What particular attributes did it take to attain the pinnacle of success in organized crime back in its heyday? Some were charming, quite a few connected, and others were ruthless. Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, however, was simply a cold-blooded killer.
Born to Jewish parents in Brooklyn in 1906, Siegel got started early. Teaming up with another miscreant named Moe Sedway, Siegel dropped out of school and started hustling. His first racket was threatening to set fire to vendor’s pushcarts if they failed to pay him a dollar. By the time he finished his adolescent years he had a criminal record for armed robbery, rape, and murder.
During his teens Siegel developed a friendship with another Jewish mobster named Meyer Lanksy. Together they expanded their operation into gambling and car theft. Siegel worked as a bootlegger during Prohibition until he found his true calling. Bugsy Siegel was a born hitman.
Siegel hated the name Bugsy. It stemmed from his reputation for being crazy as a bug. Fellow gangster Joseph “Doc” Stacher once said, “While we tried to figure out what the best move was, Bugsy was already shooting. When it came to action there was no one better.”
Siegel was a childhood chum of Al Capone, and he helped hide Capone once when Scarface was in a bind. Bugsy made money through prostitution, gambling, drugs, and murder, and he wanted people to know he was rich. He maintained the nicest apartments, wore the best clothes, and socialized with all the finest people. Bugsy Siegel had all the right connections.
In the 1930’s Siegel and Lansky formed Murder, Inc., a nationwide kill-for-money organization that took life on behalf of anyone willing to pay. They gunned down Joe Masseria at the behest of Luciano Costello. Later they killed Salvatore Maranzo for Costello as well, cementing his position atop the regional mob hierarchy. Siegel murdered two Fabrizzo brothers after their failed effort to kill him. In response, the third brother, Tony Fabrizzo, threatened to release details of Siegel’s operation to the public.
In 1932 Ben Siegel checked himself into a local hospital after feigning an illness. Once the activity died down that evening he crept out of the facility. Bugsy then made his way to Tony Fabrizzo’s house with two associates. They knocked on the door claiming to be police detectives. Once Tony came outside they gunned him down and Siegel returned to the hospital, using his hospitalization as an alibi.
Go West, Young Man
Siegel’s hospital story was flimsy, and the list of those wishing him ill on the East Coast had become substantial. Intent on making money, Siegel headed west to California with the blessing of his well-heeled criminal associates. By 1942 Siegel’s West Coast bookmaking was bringing in $500,000 a day for the East Coast mob. In addition to this lucrative racket, Siegel ran prostitution rings and offshore gambling boats.
With money of this magnitude, Bugsy Siegel set himself up in a state of opulence. He was a known associate of Clark Gable, Cary Grant, and Gary Cooper as well as a young Tony Curtis and Frank Sinatra. Despite his marriage, it was a poorly-kept secret that Siegel was also intimately familiar with more than a few Hollywood starlets.
In 1938 Siegel toured Italy and met Benito Mussolini, offering to sell him guns if he needed them.
He also met Nazis Joseph Goebbels and Herman Goering but was immediately soured by them, perhaps because of his Jewish heritage. He later offered to kill them both but subsequently relented when an Italian countess-friend personally intervened.
The bloody trail of corpses Siegel and his associates left in their wake is too extensive to catalog here. Suffice to say Bugsy had no compunction about pulling the trigger to secure business interests, eliminate competition, or even just keep himself comfortable. Siegel’s’ quest for ever-greater sources of illegal revenue eventually took him to a sleepy little desert town called Las Vegas, Nevada.
The Father of Sin City
Bugsy Siegel saw potential in these arid desert wastes and began by offering paid female companionship for the work crews building the Hoover Dam. From there he joined William R. Wilkerson as a business partner building the Las Vegas Flamingo Hotel and Casino. Siegel eventually grew weary of sharing and forced Wilkerson out under threat of death. Wilkerson fled to Paris and went into hiding.
Siegel insisted on the best of everything in his new hotel and costs soon exploded to $6 million in 1946, most all of which had been fronted by the East Coast mob. This is the modern-day equivalent of around $60 million and was hardly front pocket change. Siegel’s real-world arrogance established an archetype that has subsequently been replicated in countless Hollywood movies.
Pressured by the money men and desperate to turn a profit, Siegel opened the casino early before the hotel was complete. This allowed gamblers to make their winnings and leave without coming back to the casino to lose their money the following day. Within two weeks the Flamingo was more than a quarter million dollars in the red and forced to shut down. Two months later the Flamingo reopened with a new business plan and was indeed financially successful, but Siegel’s East Coast criminal benefactors had had enough.
Killing a Killer
Siegel returned to Beverly Hills with a feeling that all was not well. He had done enough professional killing himself to pick up on the subtle signs. Regardless, on June 27, 1947, Siegel found himself at the home of his lover Virginia Hill along with an associate named Allen Smiley. While Siegel was typically tactically savvy, for some reason this evening he left the window shades up. This would be his last mistake.
An unknown assailant crept through Hill’s flowers and fired nine rounds from an M1 Carbine at close range through the living room window.
Four .30-caliber bullets struck Siegel in the back through a sofa and perforated his lungs. One round struck his right cheek and exited the left aspect of his neck. A sixth projectile struck the right side of Bugsy’s nose where it met his eye socket. The subsequent overpressure forcefully ejected his left eyeball. Part of his eyelid, eyelashes still attached, was found in a doorway across the room.
Bugsy Siegel was dead where he lay. He was 41 years old. No one was ever charged with his killing.
While Siegel was not shot through the eye per se, his character and his death served as inspiration for the murder of the fictitious gangster Moe Greene in the movie The Godfather. An execution-style killing via a bullet through the eye has subsequently come to be called a “Moe Greene Special” in gangster lore.
Four of the nine shots fired that night went on to destroy a bust of the Roman god of wine Bacchus that was sitting on a grand piano across the room. This seemed a fitting end to the father of Sin City.
We have profiled the M1 Carbine already in a previous GunsAmerica installment. Suffice it to say that the Carbine was the most-produced American rifle of the war with more than six million copies seeing action. At the apogee of production, we were manufacturing 65,000 carbines a day. As a result, the M1 Carbine was a popular veteran bring back weapon.
The US military has always been fairly compulsive about weapons accountability, but this is a tough thing to maintain in combat. Untold thousands of GI Carbines came back in duffle bags and sea chests, so they were readily available in 1947 at the time of Siegel’s shooting.
A friend’s dad found one unattended leaning against a bulkhead in an assault transport ship off the coast of Iwo Jima and appropriated it for his own. Beginning in the late 1950’s the government sold 207,000 Carbines to the American public via the Directorate of Civilian Marksmanship. These guns typically sold for less than $20 apiece. They have never been hard to find.
When first I tasted Las Vegas myself at the SHOT Show many years ago I came home describing the place as Disneyworld for pagans. The same engine of gambling and prostitution that drove the place in Bugsy Siegel’s day remains prevalent even now. Siegel’s dream of a gambling mecca in the Nevada desert has come to fruition beyond his wildest dreams.
Bugsy Siegel’s influence still lives on in Vegas. Though I have not myself seen it, I am told there is a memorial to Siegel in the Flamingo hotel between the pool and the wedding chapel. Thus memorialized in bronze is a likeness of the pimp, extortionist, thief, and cold-blooded murderer whose thirst for ill-gotten wealth started it all.
Special thanks to www.worldwarsupply.com for the replica gear used to outfit our US Army Paratrooper.