In the early 1920s, the 18th Amendment prohibited the sale, transportation and production of alcohol in the United States. Black market liquor made the early gangsters rich and powerful. This created a black market that allowed organized crime to develop and flourish. Al Capone, Public Enemy Number One himself, got his start during this period. The following gangsters, who reached their peak years during the 1940s, got their start as underlings of Al Capone during Prohibition.
The urban legends of cops and robbers have become part of the American entertainment landscape in the form of iconic movies and books. From The Godfather to Scarface, famous gangsters are also part of American history. The 1920s era of Prohibition gets a lot of attention as the decade when many gangsters got their start, but the rise of Las Vegas and California as gangster hot spots in the 1940s also made certain gangsters famous.
Benjamin Siegel, better known by the nickname “Bugsy”, is most famous for making Las Vegas a gambling haven in the years following WW2. He got an early start in Brooklyn when he and some of his young lackeys would threaten and bribe street vendors. Eventually his gang would include other famous mobsters like Mayer Lansky and Arnold Rothstein, and he worked closely with Al “Scarface” Capone during the roaring twenties before moving west in the late 1930s. Las Vegas has evolved from a gangster stronghold to a family friendly vacation haven.
An associate of both Lucky Luciano and Bugsy Siegel, Meyer Lansky formed the solid business anchor of a burgeoning criminal operation. He is responsible for the famous quote describing the power and wealth the mafia enjoyed; “We’re bigger than US Steel.” His career was launched in part by Arnold Rothstein and Prohibition. After the repeal of Prohibition, Lansky went west with Bugsy Siegel to continue his career with a focus on gambling and related operations in Las Vegas, Iowa and Cuba during the 1940s. His main duties consisted of organizing the money while thugs like Bugsy and Lepke took care of the dirty work.
Not a person of subtleties, Louis “Lepke” Buchalter bluntly called his crime and gangster business Murder, Incorporated. His very successful business was part of the syndicates run by Lucky Luciano. Lepke also worked with Bugy Siegel and Meyer Landsky. Between 1935 and his incarceration in 1944, Lepke’s Murder Inc. was believed to be responsible for up to 800 murders, most of them potential witnesses or competing mobsters. In 1941 a $50,000 reward was offered for Lepke and he was sent to Sing Sing Prison in 1944.