The Suchowlanski family were Polish Jews who lived in Grodno in the old Russian Empire and in 1902, they had a boy named Meier. Being constantly persecuted by the Tsarist Russians for being Jewish, the family decided to emigrate to the USA and arrived in New York City in 1909. Meier was a very intelligent kid who did very well at school and started his working career as an apprentice tool and die maker. But his whole life changed in one instant on his way home from work.
In 1916, Meier was walking home with his tool box over his shoulder when he heard a woman screaming. He ran towards the noise and saw a couple of young Italian thugs beating up a prostitute. She had been caught giving a young Jewish guy called Benjamin Siegel a "freebie" when her pimp caught her and started to beat her up. Without hesitation, Meier grabbed a monkey wrench out of his tool box and whacked the pimp around the head, allowing the prostitute to get up.
Just then, police rushed into the building and arrested all of them. Meier was charged with felonious assault, but was discharged when the pimp refused to press charges. As he left the court, the pimp introduced himself to Meier as Salvatore Lucania. The pimp was amazed that a young Jewish kid had the guts to confront a tough Italian street hoodlum whose friends were known to terrify the neighbourhood.
The name Salvatore Lucania would mean nothing to most people, but very few Americans would be unfamiliar with the infamous Charles "Lucky" Luciano, the mobster who transformed the American Mafia into the National Crime Syndicate. Well, the young Lucky Luciano was so impressed with the display of guts of the young Meier Suchowlanski, that they forged a friendship that lasted a lifetime. This is when Meier decided to make his name simpler and he became Meyer Lansky. He decided to give up the tool and die making and got involved in street rackets.
After the prostitute incident, Lansky and Benjamin Siegel also became lifelong friends, as well as partners in the bootlegging trade. Together they ran the Bugs and Meyer Mob, with its reputation as one of the most violent Prohibition gangs. Ben Siegel was known as "Bugsy" because of his erratic and violent behaviour. Siegel was the muscle in the gang and Lansky was the brains.
After meeting Lucky Luciano, Lansky started formulating different rackets. He found that he had an amazing talent for numbers and was able to instantly calculate the real odds of various games of chance, giving him a massive advantage over gamblers who had no idea of the ways that the games were stacked against them. So Lansky and Siegel ran various gambling ventures such as floating crap games, where Lansky's talent for working the odds made the Bugs and Meyer gang a fortune.
Lucky Luciano became a Mafia mobster under the leadership of gang boss Joe "The Boss" Masseria. But Luciano was very smart and he could see that the constant wars between the various gangs were tearing the fabric of the crime scene apart, so he formulated the idea of a National Crime Syndicate, where all the Italian and Jewish gangs would fall under the umbrella of the "Commission", a board of directors who would adjudicate on all disputes between the gangs. To achieve this, Luciano called on the advice of his friend Meyer Lansky, whom he greatly respected as an extremely intelligent and clever man.
Meanwhile, the success of the Bugsy and Meyer Mob had also caught the eye of Joe "The Boss" Masseria and he brought Lansky and Siegel into the fold. This was something unheard of for an Italian Mafia mobster to invite Jews into his gang. But Masseria underboss Luciano could see that the various Mafia wars such as the Castellamarese Wars between the old Sicilians who were known by the derogatory title of "Mustache Petes" and the new breed of Italian mobsters, were attracting the unwelcome attention of lawmakers. Luciano and Lansky still had the notion of a National Crime Syndicate, so they organised the meeting known as the Atlantic City Conference, inviting mobsters from all over the nation. Notorious gangsters such as Al Capone, Frank Costello, Joe Adonis, Charles Solomon, Johnny Lazia and and Abner Zwillman attended, among many others - all representing the most important cities in the USA.
At the end of that decade, Joe "The Boss" Masseria was locked in a bitter feud with Salvatore Maranzano, another rival who aspired to take over the gang and be "The Boss". Lansky and Luciano realised that this feud was very bad for business, so Luciano arranged for the murders of both Masseria and Maranzano. Once these two rivals were taken off the scene, Lansky, Luciano and Siegel were free to create the National Crime Syndicate, a partnership between Italian and Jewish mobsters. Luciano did a very smart thing by cancelling the inherent rivalry between the heads of those gangs by eliminating the position of "Capo Di Tutti Capi" - Boss of Bosses. At Lansky's suggestion, the organisation took the name "Unione Siciliano".
