Benjamin Siegel

Bugsy Siegel (1906-1947) was a gangster and gambler who felt class was everything. He is considered responsible for putting Las Vegas, Nevada on the map.

Bugsy Siegel believed that in order to get ahead, you had to have class. As a gangster who ran gambling rackets, he was something of a visionary. As part of an expansion of gambling activities in the West, he is credited with putting the small Nevada town of Las Vegas on the map as the king of the world gambling capitals.

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Fiery Youth

Benjamin Siegel was born on 28 February 1906 in Brooklyn, New York. In a manner similar to fellow gangster Louis Lepke, Siegel began his criminal career by preying upon pushcart vendors with a sidekick named Morris Sedway. Unlike Lepke, Siegel did not usually beat the vendors he was trying to convince to buy protection from him. Rather he would simply have Sedway pour kerosene over the vendors' merchandise and then light it on fire. It usually only took a vendor one lesson to decide to pay the "insurance."

Gambling Rackets

During the 1920s and 1930s Siegel continued his climb up the underworld ladder until he became involved in a killing in the early part of the 1930s. As a result of this murder, several attempts were made on his life. With the heat turned up, he reportedly approached syndicate leaders regarding a plan to consolidate criminal undertakings in California with Jack Dragna, who at the time controlled the underworld in that state. Siegel contacted an old friend with whom he had grown up in New York, the film actor George Raft, who reportedly liked Siegel and was happy to introduce him to various Hollywood actors and studio directors. With the help of Dragna, Siegel operated various gambling establishments, including a floating casino. Siegel was reportedly involved in the murder of a gangster named Harry Greenberg after it was rumored that Greenberg had become a police informant. He was later acquitted of the murder and turned more of his attention to increasing gambling revenue for the syndicate.

The Flamingo

In 1945 Siegel decided to establish a gambling hotel in a small town called Las Vegas, Nevada. According to reports, he borrowed $3 million from the syndicate and eventually spent $6 million total in building the Flamingo Hotel. As the first legalized gambling casino in the United States, the Flamingo became famous nationwide, and Bugsy drew enormous profits from it. At some point in 1946 or 1947, he apparently had a disagreement with the syndicate regarding its claim to the $3 million it had put up to help finance the hotel.

A Bad Roll of the Dice

On behalf of the syndicate, Lucky Luciano contacted Bugsy and instructed him to meet with syndicate members in Havana, Cuba, which was then one of the gambling centers of the world, often frequented by American gangsters. Siegel apparently refused to return the $3 million, perhaps thinking that as a gambling crime czar he had little to fear from the syndicate. He was wrong. On 20 June 1947, as Siegel sat in the living room of his girlfriend, syndicate prostitute Virginia Hill, he was shot three times in the head and killed instantly. At about the same time, his longtime friend and companion Moey Sedway, accompanied by several syndicate members, appeared at the Flamingo Hotel and informed the manager that they were taking over.

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Further Reading on Benjamin Siegel

Biographies that may be of interst include George Carpozi, Jr., Bugsy: The Bloodthirsty, Lusty Life of Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel (1992); Dean Jennings, We Only Kill Each Other (1992); and David Hanna, The Man Who Invented Murder, Inc. (1974). The 1991 Film Bugsy, focused on Siegel's dream to build the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas. The television show A&E Biography profiled Siegel in the December 1996 bio Bugsy Siegel: Gambling in the Mob.