New history of American Mafia deals a little with Las Vegas

Las Vegas MafiaThe one-liner is in terrible taste, but absolutely too funny to ignore. It’s found in the newly published Borgata, Rise of Empire: A History of the American Mafia (Volume 1), by Louis Ferrante, an ex-Mafioso himself. He describes the 1947 assassination of Las Vegas mobster Benjamin (Bugsy) Siegel, shot from a rifle nine times in the head at point-blank range while reading a newspaper in the living room of his girl friend’s Beverly Hills home.

“With Siegel’s blood and brains all over the newspaper,” Ferrante cracks, “it can be said that the Los Angeles Times got the story first.”

The line comes in “The Desert King Dethroned,” one of two chapters dealing with the rise (and fall) of Siegel as Las Vegas’ most famous resident mobster, despite the fact he lived in Sin City barely a year before his violent exit. But that’s largely it in the book for any history of the Mob and Sin City. Borgata volume 1 ends with the Mob being chased out of Havana after Castro came to power in 1959. This move is widely credited with focusing organized crime on Las Vegas, where gambling already at least was legal and mobsters could skim off winnings, uh, tax-free. I suppose we’ll have to wait for volumes 2 or 3, which Ferrante implies in his text already have been written. (Borgata, by the way, means mafia family, and Ferrante counts 26 of them across the U.S.).

Indeed, Borgata volume 1 reads largely as a clip job, perhaps not surprising given that Ferrante himself wasn’t born until 1969. It is interspersed with Ferrante’s speculation about a few Mob matters. In that regard, Ferrante is personally lucky. He writes he “has been accused in open court of numerous acts of violence, including beating and shooting men with the same hand that holds this pen.” But the feds never pinned a murder rap on him and a federal judge botched a routine sentencing protocol. So Ferrante ended up serving just eight years in a federal slammer for hijacking trucks despite refusing to snitch on colleagues.

Given his lack of formal education–he writes he educated himself while in prison–there is a surprising number of literary and historical illusions. Some might be considered pretentious. A Chicago street during Mob wars was “as dangerous as the narrow pass at Thermopylae,” he writes. There is a reference to the defeat of Carthage by Rome. He quotes the Italian Renaissance philosopher Giambattista Vico (1668-1744), as well as Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. No one is explicitly credited in his acknowledgments as his editor.

Siegel’s involvement with Las Vegas as he completed and opened the Flamingo Las Vegas casino hotel comprises most of the material about Sin City in Borgata volume 1. I won’t rehash the gory tale, except to say you can read my New To Las Vegas take published last year on the 75th anniversary of the assassination by clicking here.

To his credit, Ferrante avoids much of the media hype glorifying Siegel, fueled in no small part by such sources as the 1991 movie “Bugsy,” starring Warren Beatty and Annette Bening. There are many whodunit theories in the still officially unsolved case, including fellow mobsters upset about Flamingo cost overruns and relatives upset about Siegel’s treatment of his girlfriend, Virginia Hill. Ferrante seems to pin the blame on Jack Dragna, a Los Angeles mobster who ran a rival wire service supplying odds to bookies.

Still, Ferrante, who has written other Mob books and frequently appears on TV, tries to paint a bigger picture as he reaches back into the Sicily of the 19th Century. The abolishment of slavery in the U.S. after the Civil War created a demand for low-wage labor, and over the next 80 years 5 million Italians answered the economic imperative to cross the Atlantic. In Ferrante’s telling, New Orleans with its Mediterranean-like climate was their “Plymouth Rock” and an early center of criminal influence before lynchings of Italians moved the action to New York City, and then back across the country.

He writes at length about New York mobsters Meyer Lansky and Frank Costello, both of whom eventually would have hidden Las Vegas casino ownerships. Costello’s secret interest was revealed in 1957 when, after surviving an assassination attempt in New York, detectives found in his pocket a note with the exact receipts–down to the dollar–of the newly opened Tropicana Las Vegas.

Ferrante has a distinctive literary style of dispatching his fellow mobsters. He described two New York hoodlums executed in 1944 in the Sing Sing Prison electric chair after hearty Italian final meals. “Cooked in their own sauce,” the author writes.

Follow William P. Barrett’s work on X by clicking here.

Follow William P. Barrett’s work on Threads by clicking here.

So what's your take?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.