February 28, 1906 – June 20, 1947
Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel was an American gangster, who was behind
large-scale development of Las Vegas.
Benjamin Siegel was born in Brooklyn, New York, to a poor Jewish
family from Letychiv, Podolia Governorate of the Russian Empire
(today's Ukraine). As a boy, Siegel joined a street gang on
Lafayette Street on the Lower East Side and first committed
mainly thefts, until, with another youth named Moe Sedway, he
devised his own protection racket: pushcart merchants were
forced to pay him five dollars or he would incinerate their
merchandise on the spot.
During adolescence, Siegel befriended Meyer Lansky, who was
forming a small crew whose criminal activities expanded to
include gambling and car theft. Siegel reputedly also worked as
the crew's hit man whom Lansky would sometimes hire out to other
Jewish and Italian-American crime families.
In 1930 Lansky and Siegel built close ties to Charles "Lucky"
Luciano and Frank Costello, both future bosses of the Genovese
crime family. Siegel became a bootlegger and was also associated
with Albert "Mad Hatter" Anastasia. Siegel was also heavily
involved in bootlegging operations in New York, New Jersey and
Philadelphia. During the so-called Castellammarese War in
1930-1931, they fought the gang of Sal Maranzano; Siegel
reputedly had a hand in Maranzano's murder and later in the
formation of Murder, Inc. In 1932 he was arrested for gambling
and bootlegging but got away with only a fine. Lansky and Siegel
assisted with Luciano's brief alliance with Dutch Schultz and
killed rival loan sharks Louis "Pretty" Amberg and Joseph Amberg
In 1937, the East Coast mob sent Siegel to California to develop
syndicate gambling rackets with Los Angeles mobster Jack Dragna.
Once in LA, Siegel recruited Jewish gang boss Mickey Cohen as
his lieutenant. Siegel used syndicate money to set up a national
wire service to help the East Coast mob quicken their returns.
On January 28, 1929, Siegel married Esta Krakow, his childhood
sweetheart and sister of hit man Whitey Krakow. Siegel
eventually moved Esta and their two daughters to the West Coast.
However, Siegel was the least faithful of husbands; four of his
mistresses included actresses Ketti Gallian, Wendy Barrie, Marie
"The Body" MacDonald, and Hollywood socialite Dorothy DiFrasso.
With the aid of DiFrasso and actor friend George Raft, Siegel
gained entry into Hollywood's inner circle, allegedly using his
contacts to extort the movie studios.
At this point in his career, Siegel started living in
extravagant fashion; on his tax returns Siegel claimed to earn
his living through legal gambling at the Santa Anita racetrack
near Los Angeles.
Siegel soon started an affair with Virginia Hill. the
Alabama-born Hill owned a mansion in Beverly Hills that she had
bought from Metropolitan Opera baritone Lawrence Tibbett. Siegel
became a frequent guest at the Hill mansion. There were rumors
that the couple had secretly married in Mexico, where Hill
helped Siegel establish drug dealing contacts. However, Siegel's
relationship with Hill did not deter Siegel from his compulsive
womanizing. In 1946, Hill went to Reno and divorced Siegel.
On November 22, 1939, Siegel, Whitey Krakow, and two other gang
members killed Harry "Big Greenie" Greenberg. Greenberg had
become a police informant and Louis "Lepke" Buchalter, boss of
Murder, Inc., ordered his killing. Siegel was arrested and tried
for the Greenberg murder. Whitey Krakow escaped prosecution
because Siegel had previously murdered him. Siegel was acquitted
on the Greenberg murder, but his reputation was in ruins. During
the trial, the newspapers revealed Siegel's sordid past and
started referring to him as "Bugsy". He hated the nickname,
Bugsy (said to be based on the slang term "bugs", meaning
"crazy", and used to describe his sometimes erratic behaviour),
and wouldn't allow anyone to call him that to his face.
Siegel came to Las Vegas in 1941, backed by the Chicago Outfit
to establish the Trans America race wire service. In 1945,
Siegel became a minority owner of the El Cortez Hotel, along
with Meyer Lansky in the City Of Las Vegas, Nevada proper,
impressed by the success of the El Rancho Vegas casino on the
Las Vegas Strip, Siegel purchased the Flamingo Las Vegas from
On the night of June 20, 1947, Siegel was shot while at home in
Beverley Hills. No one was ever charged for the murder, and the
crime remains unsolved to this day.
In the Bialystoker Synagogue on Manhattan's Lower East Side,
Siegal is memorialized by a Yartzheit (remembrance) plaque that
marks his death date so mourners can say Kaddish for the
anniversary of his passing. Siegel's plaque is right below that
of his father, Max Siegel, who died two months prior to his
Benjamin Hymen Siegel was born in New York City on February 28,
1906. He was one of five children living in a small tenement
house in Brooklyn with their Jewish-Austrian parents. Early on,
the children sought to escape their poor conditions. But while
his brothers and sisters worked in the classroom, Benjamin chose
another route. He turned to the streets. By the time he was nine
years old, he was already playing confidence games. He first
watched others before playing the games himself.
