cross-border tourism at Tijuana and Agua Caliente promoted the growing symbiotic relationship between Southern California and Baja and how Agua Caliente served as an inspiration for later American gambling resorts in Las Vegas and elsewhere.” — Eugene P. Moehring, Pacific Historical Review

“Vanderwood has filled a gaping hole in the professional borderlands literature, not only setting the record straight about Agua Caliente itself, but also capturing in the process much of the fascinating (anti)social history and character of the greater region during this transformative period. . . . Satan’s Playground is a first-class piece of research and an absolute must-read for readers with interests in the borderlands, Tijuana and San Diego, and the Prohibition era.” — James R. Curtis , Southwestern Historical Quarterly

“Vanderwood is a clean stylist as well as a history wonk, and the thorough portrait Satan’s Playground paints of its area and era works as both history and crime narrative.” — Michaelangelo Matos , The Onion AV Club

“InSatan’s Playground, Paul J. Vanderwood tells several stories at once, lovingly, in splendid detail, and with a wonderful sense of pacing. He combines biography, urban history, and crime narrative in a unique blend of elements to produce a robust and fascinating social history of gambling and other sorts of vice (bootlegging, prostitution, political corruption) in a particularly volatile and colorful area of the world, the U.S.-Mexico border around Tijuana, during the Jazz Age.” — Eric Van Young, author of The Other Rebellion

"Paul J. Vanderwood is the master. I have come to him for guidance both as a scholar and as a writer/historian more than once. I think, if the truth be told, we all steal from him. This is a fascinating book with Dr. Vanderwood’s usual insight and brio. I found it delightful." — Luis Alberto Urrea, author of The Hummingbird’s Daughter


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Paul J. Vanderwood (1929-2011) was Professor Emeritus of Mexican History at San Diego State University. He was the author of several books including Juan Soldado: Rapist, Murderer, Martyr, Saint, also published by Duke University Press; The Power of God against the Guns of Government: Religious Upheaval in Mexico at the Turn of the Nineteenth Century; Disorder and Progress: Bandits, Police, and Mexican Development; and Border Fury: A Picture Postcard Record of Mexico’s Revolution and U.S. War Preparedness, 1910–1917.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments ix

1. The Mob Strikes the Border Barons 1

2. Mobs 12

3. Playground of the Hemisphere 37

4. Fortuitous Breaks 51

5. Border Babylon 71

6. King of Border Vice 80

7. "They're Off!" 90

8. Prohibition's Bounty 103

9. The New Wave 119

10. Agua Caliente in Gestation 134

11. Building Camelot 140

12. Capt. Jerry's Day 172

13. "Silent" Marty's Oration 179

14. Veracity 190

15. Fixes 199

16. Sentencing and Censoring 212

17. Hollywood's Playground 222

18. "Place Your Bets!" 238

19. Get the Barons 272

20. Fools and Thieves 291

21. A Dead Cock in the Pit 304

22. What Ever Happened To? 320

23. Ghosts 336

Notes 341

Bibliography 373

Index 385
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4702-6 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4691-3
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