Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel
Bugsy Siegel was born Benjamin Hymen Siegel on February 28, 1906, and lived in a small tenement house in Brooklyn, New York with four other siblings and his Jewish-Austrian parents. His family had no idea that he would become one the most notorious brutal gangsters and American history.
The Early Years
Siegel seemed to be bent on a life of crime almost from birth. At the tender age of nine he played confidence games after watching older hooligans play the game first. By the time he grew into his late teens Siegel was a tough young man. He made his living in the streets running craps games. He had earned the nickname “Bugsy” because his associates thought he was “crazier than a bug,” in reference to his volatile nature. He hated the nickname and was reputed to severely beat anyone who said it to his face.
It was during this time that he met Meyer Lansky and the two young crooks became lifelong friends. They decided to form their own crew and it was known as the Bugs and Meyer gang. Their first enterprise was to commit a number of burglaries and fence the stolen property. Then along came prohibition and that’s when their criminal enterprise really began to take off.
A man named Arnold Rothstein provided large quantities of illegal liquor to Lansky and Bugsy to deliver to his customers. The pair earned quite a reputation for successfully delivering their cargo. Around this time Lucky Luciano formed his national crime syndicate along with other major Italian gangsters. Bugsy Siegel became a respected member of this new crime group. In fact, Siegel and three other hit men were responsible for the execution of Sicilian gangster Joe Masseria in 1931.
After Macaria was killed, Maranzano was the only remaining major monster that had to be eliminated for Luciano to control the rackets in New York. Luciano hired Bugsy and several other bodyguards to accompany him when he went to gun down Maranzano. When the dust settled, Maranzano lay dead and Lucky Luciano was the new head of the New York Mafia.
Bugsy Siegel was one member of a small group of hired executioners know for Luciano. They were called Murder, Inc. by the media and were notorious for their brutality.
By 1935 New York State Attorney General special prosecutor, Thomas Dewey, launched a crusade to fight organized crime. Lucky Luciano got arrested for the extortion of prostitutes. Concerned that the law was coming closer to nabbing him, in 1937 Bugsy fled New York to Hollywood with his family. Soon thereafter he controlled all of the
bookmaking in the city, and before long he took control of the narcotics and prostitution rings as well.
He lived an extravagant Beverly Hills lifestyle where he own a palatial estate and attended parties with some of the most important moguls and starlets in Hollywood. He reacquainted himself with an old friend, actor George Raft, who introduced Bugsy to a number of Hollywood celebrities, not the least of which included Clark Gable and Jean Harlow. But Bugsy Siegel was influential in his own right because he had gained control of one of the unions that represented movie extras and they would frequently strike on Bugsy’s orders so he could extract kickbacks from movie producers before he allowed any of his extras to work on their movie sets.
In November 1939 a small time gangster turned informant called Harry “Big Greeny” Greenberg arrived in Los Angeles to hide from the mob. Unfortunately, the hapless informant stumbled into Bugsy Siegel stronghold, and it wasn’t long before he was snuffed out. However, Los Angeles authorities charged Siegel with the crime and he wasn’t able to bribe his way out of being prosecuted. Bugsy learned the identities of the witnesses against him, which included his wife’s brother Whitey—someone who was an actual participant in committing the crime. Bugsy managed to have them all killed, and without witnesses the state was forced to release him.
Plagued by murder accusations in Los Angeles, Bugsy set his eye on a tiny little town that few Americans had heard of called Las Vegas because gambling was legal. Upon arriving with his mistress, actress Virginia Hill, in 1945 he quickly took over the wire services that control the horse race betting in the city. But he had his sights set on much bigger things.
The Flamingo Hotel
It just so happened that Bugsy Siegel made the acquaintance of Billy Wilkerson, a man who was in the process of building the Flamingo casino just outside of Las Vegas. But in 1945 he was hopelessly in debt and Bugsy offered to finish the project using Mafia money.
The flamingo was originally supposed to cost $1.5 million to build, but cost overruns caused construction expenses to balloon to over $6 million. He had promised his mob investors the casino and hotel would be open and making money by December 26, 1946. But Siegel was in over his head. He knew nothing about running a casino let alone building one and a number of mishaps caused major delays and increased costs.
One of the biggest reasons for the huge increase in costs was that Siegel’s paranoia drove him to build the flamingo like it was a fortress. Its walls where reinforced with steel from Navy shipyards. Siegel’s penthouse suite was rife with escape hatches and trapdoors, one of which led to his private garage where he had a getaway car on standby. It had gun portals and dead end hallways that led to nowhere. All of these bizarre features were nothing less than a physical manifestation of Siegel’s troubled mind.
The project was finally completed and ready for business by March 1947, but by then his investors were very unhappy with the amount of money he had been spent. Two of his investors, Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano, discovered that a great deal of the cost overruns were due to Siegel’s mismanagement and theft. Lansky felt betrayed and became enraged.
In addition to its dark side, the Flamingo was also lavished with posh amenities that had never been seen in Las Vegas before. Siegel envisioned providing gamblers with a number of diversions to take their minds off of their inevitable losses. Therefore, he poured a great deal of money into expensive carpeting and fixtures. He built a luxurious swimming pool, riding stables, and tennis courts. Siegel also intended to build a championship golf course adjacent to the Flamingo but those plans were interrupted.
The Death of Bugsy Siegel
When the Flamingo opened in March 1947, it almost immediately began generating cash. But Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky suspected that Siegel and his mistress Virginia Hill were skimming most of the profits. The syndicate decided that Bugsy had to be eliminated.
Since Virginia Hill was a money courier for the mob, she frequently had to fly around the world to deposit Mafia money into hidden bank accounts. On June 8, 1947, the Chicago mob asked Virginia to make another international run to deposit cash. Her body was finally found in Austria in 1966. A coroner’s report indicated that she had died from mercury poisoning.
Meanwhile, in the early evening of June 20, 1947, Siegel had returned to Virginia’s Beverly Hills mansion in los Angeles while she was out of town. As he sat on the sofa reading the evening paper, a shower of bullets rained through the living room window. Out of the reported nine shots that were fired, two of them struck Bugsy in the face and killed him where he sat. During the police investigation later that evening, his left eye was found in Hill’s dining room, 15 feet from his body.
At the exact same time as when Bugsy Siegel was being murdered, three of Lansky’s employees descended upon the Flamingo Hotel and announced a takeover. Of course, Meyer Lansky denied having anything to do with the hit, but no one doubts that Siegel was eliminated due to syndicate orders. His murder has never been solved.