The Story Of Bugsy Siegel, The Gangster Who Built Las Vegas

Published September 25, 2021
Updated September 27, 2021

Bugsy Siegel understood early on that the mob could go hog wild in Las Vegas and built one of the biggest empires in the history of organized crime.

Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel was born on February 28, 1906, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. His parents were Jewish immigrants who had settled in New York City at the turn of the century. They later moved to Manhattan’s Lower East Side, which was then a hotbed of crime. It didn’t take long before their son discovered he had a taste for life on the street.

Bugsy Siegel Mugshot

Wikimedia CommonsBugsy Siegel’s mugshot, taken by the New York Police Department in 1928.

Siegel’s temper and dramatic mood swings caused friends to remark that he was “crazy as a bedbug.” Hence “Bugsy,” a nickname he actually despised. Siegel befriended fellow Jewish gangster Meyer Lansky when he was a teenager. Together they formed “The Bugs and Meyer Mob,” a violent Jewish gang on the Lower East Side that specialized in extortion. This outfit eventually morphed into the mob’s group of killers-for-hire that became known as “Murder. Inc.

Prohibition would prove an enormous boon to the gangs of New York, with Siegel and Lansky joining forces with one of the underworld’s rising stars, Charles “Lucky” Luciano.

After Luciano hired four killers from Murder Inc. — one of whom was reportedly Bugsy Siegel — to murder his rival Salvatore Maranzano, he became the most powerful mobster in New York and, together with Lansky, established the National Crime Syndicate, which divided power between the different gangs to prevent further turf wars.

Lower East Side Of New York

New York Public LibraryManhattan’s Lower East side was home to dozens of Jewish and Italian gangs in the early 20th century.

Bugsy Siegel fit the bill for the stereotypical 1920s gangster that film and television have since glamorized. By 1931, the former street urchin had made enough money to buy an apartment in the exclusive Waldorf Astoria.

He flaunted his money by wearing expensive suits and hitting up the city’s most famous nightclubs. Despite his flashy appearance, Siegel wasn’t afraid of doing the mob’s dirty work himself. Once, he confessed to an acquaintance in Las Vegas that he’d personally killed at least a dozen people. In an attempt to reassurance his confidant, he added, “We [gangsters] only kill each other.”

However, Siegel could only kill so many fellow gangsters before they started looking for revenge. The NYPD had already been monitoring him closely, and after he went on a spree and killed three rival mobsters, word got back to him and Lansky that it was Siegel’s turn to be marked for murder.

Lansky decided that since the Syndicate was looking to expand out West, his old friend would be the perfect candidate to send to California to establish and consolidate gambling operations. Siegel thrived in the glitz and glamour of Tinseltown: he moved into a massive villa and partied with movie stars and socialites. Not forgetting why he had been sent to the Golden State in the first place, Bugsy Siegel soon got wind of an interesting business opportunity a bit further south.

Flamingo Hotel

From a hotel unit looking towards The Flamingo Casino under construction. (Photo by Jon Brenneis/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

El Rancho Vegas was the first resort established off Highway 91 in the middle of the Nevada desert; today it’s better known as “the Strip,” an oasis for gamblers and revelers from all over the world. Siegel saw how well El Rancho was doing and realized the potential for the mob in Sin City; he convinced his old friend Meyer Lansky to sink money into his new business plan.

Bugsy Siegel took over development of The Flamingo, a resort that was already under construction, but whose original investors had run low on cash. Siegel promised his underworld buddies on the East Coast that he could complete the resort for a measly million dollars, but due to a combination of mismanagement and some stolen money, Lansky and the others were soon in the hole for $6 million.

Naturally, the New York bosses were not happy about the rising costs. When the Flamingo finally opened in 1946, happy gamblers christened the casino with a streak of wins, which was good news for the guests, but bad news for the mob. Siegel knew things didn’t look good for him, but eventually, his own luck turned around and the resort finally started pulling in big money.

Bugsy Siegel At Madam Tussaud's

Library of CongressBugsy Siegel has a wax figure in the Madam Tussaud’s of Las Vegas, thanks to his crucial role in establishing the city.

Unfortunately for Bugsy Siegel, it was too little too late: his fate had been decided by his former friends at a meeting in Havana. On June 20, 1947, Siegel was spending a quiet night at his girlfriend Virginia Hill’s home in Beverly Hills, reading a newspaper in the living room. The peace was shattered when nine shots from a military carbine blasted through the window and hit Siegel in the face. The gangster was killed instantly and gruesomely; one of the shots had knocked his eyeball clean out of its socket and across the room.

To this day it’s unknown who killed Siegel, or for exactly what reasons. His death was certainly mob-related, but whether it was because of the increased construction costs, suspicions he’d been stealing from the bosses, or an internal power struggle was never determined.

Bugsy Siegel's Death

Bettmann/Getty ImagesBugsy Siegel’s body as it was found, sitting in the living room.

Only his brother and his rabbi showed up at Bugsy Siegel’s funeral, but his name would live on in infamy. The Flamingo helped established the mob in Las Vegas, and it still stands today.

Enjoy this article about Bugsy Siegel? Next, read about boxer Mickey Cohen, who became the most powerful mobster in Los Angeles. Then read about the real gangs of New York that roamed the city in the 19th century. Finally, learn about the death of Bonnie and Clyde.

Gina Dimuro
Gina Dimuro is a New York-based writer and translator.