Benjamin 'Bugsy' Siegel

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Benjamin 'Bugsy' Siegel

The mobster who started the transformation of Las Vegas from a small desert town to the glitzy gambling capital of the world.

Born in 1906, his Las Vegas adventure came at the end of an action packed life for Siegel. The handsome gangster moved from the slums of Brooklyn, to mixing with the glamorous of Hollywood, before setting up in Las Vegas. On the way, Bugsy established a name as one of the most notorious gangsters in the US. With a history of bootlegging, bookmaking, rape and contract killings, he was not a man to be taken lightly. When he entered the scene in Vegas, Siegel was a wealthy man in his own right, and had access to the mob money in New York, Chicago and Miami Beach.

He had been occupied with gambling before, having developed the nationwide results wire service for bookmakers, and been involved in the running of floating casinos that operated beyond the 3-mile US territorial limits.

But Siegel saw Las Vegas, in the state of Nevada which had previously legalised gambling as a way of generating revenue during the Depression, as a way of setting up a permanent entry into the legitimate gambling business that was all but a licence for the mob to print money.

Benjamin 'Bugsy' Siegel

He wasn't the first to see Las Vegas' potential, and in fact his major venture wasn't even his idea. He took over a project to from Billy Wilkerson to build the most luxurious hotel that Las Vegas had ever seen when Wilkerson ran out of money. Siegel raised over $1million from his fellow mobsters, many of whom invested their own personal savings as well as profits from other mob enterprises. Bugsy dreamt of creating an oasis in the desert where holidaymakers from the east and west coasts could come for sun, gambling and entertainment, to enjoy fine hotels and food at affordable prices, where there were many activities to distract his guests from their losses at the tables.

His hotel was to be called The Flamingo - after his nickname for his mistress Virginia Hill. The original construction budget was $1.5 million, but costs soon spiralled to $6 million. The construction materials were expensive and hard to come by in post-war America, and the builders were ripping Bugsy off and stealing from him behind his back.

That wasn't Bugsy's biggest problem though - the mobsters who had invested in his dream weren't happy to see their money disappearing. Some suspected that Siegel was skimming money off for himself, which was deposited in Swiss bank accounts on Virginia Hill's frequent trips to Europe. Several of his investors wanted to have him taken out - but they were persuaded to postpone the contract and give the Flamingo a chance.

The casino opened on December 26th 1946, with many famous faces there for the grand entertainment show. However, the opening was a flop. No locals attended, and as the hotel wasn't finished, guests took their winnings off elsewhere. In January 1947, Siegel was forced to close the resort until the hotel was finished. Again, his mob investors had to be persuaded to give Bugsy a chance to make the resort pay.

The grand reopening of the Flamingo took place in March 1947, and their gamble appeared to pay off. Siegel had the resort showing a profit by May 1947.

But this was not enough. In June 1947, Siegel was shot dead in the front room of Virginia Hill's Hollywood bungalow. The violent killing made the front pages of newspapers across the country. To this day, no one is certain who ordered the killing to be carried out. But Siegel had few friends when he died - only 5 relatives attended his funeral.

But Siegel's murder helped to forge his legend. By becoming front-page news in this way, Bugsy was forever linked with the fortunes of Las Vegas. The tale of his demise brought the stories of gambling and casinos in Las Vegas to the public's knowledge, and put Las Vegas on the road to becoming the international resort it is today.

The Flamingo hotel is now one of the largest resorts in the world. It has long since shed its mob links, but Benny Siegel is honoured with a bronze plaque and a rose garden in its grounds. On the hotel's 50th anniversary, $5 commemorative chips with Bugsy's picture on were released.

Bugsy will always be remembered as the father of the modern Las Vegas resort. It is therefore ironic that it was the pursuit of his dream - of Las Vegas as a gambling Mecca - that was to bring about the premature and violent end to his life.

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