Goodfellas: How The Mob Changed Vegas

  • Mobsters Bugsy Siegel, Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano shaped Las Vegas
  • The legacy of the mob remains with the desert town to this day

The city of Las Vegas was founded in 1905, but it wasn’t until the Boulder Dam began construction in 1930 that the town really took off. Suddenly there were thousands of men from around the US kicking their heels in the sleepy Nevada town all looking for a little entertainment.

By 1931 the town had its first licensed gambling establishment and in the next few years more would follow. Although criminality was never completely removed from the casinos in the early days of Vegas, it wasn’t until the late 40s when the mob moved into town that things really kicked off.

Enter Bugsy

Ben ‘Bugsy’ Siegel was a Jewish-American gangster with links to the Italian mob. Although he knew Vegas through other business links he had largely ignored the town until 1946, when he used his powers of persuasion to gain a stake in the Flamingo Hotel. Bugsy was so persuasive that the original owner eventually signed over the entire operation and left for Paris.

vegas mob
Ben ‘Bugsy’ Siegel, one time owner – and developer – of the Flamingo Hotel. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/New York Police Department

With Bugsy in charge and money flowing in from mob figures include Meyer Lansky, redevelopment of the Flamingo was the first order of business. So began a lavish spending spree the likes of which Vegas had never seen before. Typical development costs for a hotel could be expected to rise as much as $1 million but by 1947 $6 million had been invested (or sunk depending on your perspective) into the Flamingo.

Exit Bugsy

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While Bugsy had raised the bar on presentation, his inability to turn the Flamingo into a profit-making enterprise was his end. Lucky Luciano put a contract on him and he ate a bullet in ‘47. Control of the Flamingo turned over to Meyer Lansky. By 1991 the unprofitable Flamingo had turned the initial $6 million investment into a ‘mere’ $100 billion.

Bugsy may have been removed but his legacy remained. The next generation of Vegas hotels funded through Mormon bankers and the Teamsters Union were competing with the marker laid down by the Flamingo. The next line of hotels to be built were the Sahara, the Sands, the New Frontier and The Riviera which raised the bar again with the help of a now firmly established Meyer Lansky.

Vegas Mob stories
Front of Flamingo Hotel circa 1946. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/kstadelman

As the 40s gave way to the 50s Las Vegas became a bigger draw for celebrities and big profile names. Entertainers such as Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Andy Williams, Liberace, Bing Crosby and Carol Channing would regularly been seen headlining nights in the city of sin. The financing of these big names and star draws was closely tied to mob money once more.

The new Vegas

In just a few short years Las Vegas had been transformed from a relatively modest centre of idle entertainment to America’s number one gambling destination. Mob interests in the town led to scrutiny at Government level and while a proposed crackdown on gambling did little to hurt the town itself, it ironically helped to bury rival gambling towns such as Galveston, Texas and Hot Springs, Arkansas.

The Goodfellas grip on the gambling capital of the world would not loosen until the late 60s when the eccentric recluse Howard Hughes began buying hotels for the purpose of making their penthouse suites second homes.

Las Vegas Skyline
Vegas today, a very different beast from Bugsy’s time…

By that time Vegas was already changed beyond all recognition, shaped by the vision of a Jewish mobster who was shot in the head for his troubles.

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