By his late teens, Benjamin was tough. His main source of income
was from running craps games in the street. As far as organized
crime went, he was a nobody until he met Meyer Lanksy. He was
fighting another man over a handgun one day when Lansky broke it
up. Lansky hurried him away before he could be arrested. They
became life-long friends after that.
The two decided to start their own gang, which became known as
the Bugs and Meyer gang. By that time, Benjamin had become known
as “Bugsy” because he was thought to be “crazier than a bug.”
They started out with a series of burglaries. Then, they fenced
the things that they stole. But their big “break” (if there can
be such a thing for criminals) came with prohibition. Arnold
Rothstein supplied large amounts of illegal liquor. Bugsy and
Lansky were just two of many who worked delivering liquor for
Rothstein. The job benefited Bugsy in another way because
Rothstein bought off anybody who tried to hang a rap on Bugsy.
By age 21, Bugsy was making a good deal of money, and he
flaunted it. He bought a fancy apartment at the Waldorf Hotel.
He wore fancy clothes. He bought a Tudor home in nearby
Scarsdale. He was good looking and charming, and in 1929, he was
able to convince Esther Krackhauer to marry him. They had two
Soon after this, Bugsy began a long association with Charles
“Lucky” Luciano. Luciano was the leader of the Italian mob who
wanted control of the New York mob. Luciano had already arranged
a fight between the two ringleaders, Salvatore Maranzano and Joe
Macaria. When Macaria was gunned down, that left only Maranzano
to deal with. Luciano hired bodyguards, one of whom was Bugsy,
before going to take care of Maranzano. When the smoke cleared,
Maranzano was dead. Now Luciano was at the helm.
Bugsy became one of several hired assassins for Luciano. The
press labeled them Murder Inc. But in 1935, Thomas Dewey,
special prosecutor for the attorney general, began a crusade
against organized crime. Luciano was arrested for extorting
prostitutes. Bugsy was worried that the law was getting too
close. He left New York and moved his family to Hollywood. It
wasn’t long before he had control of the bookmaking. Then he
took over the prostitution and narcotics rings.
While there, Bugsy met his old friend George Raft. Ironically,
Raft made a living playing gangsters in movies. Raft introduced
him to many Hollywood stars, including Jean Harlowe and Clark
Gable. Bugsy had his own influence in Hollywood; he had control
of a union that represented extras, and he frequently called
them out on strike.
In November 1939, Harry “Big Greeny” Greenburg showed up in Los
Angeles. He had given up information on other gangsters to save
himself, but he needed a place to hide. Unluckily for him, Bugsy
was in Los Angeles. It was only a matter of time before Bugsy
killed him. But this time, Bugsy was charged with the crime and
couldn’t buy his way out of it. He was astonished when he found
out that one of the state’s witnesses was his wife’s brother
Whitey. Whitey had actually participated in the crime. Bugsy
arranged for his death and that of one of the other witnesses.
Upon their deaths, the state had to let Bugsy go free.
About this time, Bugsy met Virginia Hill. She had been sent to
Los Angeles by mobster Joe Adonis to recruit gamblers for the
Chicago mob. She found Bugsy very charming and was instantly
infatuated. The fact that he was married didn’t change a thing
for her. They started some joint ventures in which they ran
numbers rackets and drug smuggling. But by 1941, Bugsy needed to
get away from the charges that still haunted him in Los Angeles.
He went with Mo Sedway to Las Vegas, where gambling was legal.
Most of the casinos had wire services that reported the daily
horse races. Bugsy and Sedway immediately took control of the
wire services. But Bugsy’s real dream was to build a luxurious
hotel and high class casino. He would soon have his opportunity.
Just outside of Las Vegas, Billy Wilkerson was building a new
casino called the Flamingo. But by January 1945, he was deeply
in debt. Bugsy stepped in to finance the project with the mob’s
money. Bugsy, Sedway, and Gus Greenbaum became partners with
Wilkerson. He promised his investors that the hotel and casino
would open on December 26, 1946. But Bugsy really knew nothing
about construction, business, or casinos. A series of
construction disasters made it impossible for him to meet his
deadline. By December 26, only the casino, restaurant, and
showroom were ready. His mob partners wanted him to wait until
the hotel was ready too, but the grand opening proceeded as
planned. Other problems caused him to close the casino on
February 1, 1947, to fix some structural problems. About the
same time, his wife asked for a divorce, which he eagerly
The Flamingo reopened in March, this time with the new hotel. It
began making money right away. But Luciano suspected that Bugsy
and Virginia were skimming off the profits. He decided he would
have to kill Bugsy. On June 20, 1947, Bugsy returned to Los
Angeles while Virginia was sulking in Paris. After his business
was concluded, Bugsy went to Virginia’s Beverly Hills mansion
with some friends. That night, as he sat down to read the paper,
a hail of bullets came through the window. Though nine shots
were fired, only two hit Bugsy. He died at approximately 10:30
pm at the age of 41.
Bugsy was buried in a $5,000 silver-plated casket. There were
only five mourners at his funeral: his ex-wife, daughters
Barbara and Millicent, his brother Maurice, and his sister Bessy.
Bugsy’s murder was never solved.
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This web page was last updated on:
16 December, 2008