A History of the Mob in Las Vegas
Mob-Era Casinos that Haven't Been Imploded
- The Flamingo
- Caesar's Palace
- Fremont Casino
Running a casino in the early days of Vegas was a dangerous task. The ideal hotel manager functioned as little more than a puppet for powerful mob bosses from the East. They could order a hit on anyone that wasn’t behaving the way they wanted them to. It was important for the casino managers to lie low and not draw unwanted attention. Their main function was to send money from the casino profits back East to the established mob bosses and to conceal the casino’s revenue sheets from investigators.
Construction of the strip started in the 1940s, with mob activity occurring from the 1940s through the 1970s. After that, corporations took over and casinos like The Wynn Encore Resort, the Mirage, and the Luxor were constructed and backed by businessmen, not mobsters.
The 1940s: El Cortez &The Flamingo
Prior to the 1980s much of Vegas was run by mob families with ties to New York City and Chicago. Bugsy Siegel, one of Vegas’ prime developers, was born in New York City where he became involved with the Genovese crime family, who were part of the Mafia. His nickname, Bugsy, (his real name was Benjamin) refers to a slang word for crazy, ‘bugs.’ Indeed, Siegel had a reputation for a violent temper and in contemporary terms is deemed a sociopath.
He moved out West in 1937 at age 31 where he established rackets in Hollywood while throwing extravagant parties and sleeping around with married actresses. Siegel eventually turned to Vegas, with Al Capone from Chicago backing him financially. Among his first projects was the construction of the Flamingo, one of the strip’s first casino hotels.
Siegel bypassed postwar shortages by securing black market building materials to construct this landmark on the barren desert. The Flamingo opened in 1947, without its iconic marquees, the same year that Bugsy was shot by a mob hitman at age 42. Bugsy had provoked the mob with his over-budget vision and private skimming off of the Flamingo's profits. He was found slumped to the side with two bullets in his head, bleeding onto his expensive suit and floral couch.
After Bugsy’s death, Gus Greenbaum of the Chicago Outfit took over the Flamingo with Moe Sedway. The pair also ran the El Cortez downtown. Mobster Meyer Lansky, who was also influential in the Flamingo’s development, remained involved and continued to exert control over the hotel for Chicago mobs for the next twenty years.
The 1950s: The Riviera, Tropicana, & Binion's
Gus Greenbaum was threatened into taking over the Riviera when mobsters murdered his sister-in-law. Like Bugsy, Greenbaum had an unwise habit of skimming a little extra for himself. A Chicago hitman slit Greenbaum’s throat in 1958.
Phil Kastel operated the Tropicana when it first opened in the late 1950s, while in connection with Frank Costello, one of America’s most influential gangsters and head of the Luciano crime Family in New York.
There was also Binions, created by the eponymous Benny Binion, a former moonshiner and an outcast among the mafia families for his indiscretion. His own bodyguard shot and killed a man in the men’s room of one of Binion’s Vegas clubs. However Binion survived into old age unlike Siegel and Greenbaum. Binion can also be credited with introducing high limits to gambling and drink comps for gamblers.
The 1960s: Caesar’s Palace, Sahara, & The Aladdin
During this decade the government became more involved in quelling mob activities so the mob shifted to hidden ownership and control instead of owning casinos outright. Towards the end of the decade billionaire Howard Hughes began buying up properties, removing them from mob control.
Businessman Milton Prell officially owned the Aladdin; however authorities discovered it was really being run by its entertainment director James Tamer for the benefit of Detroit and St. Louis mobs. The mob also gained influence within Sahara’s and Caesar’s Palace. Jerome Zarowitz of Caesar’s Palace was investigated by the Federal government for his New York crime ties. The Fischetti brothers, who were friends with Frank Sinatra, received covert paybacks from Sahara’s.
The 1970s: Slots-A-Fun, Stardust, & Fremont Casino
Kansas City mobs were also involved in skimming operations, with Carl Thomas overseeing Slots-A-Fun, while Chicago-born Frank Rosenthal ghost-operated the Stardust on the Strip and the downtown Fremont Casino as part of the Chicago Outfit mafia. Rosenthal also pioneered sports gambling, now ubiquitous on the strip, by opening the first sports book, located in the Stardust.
Anthony "The Ant" Spilotro, another member of the Chicago Outfit personally enforced Rosenthal’s skimming schemes at the Stardust and Fremont Casino. Spilotro arrived in Vegas in 1971, and would remain an influential mob figure there until 1986 when he was buried alive in a cornfield in Indiana by the mob, who were furious over the attention drawn to a botched $1 million robbery of a furniture store executed on Spilotro’s orders. Rosenthal also faced the mob’s wrath, when a car bomb was planted in his 1981 Cadillac Eldorado. But Rosenthal survived and actually lived into old age after being ousted from Vegas in 1987.
Today Las Vegas remembers its mob heritage with the Las Vegas Mob Museum and the nearby speakeasy-style Mob Bar. The Museum allows you to fire a tommy-gun simulator and participate in a mock police line-up and take your picture, so don't miss out on the opportunity to pretend to be a criminal for a day.