Anyone who has watched a few true crime movies knows that there is an undeniable 1940s link between the mafia and gambling. Tommy guns and jauntily tilted hats were the order of the day, and names such as Al Capone were on the front page of every newspaper in town.
Gunfights occurred between mobsters and police in broad daylight, and finding yourself at the bottom of the harbour wearing cement boots was a real risk. But just how real was this link between one and the other, and exactly how much does Las Vegas really owe to the mob?
The answer is; the link is very real, and Las Vegas really does owe a pretty big amount to the mobsters of the 1940s. So much so, in fact, that the Las Vegas we know today may never have occurred were it not for the hard work and investment of the mob. It’s a difficult thing to grasp, but it just so happens to be true. Let’s have a look at how the mobsters of the 1940s brought Las Vegas into the being the jewel of the desert it is today.
Back in the day, prior to the 1930s, Las Vegas was a pretty small, unimpressive one-horse town. It had nothing much going for it, and didn’t see many visitors. Folks mostly stopped over there on the way to somewhere else, and few stuck around beyond having a few drinks and stocking up on supplies. There was indeed a bit of gambling, but it was illegal, and took place in dark backrooms, where getting shot for being accused of cheating was a real occurrence.
When 1931 came around gambling was legalised in Las Vegas, but this didn’t really change much. Indeed, a few legal gambling halls went up and a few diners opened, but there was not exactly a mad rush of tourists. In fact most tourists looking for a bit of gambling went all the way to Cuba, as opposed to Las Vegas, given that there wasn’t much in the way of a drawing card out in the desert. But this all changed after the Second World War.
The Mob Makes Its Move
It was the mob that saw the potential of Las Vegas. Gambling was legal out in the desert, but there was no major drawing card. All the little town needed was something that drew people in, something that was impressive to look at, and did not just offer legal gambling, but also had a reputation for offering a great deal more as far as questionable activities went. Meyer Lansky and the infamous Bugsy Siegel were the two pioneers that put Las Vegas on the map. They set up a hotel and casino extravaganza called The Flamingo.
It was not, however, initially a huge success as far as casinos went, and in fact suffered a long period of not being profitable after opening. Siegel was also caught up in a controversial scandal during the casino’s construction, and rumour says he skimmed millions from the casino’s building funds. The poor man landed up sleeping with the fishes, literally, and did not live to see The Flamingo turn into a huge success.
Success Follows Success
With the success of The Flamingo Las Vegas began to see a huge influx of tourists. The city out in the desert, with its reputation linked to the mafia, became known as a place where you could go to act a little crazy. You could drink too much, gamble all night, and it was okay. The theatre shows all involved scantily dressed women, and it was also okay. Viva Las Vegas! Come and party!
The Flamingo was followed by the opening of a number of other casinos, all in such quick succession that the Las Vegas skyline changed practically overnight. Investors were suddenly frothing at the mouth to get in on the action, and bidding wars broke our over Las Vegas property. Soon the Flamingo was flanked on all sides by enormous buildings, and people soon began to forget that it had been the mob that started it all.
The Mob Fades
The Flamingo did indeed start it all, but it didn’t remain the king of Las Vegas. As the tourists began to flock into the city, legal investors quickly started to flash their wallets on the scene, and they didn’t want anything to do with the mafia. The Flamingo had been overflowing with rumours of embezzlement, questionable deals, and horrible behaviour by its guests, which was partly why it had been so popular in the first place.
But as the legal investors started setting up shop, the mafia was gradually pushed out. Today Las Vegas is a place that runs by the letter of the law, and all signs of Tommy-gun-wielding mobsters have disappeared. But those who currently visit Vegas should never forget that they are walking in a town that was all but created by the mob.