This Day in Jewish History / Bugsy Siegel Is Murdered

Notorious racketeer, said to have killed some 30 rivals, was one of America’s first celebrity gangsters.

Wikimedia Commons / New York Police Department

On June 20, 1947, notorious gangster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel was shot and killed in Beverly Hills, California. To this day, his murder remains unsolved.

Benjamin Siegel was born on February 28, 1906, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the second of five children of Max and Jenny Siegel, both of them Jewish immigrants from Letychiv, Podolia, in Poland.

Benjamin’s life of crime began early, when he dropped out of school and, at age 14, joined up with a gang on Lafayette Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Early friends and accomplices included Moe Sedway, with whom Siegel started a protection racket, extorting pushcart peddlers for a regular payoff and burning their carts if they didn’t pay up; and also Meyer Lansky, who remained his partner in crime until the end of Siegel’s life.

Eventually, the gang came to be called the Bugs and Meyer Mob. (Siegel earned the nickname “Bugsy” thanks to his violent temper: Colleagues said he was “crazy as a bedbug.”) The mob, whose regulars also included figures such as Louis “Lepke” Buchalter and Arthur Flegenheimer (better known as “Dutch Schultz”), mainly concerned itself with the hijacking of trucks of bootlegged liquor.

With time, the Bugs and Meyer Mob was absorbed by “the Syndicate,” a loose coalition of organized-crime families that coalesced in the early 1930s. At Siegel and Lansky’s insistence, the Syndicate had a branch devoted specifically to enforcement, which the press dubbed Murder Incorporated. Siegel himself is estimated to have been directly responsible for some 30 assassinations of other crime figures.

Though Siegel was arrested numerous times, he was convicted only once, in Miami in 1930, when he was arrested on charges of gambling and vagrancy. He ended up paying a $100 fine.

Benjamin Siegel was a good-looking man, and gave a lot of thought to his appearance, buying himself tailored suits and silk shirts, applying face creams each night and sleeping with a chinstrap to keep his skin taut. In New York he had an apartment in the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. “Class,” said Siegel, is “the only thing that counts in life … Without class and style a man’s a bum, he might as well be dead.”

In 1936, Siegel headed for Los Angeles, after rivals put out a contract on his life, but also because he had the opportunity to take over the gambling rackets on the West Coast. He began socializing with movie stars, but – sociopath that he was – Siegel also borrowed money from his new friends, with no intention of returning it. He reasoned that celebrities would lack the nerve to publicly pursue the money. During his first year in LA, he is said to have taken in some $400,000 in loans this way.

In the mid-1940s, Siegel loaned money to nightclub owner William Wilkerson, who was building the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas, which Siegel was to supply with gambling services. When Wilkerson went over budget, Siegel forced him to turn the entire project over to him. When it opened, on March 1, 1947, the Flamingo was the most expensive and luxurious in Las Vegas – but also seriously over budget. It quickly became profitable, but apparently not fast enough.

Most theories about Siegel’s murder revolve around the belief that his creditors killed him over what he owed on the Flamingo construction. Another theory suggests that Siegel had skimmed from the hotel’s construction budget, at the expense of his partners in crime. Longtime Siegel associate Joseph Stacher claimed that the board of the Syndicate, meeting in Havana, Cuba, decided to put out a contract on him, with even Meyer Lansky reluctantly supporting the decision.

On the night of June 20, 1947, Siegel was sitting reading the newspaper on a sofa in the home of his girlfriend Virginia Hill (who was in Europe at the time), when a gunman shot him through the window with an M1 carbine rifle. He was hit multiple times in the head, and died on the spot. Within minutes of Siegel’s death, several of his colleagues from the Syndicate, Davey Berman, Gus Greenbaum and Morris Rosen, walked in and took over the management of the Flamingo.

Never miss a day! Sign up for Haaretz's 'This Day in Jewish History' newsletter.

Twitter: @davidbeegreen