Bugsy Siegel: How A Gangster Helped Influence The Las Vegas Strip
Long before people began living underneath the tunnels of the Las Vegas Strip and long before casinos hosted parties to watch the deadly atomic bomb tests at the Nevada Testing Grounds, Las Vegas was nothing more than a desert with a handful of casinos and hotels.
However, Bugsy Siegel, an American gangster born in Brooklyn, helped influence the Las Vegas Strip by building and launching one of the first few casinos in the area. Unfortunately, the casino failed disastrously and shortly before it was shut down, Siegel, who was connected to a series of murders, was brutally killed.
But how did Siegel influence Sin City, why did his casino fail and who killed him? If you want to know the answers to that and more, just continue reading on.
Benjamin Siegel was born on February 28, 1906, in Brooklyn, New York. Siegel was the second of five children from Max Siegel and Jennie Riechenthal, a poor family who emigrated to the United States from what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire. When he was young, Siegel left school and joined a gang located on the Lower East Side of Manhattan on Lafayette Street.
During his time in the gang, Siegel met Meyer Lansky, a future crime boss, and the pair became close friends. Siegel was known around the area as chaye, a Yiddish word for “untamed” or “animal”. This was due to his short-temper and Siegel quickly developed a reputation for being “crazier than a bedbug”, earning him the nickname “Bugsy”, which he always hated.
Around the 1920s, Siegel and Meyer decided to team up and form their own gang called the Bugsy and Meyer Mob. Around this time, prohibition was in full-effect and after recruiting expert gunmen, the gang launched their own bootlegging business along the East Coast. By the age of 25, Siegel was rich enough to buy an apartment in Manhattan’s Waldorf Astoria Towers.
In May 1929, Bugsy Siegel and Lansky attended the Atlantic City Conference representing the Bugs and Meyer Mob. The event was hosted by Enoch ‘Lucky’ Johnson, the boss of Atlantic City at the time. It was here that they met Charle ‘Lucky’ Luciano, a future crime boss, and his right-hand man Frank Costello. The men formed a strong relationship together as they discussed the future of organised crime. Meanwhile, in the same year, Siegel married his childhood sweetheart Esta Krakower. The pair had two daughters together, Millicent and Barbara, but Siegel was reportedly unfaithful to Krakower and the relationship ended in divorce 1946.
Around the late 1920s, American Mafia crime families worked under one man known as the “capo di tutti capi”, which translates to the “boss of all bosses”. In 1929, New York Mafia bosses Joe ‘The Boss’ Masseria, a prominent Sicilian mobster, and Salvatore Maranzano fought over the title. At the same time, Bugsy Siegel and four other men were hired to kill Masseria and he was shot to death at the Nuova Villa Tammaro in Coney Island in April 1931.
This left Maranzano to take the title and control the American Mafia. However, Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano wanted him gone. He reportedly hired several men from the Bugsy and Meyer Mob, including Siegel to assassinate Maranzano and when he was gone, Luciano took control and found The Commission, the governing body of the American mafia.
Around this time, Siegel and Lansky disbanded the Bugsy and Meyer Mob and formed Murder Inc. (Also known as Murder Incorporated), a crime group created to commit contract killings. The group was eventually passed on to Albert Anastasia and Louis Buchalter while Siegel continued to work as a hit man.
In 1933, Siegel and Lansky gave the IRS information about Waxey Gordon’s tax evasion resulting in his imprisonment. From prison, the American gangster then ordered the Fabrizzo brothers to kill Siegel and Lansky. Instead, Siegel hunted the brothers and assassinated them. Following their deaths, Tony Fabrizzo, their brother, wrote a lengthy memoir detailing Siegel’s Murder Inc organisation. However, the gang discovered Fabrizzo’s plans and decided to take him out.
Bugsy Siegel checked into a hospital and later that same night snuck out. He then joined two other accomplices and Siegel and two other accomplices posed as detectives and approached Fabrizzo, luring him out of his house and gunning him down. Siegel’s alibi for the night was that he had checked into a hospital, but his enemies knew the truth and wanted him dead. This eventually led Siegel to leave New York behind and travel to the West Coast.
The West Coast
Around the late 1930s, Siegel moved to California where he recruited Mickey Cohen as his second-in-command. He set up gambling dens, offshore gambling ships and consolidated the existing prostitution, narcotics and bookmaking operations in the state. Siegel eventually bought a home in Beverley Hills and struck up a friendship with actor George Raft, a man who had been born in New York and had grown up with mobsters but moved to Hollywood to pursue an acting career.
Through Raft, Siegel struck friendships with Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra and Jean Harlow, who became the unofficial godmother of his daughter. These same friends later suggested that Siegel had wanted to become an actor and frequently visited Hollywood movie sets. Around this time, Siegel met actress Virginia Hill who was known for her beauty and violent temper. The pair began dating and Hill remained his mistress for years, before and after Siegel’s divorce with Esta.
