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How Bugsy Siegel and the Mob Gave Rise to Modern Las Vegas

Steve Palace
Bugsy Siegel image by Getty
Bugsy Siegel image by Getty

Las Vegas and its casinos existed before Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel came along. But his arrival definitely put the place on the map. A young and successful gangster with a colorful reputation for glamour and violence, some believe he gave rise to the neon money making machine people know today.

Siegel’s life was characterized by crime, which he’d been involved with ever since he was a kid. He was born in Brooklyn 1906 to a family of Austro-Hungarian Jewish immigrants. Young Benjamin found a vicious escape route from the daily grind of Prohibition era America through bootlegging, assassination and of course gambling. The nickname “Bugsy” – from ‘crazy as a bedbug’ – wasn’t something he’d chosen. He strongly advised people not to use the word around him.

Bugsy Siegel mugshot

Bugsy Siegel’s mugshot, 1928

Siegel’s boyhood pal Meyer Lansky co-founded what’s referred to as the National Crime Syndicate. According to Siegel’s Biography.com entry, one of the organization’s goals was “killing off many of New York’s veteran gangsters”. The notorious group Murder Inc. did the enforcing in this respect, partly created and run by Siegel.

Meyer Lansky

Meyer Lansky. Getty Images

When it came to who controlled the city there was a new game in town. And Siegel’s life was a game where dice were constantly being spun. He moved from Brooklyn to Manhattan before hitting the West Coast and Hollywood in the mid-1930s. His wife and children went with him, though his subsequent relationship with actress Virginia Hill and other indiscretions led to a divorce.

He was a firm fixture in Tinseltown, where it was said he harbored ambitions of being one of the movie stars he rubbed shoulders with. However bright lights of another kind beckoned, when set his sights on the relatively barren territory of Vegas. In 2016 the New York Times wrote it was “little more than a sleepy desert town with a pliant City Council and lax gambling regulations.” Siegel saw it as a place where dreams could come true, at least financially.

History of Las Vegas

Downtown Las Vegas shows a mushroom cloud in the background. Scenes such as this were typical during the 1950’s. From 1951 to 1962 the government conducted 100 atmospheric tests at the Nevada Test Site.

His vision took shape as the Flamingo Hotel and Casino, a project he inherited from developer William R. Wilkerson. The naming was apparently a reference to Hill, whose long legs inspired her own nickname “The Flamingo” though accounts differ. The long-delayed opening of the resort in 1946 was quite literally a washout, as it happened during a rainstorm. This followed ballooning costs, which Bugsy Siegel was meeting with mob money to fund his Las Vegas dream. Biography.com says, “Originally budgeted at $1.5 million, the building project soon proved to be a problem as construction costs soared to more than $6 million.” The miscalculation was “attributable to Siegel’s theft and mismanagement”.

Flamingo Las Vegas history

Front entrance to the Flamingo Hotel & Casino 1945. Photo by Kstadelman CC BY-SA 3.0

It took a few months but eventually the Flamingo began generating income. The connection between Vegas and organized crime had been established. But some think the writing was on the wall for Siegel and his mistakes. In June 1947 he was mysteriously executed through the window of Virginia Hill’s Beverly Hills home.

Flamingo Casino

The Flamingo Hotel and Casino in 2017. Photo by LasVegasGuy CC by SA-4.0

Website The Mob Museum wrote about the killing in 2018, presenting it almost as a movie scene. “Siegel, reading a copy of the Los Angeles Times he had picked up at a restaurant earlier, was shot four times,” it stated, “twice in the head and twice in the torso while seated on a chintz-covered sofa, a table lamp illuminating his head… Of the five shots that missed, one destroyed a marble statue of Bacchus on a grand piano and another punctured a painting of a nude holding a wineglass.”

Related Video: The history of Las Vegas in Images

Barry Levinson’s 1991 movie Bugsy starred Warren Beatty as the title character. It suggested Meyer Lansky was behind Siegel’s assassination. Was Lansky angry enough about his old friend’s recklessness over the Flamingo to have him murdered? Some doubt this version of events.

The Mob Museum spoke to Bernie Sindler, a former emissary of Lanksy’s. The killing doesn’t make sense to him, as the casino was making money and the hit job didn’t follow mob conventions. Executions typically took place in cars, at close range and from behind.

He believes Hill’s family were involved in the situation. Sindler says he saw “Virginia Hill and her military brother in front of the Flamingo, arguing about Siegel beating her up” and that he “heard Virginia Hill’s brother say he was going to kill Siegel.”

Related Article: Meyer Lansky – The Brilliant “Mob Accountant” and Brains of the Criminal Underworld

Either way, Siegel’s career in crime had come to a bloody end. His legacy lives on with the Flamingo, though the original building was pulled down and replaced in 1993. Even if Bugsy Siegel didn’t actually give birth to Las Vegas, he certainly put the “sin” into “sin city”.