How Jewish-American Gangster Mickey Cohen Took Over Los Angeles

Published March 19, 2018
Updated June 7, 2021

From fearless boxer to L.A.'s most notorious mobster, Mickey Cohen was so much more than Bugsy Siegel's apprentice.

When you think of organized crime in America, you probably think of the Mafia, right? And when you think of the Mafia, you certainly imagine it as full of Italian-American gangsters. But what you might not know is that Jewish-American gangsters actually played a huge role in the history of organized crime through figures like Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel.

But few Jewish gangsters were as feared as Mickey Cohen.

He was born Meyer Harris Cohen in New York in the early years of the 20th century. By the time Cohen was a teenager, his mother moved the family across the country to Los Angeles. Like many poor kids, Cohen quickly fell into a life of petty crime there.

But soon, Cohen found another passion in amateur boxing, fighting in illegal underground boxing matches in LA. When he was 15, he moved to Ohio to pursue a career as a professional fighter. However, Cohen still found himself unable to stay away from crime.

Gangster Mickey Cohen

Getty ImagesGangster Mickey Cohen

During Prohibition, Cohen worked on the side as an enforcer for the Chicago mob. There, he found an outlet for his violent tendencies. After briefly being arrested on suspicion of several murders of gangland associates, Cohen began running illegal betting operations in Chicago. In 1933, Cohen gave up his boxing career to focus full time on organized crime.

Soon, he got an offer from another prominent Jewish gangster, Bugsy Siegel, to move back to Los Angeles and work for him. There he served as muscle for Siegel, killing anyone who got in the way of his profits while also acting in a major role in organizing gambling operations for Siegel.

And with a natural charm and capacity for violence, Cohen moved into the movie business, exerting control over unions and demanding cuts of the profits from producers.

Mickey Cohen With Newspapers

Ed Clark/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty ImagesGangster Mickey Cohen sitting amongst the front pages of newspapers that helped make him L.A.’s most infamous citizen.

He soon partnered with Siegel’s associates, Meyer Lansky and Frank Costello, to gain control over organized crime on the West Coast. And Cohen wasn’t shy about killing anyone who threatened that control. Soon, he was becoming a major force in the crime world in his own right.

He also helped run Siegel’s hotel in Las Vegas, the Flamingo Hotel, playing a significant role in setting up sports betting in Las Vegas. But Cohen’s help wasn’t enough to save the Flamingo from disaster.

Thanks to Siegel’s skimming of funds, the Flamingo was rapidly losing money. In in 1947, Bugsy was gunned down and other gangsters, who were heavily invested in the casino, soon arranged for Siegel’s assassination.

Cohen, in his typical style, stormed into a hotel where he thought Siegel’s murderers were staying and fired his gun into the ceiling. He demanded that the murderers come outside to meet him in the street. It was around this time that LAPD’s new and secret Gangster Squad was surveying criminal operations in the city. So when the cops were called, Cohen fled.

Cohen increasingly became a major figure in underground crime after Siegel’s death. But soon, his violent ways were beginning to catch up with him. Not only were the police beginning to take a closer look at Cohen’s activities, but he had made a number of very dangerous enemies inside of organized crime.

After his house was bombed, Cohen turned his home into a fortress equipped with floodlights, alarms, and an arsenal of weapons. He then dared his enemies to come get him. In all, Cohen would survive 11 assassination attempts and constant harassment from police.

Ultimately, it was the law that got Cohen. In 1951, he was sentenced to four years in federal prison for income tax evasion, much like Al Capone. In spite of committing many murders over his career, the police couldn’t get enough evidence to charge him with a single killing.

After his release, Cohen ran a number of different businesses. But he was arrested and charged with tax evasion again in 1961 and sent to Alcatraz. After being bailed out from “the rock,” he would spend the next 12 years at a federal prison in Atlanta, Ga.

He was finally released in 1972 and spent the remainder of his years making television appearances. He died just four years later of stomach cancer.

Enjoy this look at Mickey Cohen? Next, read how “Little Caesar” Salvatore Maranzano created the American Mafia. Then discover how Joe Masseria’s murder gave rise to the Mafia’s golden age. Finally, discover the story of Bonnie and Clyde’s bloody demise.

Wyatt Redd
Wyatt Redd is a freelance writer from Nashville, Tennessee.