In August of 2022, a fourth set of human remains were found at Lake Mead in the state of Nevada. As the water level dropped, bodies began to be discovered in the lake that is roughly 20 miles from Las Vegas. The first body was found inside a barrel, with investigations suggesting that they had died at some point in the 1970s or 1980s from a gunshot. It was yet another grisly reminder of the influence that mobsters had on Sin City during the more formative years of its time as a gambling Mecca, when they ruled the roost.
Those that have watched films such as The Godfather and Casino will know about the influence that gangsters had in Las Vegas. It is perhaps not all that surprising, when you consider the fact that gambling continued to take place in speakeasies and other illicit venues in the wake oh Nevada’s decision to outlaw the practice in 1910. Organised crime quickly took hold of the city, so that by the time, it was legalised again in 1931 it was already too late for the police to do anything about it.
The Origins of Las Vegas
Thanks to petroglyphs within the canyon, we know that humans had a presence in the southern part of Nevada more than 10,000 years ago. Quite whether any of them partook in gambling activities, perhaps wagering an animal carcas up against some fur, we can’t tell. What we do know is that Rafael Rivera was the first person of European descent to enter the valley, which he did in 1821 m as part of Antonio Armijo’s expedition to the area. He is the one that named it Las Vegas after the spring-watered grasses that were there.
In 1848, Las Vegas shifted from being Mexican to being part of the United States of America. Seven years later and Brigham Young attempted to create a Mormon settlement in the area but was unsuccessful. The biggest change came about in 1905 when the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake City railroad arrived in Las Vegas, connecting the city to places much further afield. The city was incorporated in 1911, a year after the state of Nevada had outlawed gambling. Unfortunately for them, the practice had already taken hold.
The Birth of the City
The railroad workers and others that had settled in Las Vegas had been gambling throughout their time in the area. As a result, it never really went away even after it was made illegal in 1910. Organised crime had already began to lay its roots in the city thanks to illicit casinos and speakeasies. That is part of the reason why it was decided to legalise gambling again in 1931, which was the same year that construction began on the Hoover Dam, then called the Boulder Dam. It drew thousands of workers to the area, with casinos and showgirl venues opening to accommodate them.
Those same gangsters that had run the illegal casinos and speakeasies were responsible for opening the legal venues on Fremont Street. When the Dam was completed in 1936, the electricity from it was used to power the signs and machines that were being operated in the area. In 1941, El Rancho Vegas opened on a part of U.S. 91, which was slightly outside the city’s jurisdiction. Other companies followed suit, with the area that these new casinos were being built becoming known as ‘the strip’.
The Gangsters Take Hold
The casinos on Fremont Street were mostly themed after the Old West, so those that opened on the strip followed suit. The first major departure from that came about in 1946 when the mobster, Bugsy Seigel, worked worth fellow gangster, Meyer Lanksky, in order to open the Flamingo. This new-look venue took its cue from Hollywood, being glitzy and swanky and booking top-drawer talent for its lounges. Dozens of celebrities turned up for its opening on Christmas Day, wanting to be seen at the ‘place to be’ in Nevada.
It was Seigel’s vision to have a ‘resort-style’ hotel that paved the way for Las Vegas to become the city that it did. Yet Seigel never really got to see it happen, given that he was gunned down and killed outside his girlfriend’s California home just six months after the Flamingo first opened. That, in many ways, was appropriate for Las Vegas, given that the city effectively had an open door policy for dozens of mafia families from all around the country. Chicago was possibly the most dominant city with a Mafia presence in Las Vegas.
Seigel was a hitman and was one of Charlie ‘Lucky’ Luciano’s most trusted associates. Luciano had organised the Mafia into a national crime syndicate out of New York. He worked alongside the Mafia’s financier, Lansky, in order to get the Flamingo open and had Seigel run it. Many historians believe that Seigel was killed for taking money from the casino, with his death used as a warning to others about what happens if you cross the mob. After his death, more underworld associates were brought in to take on the running of the Flamingo.
The Mob Spreads Out
The Flamingo was used as the prototype for other casinos in Las Vegas. The Thunderbird and the Desert Inn were both opened in the years that followed, with the Mafia responsible for running them both. Michael Green, a History professor at the College of Southern Nevada, believed that it was a ‘perfect storm’ for Las Vegas. There were people running casinos that didn’t have the money to expand, as well as mob types who had the money but didn’t have a clue how to run a casino, so the two groups were able to work together.
