The last time I went on the award-winning Newport Gangster tour, the most colorful character was the older man sitting next to me.

The tour guide was explaining fascinating moments of the former “Sin City.” The guide was in the middle of a story from 1961 when pro football hero George Ratterman, then in the middle of a campaign for sheriff, gained national attention for being set up, drugged, put in a hotel room with a stripper, and arrested.

The man sitting next to me shares more details in a stage whisper. He said when he worked for the telephone company, he had installed a phone for April Flowers, the stripper at the center of the scandal.

“She kept me honest,” he laughed.

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Tour guides with American Legacy Tours say locals with personal accounts of history help improve tour scripts on nearly every outing.

Guides drop names of Newport’s famous visitors, from Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra to Marilyn Monroe and Elvis, but locals make connections with the beer and steel barons whose last names still fill the city ledgers.

“All the time when we’re telling a story people say, ‘Oh, let me add to this,’ or ‘Hey, this is what has been passed down in my family,’ ” says guide Tom Wilson. “And we like to add those in, because it gives the tours more of a personal flair.”

Days of Crime & Passion

Tourists and locals who come to hear the tales that made Newport famous are putting the tours themselves in the national spotlight.

What began a few years ago as a school trip fundraiser has turned into a thriving business. Jerry Gels, an educator then with Lloyd Memorial High and now at Dayton Independent Schools, needed money to take students to Central America. He enlisted family, teachers and high school buddies, and a business was born.

Success has meant the numbers and types of tours have multiplied. They now include haunted tours, pedal wagon rides and exploration of underground tunnels. Expected number of visitors this year? 50,000, says Gels.

Southern Living magazine declared the Gangster Tour one of the top things to do in the state of Kentucky.

“A lot of people like the fact that they’ve lived in this area their entire lives and they don’t know the true history until they come on the tours,” Wilson says.


Mob Hit? Great Gatsby?

Oh, So Familiar

Things get even more interesting when locals (playing tourist) recognize names.

On the Barons & Bike tour, the 15-passenger pedal-powered wagon makes a whirring sound as passengers travel at about four miles per hour along the tree-lined streets of Newport’s historic district.

The guide’s voice booms above the wagon noise as he relates stories laced with local names. There’s the Taylors of James Taylor Jr.’s mansion and the Wiedemanns of Wiedemann Brewing Co., which employed nearly everyone in Newport at the turn of the century.

Every once in a while, the guide interrupts his narrative to shout to his passengers: “Pedal, minions!”

“Now, Charles Wiedemann’s son, Carl (1892-1961) — pedal, minions! — he was a playboy,” Wilson continues as the group pedals past a house that was once part of the Wiedemann empire. “He absolutely loved the ladies, and he had wealth and he had power.”

The guide pauses to share a story from an elderly Red Hat Society member who recently added her two cents. She “told me that if you didn’t know Carl Wiedemann and you lived in Newport at the time, you were considered undesirable,” Wilson says. “He lived his life in total scandal. And some people think he killed not one, but two girls.”

Girls, gunslingers, gangsters — they’re all part of the lore that’s making a comeback in these parts. Booking a tour, the guides say, is an offer you can’t refuse.