In November 1939, Siegel and three accomplices killed Harry ‘Big Greenie’ Greenburg outside his apartment on the orders of Louis Buchalter, the new boss of Murder, Incorporated. Shortly after the murder, one of Siegel’s accomplices confessed to the crime and agreed to testify against Siegel. The mobster was tried for the murder and Siegel hit headlines for refusing to eat food and because of the preferential treatment he received. Siegel, who had hired attorney Jerry Giesler to defend him, was allowed to have female visitors and was granted leave for dental visits.
Eventually, Bugsy Siegel was acquitted due to a lack of evidence but his reputation had been damaged. National newspapers had begun running stories on his past, referring to him as Bugsy. Following a second arrest for bookmaking, Siegel was acquitted and decided to reinvent his personal image. This time, Siegel turned to Vegas.
Turning To Vegas
In the mid-1940s, Siegel and Hill moved to Nevada. Around the same time, the El Rancho Vegas had just been established off Highway 91 in the middle of the Nevada desert, an area better known today as the Las Vegas Strip. The resort did well and Siegel decided to establish his own casino.
He convinced Lansky to sink money on Las Vegas and Siegel soon overtook William R. Wilkerson on the development of the Flamingo Hotel, a resort that was already under construction. Siegel had promised his old gang that he could complete the resort for a million dollars but the costs surged to six million dollars (Around $58 million today). Construction finished in late November 1947.
The Flamingo opened on December 26, 1946, but only the casino, lounge, restaurant and theatre had been finished. Many locals attended the opening despite the bad weather but few celebrities showed up, something Siegel had banked on. Celebrities that did attend were Raft, June Haver, Vivian Blaine, Sonny Tufts, Brain Donlevy and Charles Coburn. However, they were put off by the noise and chaos of the ongoing construction. Meanwhile, the casino’s air conditioning system collapsed, making the resort uncomfortable to visit.
Gambling tables were operating but the luxury rooms Bugsy Siegel had promoted and which would have kept visitors were not ready, leading customers to leave earlier than expected. As Siegel discovered the losses during the opening evening, he became verbally abusive and reportedly threw out one family. Two weeks later, the resort was shut down.
Fortunately for Siegel, he was given a second chance. The mobster made renovations to the hotel and casino and hired a new publicist. The resort re-opened in March 1947 and began to make a profit, but Siegel’s old gang were tired of waiting for their cut and his enemies were drawing in closer. Time was beginning to run out.
Bugsy Siegel’s Murder
On the evening of June 20, 1947, Siegel was reading a copy of the Los Angeles Times in the living room of his Beverly Hills home with associate Allen Smiley when nine shots from a .30 military carbine smashed through the window and hit Siegel in the face. He was killed instantly. Reports suggest that the day after his murder, three of Lansky’s accomplices walked into the Flamingo Hotel and declared a takeover.
To this day it’s still unknown who actually murdered Bugsy Siegel. Many theorise that the mobster was killed by his former gang due to his excessive spending on the Flamingo Hotel. It’s rumoured that a meeting was held in Havana, Cuba, in 1946 by the board of directors of the gang so Luciano, who was exiled in Sicily, could attend. The men at the meeting allegedly decided to kill Siegel, though Lansky reluctantly agreed.
Another theory was that one of Virginia Hill’s brothers had killed Siegel because the shooting was “out of sync” with the mob’s methods as firing outside the house could increase the risk of missing. It’s thought that one of Hill’s brothers killed Siegel because the brother, who was stationed at Camp Pendleton in California, was spotted outside the Flamingo Hotel two weeks before it opened arguing with Virginia about Siegel beating her up. It’s rumoured that the pair had a love-hate relationship and that Siegel would beat and leave bruises on Virginia.
A final theory is that Moe Sedway, one of Lansky’s associates who took over the Flamingo Hotel, was involved in a love triangle which Bugsy Siegel had stumbled into and was killed over.
At the time of his death, Virginia Hill had moved to Europe and she later died in 1966 of an overdose of sleeping pills in Austria. Meanwhile, only Bugsy Siegel’s brother and his rabbi showed up at his funeral. Siegel is interred at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Hollywood, California.
The Flamingo Hotel & Casino still stands to this day, though it has changed hands multiple times. Following Bugsy’s death, the resort was renamed to The Fabulous Flamingo until 1972 when it was sold to the Hilton Corporation who renamed it to the Flamingo Hilton. It was later bought by Harrah’s Entertainment, which changed its name to Caesars Entertainment Corporation, and now stands as the Flamingo Las Vegas.
Over this time, much of the original building’s structure was torn down, a garden was built on-site and the building’s four towers were expanded. In the garden, between the pool and chapel, a memorial plaque to Siegel was erected.
Bugsy Siegel’s death was huge news in the US as national newspapers published the gruesome photos of his death. Meanwhile, mobsters realised that Siegel had been right about the opportunities in Vegas and many began launching their own casinos, helping to establish the Strip. By the 1950s, mobsters had helped launch three major casinos: the Stardust, the Desert Inn and the Riviera. More casinos were established in the years that followed, creating the iconic city we know today.