The 1950s saw even more casinos with mob connections open up. The Sands, the Dunes, the Riviera and the Tropicana all opened thanks to financing from the Teamsters Central State Pension Fund, which was dominated by the mob. More Dalitz was a racketeer from Cleveland and was close to the Teamsters Union President, Jimmy Hoffa. He became a pillar of the Las Vegas community in the years that followed, showing the extent to which the mob had infiltrated it. Indeed, he was once named the ‘Humanitarian of the Year’ on account of his philanthropic contributions.
The Authorities Take an Interest
In 1950, Estes Kefauver, a United States Senator, took an interest in the goings on in Las Vegas as part of hearings he was holding around the country into organised crime. He held hearings in Las Vegas in the November, which were televised around the country. This helped to inextricably link the city to the mob in the eyes of most Americans, which remained the case for decades. Despite his attempts to reform the city, the link between Las Vegas and the Mafia didn’t show any sign of slowing, so state regulators began to show an interest.
In 1960, the ‘List of Excluded Persons’ was created. Also known as ‘the Black Book of Undesirables’, it listed people that were banned from having an association with a casino. This was largely thanks to believed ties to the mob, with 11 figures being put on the list during the first wave. That included Chicago Mafia boss, Sam Giancana, as well as Nick and Carl Civella from Kansas City. Another attempt to remove the mob’s influence from Las Vegas came about after John F. Kennedy was elected to the Presidency and made his brother, Robert Kennedy, the Attorney General.
Kennedy believed that gambling was ‘the lifeblood of organised crime’. He thought that if he would be able to throttle it if he went after the casinos. His plan was to deputise a wealth of state gaming agents, using them in Justice Department raids on the strip. He was persuaded not to by the State Governor, Grant Sawyer, who feared what it would look like from a public relations point of view. Kennedy did go ahead with wiretaps on casinos, though, but little came of his plan and the Teamsters continued to finance new casinos in Las Vegas.
Corporate America Takes Over
Caesars Palace opened thanks to Teamster financing, then two years later, Circus Circus followed suit. A big part of the problem for law enforcement was the fact that people were far more afraid of the Mafia than they were of the police, so few chose to flip. In the end, it wasn’t the police that was able to start to get rid of the mob’s influence in Sin City, but rather the arrival of corporate America.
Billionaire, Howard Hughes, bought the Desert Inn from the mob in the late 1960s, along with several other casinos on the strip. He realised that there was money to be made from legitimate gambling concerns, with the rest of corporate America soon following suit. This was helped by Nevada Legislasture being passed in 1969 that eased the way for a more suitable face for casinos in the state. Congress later passed the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, which allowed the Justice Department to take the fight to the crime families. As a result, the Justice Departrment tried even harder to go after them, investigated Mafia families.
Not that the mob was willing to give up easily, of course. In 1971, Anthony Spilotro was sent to Las Vegas in order to take over the loan-sparking operation from Marshall Caifano, who was one of the 11 Black Book members. Allen R. Glick was installed at the Startdust and Fremont as a licensed frontman, being a reputable businessman from San Diego. Authorites forced Spilotro out of the gift shop of Circus Circus, where he’d been running his operation, so he moved to other mob-run casinos to carry on. He avoided prison for years, but his body was found in 1986 after mob bosses had him ‘whacked’.
By the time of his death, the mob had already lost its grip on Las Vegas. Federal Authorites had been able to convict a string of Mafia bosses for skimming money at the likes of the Fremont, the Stardust and the Tropicana. Others had been convicted for wielding influence at the likes of the Aladdin. The mob had lost control of street rackets and could no longer claim to be in charge of the strip. Corporate America had done what the Authorites couldn’t and managed to remove the Mafia’s influence from Las Vegas.
The Mob Museum
Nowadays, there is a sense of pride over Sin City’s link to the Mafia in some quarters. If you head to Las Vegas you can visit what is known as the Mob Museum, but is officially known as the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement. It was opened by Oscar Goodman, who had worked as the criminal defence lawyer for numerous mob figures, becoming the unofficial mouthpiece for the Mafia. Goodman had opted for a new line of work, entering politics and becoming the Mayor of Las Vegas, holding the office for 12 years.
People like Frank Cullotta, who was a childhood friend of Spilotro and gave evidence against him to the FBI, kept memories of the mob in Vegas alive by giving tours of old Mafia haunts. Many of the stories of the Mafia’s influence in Sin City can be seen in the Mob Museum, which is a non-profit organisation that looks to advance the public’s understanding of organised crime’s influence on America. There are hundreds of artefacts and exhibits on offer, including the ability to visit an underground speakeasy and distillery on site.