The city of Las Vegas in the Mojave Desert, Nevada was built from the proceeds of organized crime and racketeering, or so the movies would have us believe. In actual fact the city was first named in 1821 by a man called Rafael Riviera who used it to water his horses. Waters from the wash provided water to the city and flow into the Colorado River. However, the part played by the mob in the creation of the modern day Vegas cannot be ignored so let’s dig a little deeper and try to find out what really happened.
Actually, the first hotel to arrive on what is referred to as The Strip was the El Rancho Vegas and had nothing to do with organized crime at all. It is actually a fallacy to believe that the mob owned the casinos and hotels. They never did as they were prevented from doing so by other very powerful monopolies as can be seen played out in the movie Casino, where Robert de Niro’s character is constantly being harassed by the gaming commission under the control of the local monopolies.
The first hotel and casino that had mob influence was the Flamingo. This was built by legendary gangsters Mayer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel with money cleaned through Mormon banks. Initially running at a loss and Siegel being gunned down in 1947, the Flamingo soon turned around and signaled the beginning of, if not ownership, of mob rule and the golden age of Las Vegas.
With money channeled through the Teamsters union controlled by the mob, the Sahara and the Sands soon followed and the strip, or Fremont Road, soon began to flourish. Attracting some of the top stars of show business like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Vegas soon became the place to be seen. The beginning of the end of the mafia began through the work of Senator Estes Kefauver. The Senator set up a special committee to investigate money laundering and links to organized crime in Vegas that eventually ended up with gaming and gambling coming under the jurisdiction of federal agencies and the end of control for the New York syndicates.
If you are going to visit Las Vegas you might want to pay a visit to the Mob museum, otherwise known as the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement, a short walk from Fremont St. Exhibits are wide and varied and offer a full history of organized crime not just in Vegas but all over America.