As soon as the Volstead Act that brought in the prohibition of alcohol was repealed, the writing was on the wall for bootlegging, so Lansky shifted his focus to gambling. By 1936, Lansky had established gambling operations in Florida, New Orleans and Cuba. These gambling operations were very successful as they were founded upon a number of principles:
Unlike other gangsters who routinely cheated players, Lansky insisted that all his gambling parlours were completely honest. He famously told his staff, "Don't cheat the customers. If you garner a reputation for being fair, more suckers will play and the odds are always on the house." As a result, gambling houses operated by Lansky and Siegel prospered and the money kept rolling in.
Ascending to the highest ranks of the Italian mob, in 1946, Lansky convinced the Italian-American Mafia to place Bugsy Siegel in charge of Las Vegas operations and became a major investor in Siegel's Flamingo Hotel. To protect himself from the type of prosecution which sent Al Capone to prison for tax evasion and prostitution, Lansky transferred the illegal earnings from his growing casino empire to a Swiss bank account, where anonymity was assured by the 1934 Swiss Banking Act. Lansky even bought an offshore bank in Switzerland, which he used to launder money through a network of shell and holding companies.
As his wealth increased, Lansky's influence increased proportionally. In fact, it was widely known that there was a real "Godfather" of the American Mafia and he wasn't even Italian, but a very intelligent Jewish man called Meyer Lansky. He was called "The Little Man" and Lucky Luciano, the most respected Italian mobster, told his followers to "Always listen to the Little Man." In fact, even though he was Jewish, none of the top Mafia leaders ever excluded Lansky from any vote of the Syndicate. They disagreed with him occasionally, but they always asked for his input and respected his decisions.
Luciano, the most influential Mafia figure of the era said, "Meyer Lansky, my old partner and a Jew would wind up the real 'Boss of Bosses' of all the Italians and Jews." Luciano lauded Lansky by saying, "Meyer Lansky understood the Italian brain almost better than I did. That's why I picked him to be my consigliere, to talk over the best way to handle things. I used to tell Lansky that he may have had a Jewish mother, but he must have been wet-nursed by a Sicilian."
Most of the mobsters from the now disbanded Bugsy and Meyer gang were moved into the enforcement arm of the National Crime Syndicate and became informally known as "Murder Incorporated". Lansky proposed that these people be put under the command of three mobsters, Louis "Lepke" Buchalter, Albert Anastasia and Bugsy Siegel. However, many members of the Syndicate were worried about Siegel and his erratic and violent behaviour, so Lansky agreed to drop Siegel from control of the enforcement arm.
The two remaining bosses of Murder Incorporated came to very sticky ends. Louis "Lepke" Buchalter was one of the premier labour racketeers in New York City during that era. To date, Buchalter is the only American mob boss to have received the death penalty. He was executed by the infamous "Old Sparky" electric chair at Sing Sing Penitentiary after being convicted of murder. Stone-cold killer Albert Anastasia eventually rose to the position of boss in what became the modern Gambino crime family. He also controlled New York City's waterfront for most of his criminal career, including the dockworker unions. Anastasia was murdered on 25 October 1957 on the orders of Vito Genovese and Carlo Gambino.
When World War Two erupted, Lansky's old friend and mentor Lucky Luciano found himself in jail, convicted of prostitution. But with Lansky's influence, Luciano was released early in a deal with the government. In return for that release, the New York mob that controlled the docks would ensure that prospective sabotage by Nazi sympathisers and infiltrators would be dealt with. Unfortunately at that time, the mess that Bugsy Siegel had made with the Flamingo Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas meant that he had to be removed, so Lansky reluctantly agreed. Siegel was murdered after being suspected of skimming money from the casino. Lansky considered that to steal from your friends was as low as a person could go. However the mob always claimed that Siegel was killed by the enraged brother of his girlfriend whom Siegel often abused.
Unlike most mobsters of that era who flouted their wealth, Lansky was the opposite. He was a humble and modest man who was never flashy and he allowed others to be in the spotlight. In fact, one reporter noted that Lansky's name was never mentioned in any report for a solid ten years, which was quite an achievement for a man at the very top of the National Crime Syndicate. He ran his operations from Miami Beach and lived a quiet and unassuming life. But in 1970, the US government decided to prosecute him for income tax evasion and he fled to Israel. Lansky was sent back to the USA and stood trial, but was acquitted.
Meyer Lansky died on 15 January 1983 of lung cancer. Investigators believed that Lansky left hundreds of millions of dollars hidden away in secret accounts, but nobody could prove this. In fact at the end, Lansky still managed to convince everybody that he died penniless, probably just the way he wanted them to believe.
Only one mobster of that entire era built his empire on the strength of his word. Retired New York Police Department mob investigator Ralph Salerno, who was intimately familiar with Lansky, said in admiration: "A handshake from Meyer Lansky was worth more than the strongest contract that a battery of lawyers could put together."
When historians look back at the pre and post Prohibition times and the gangsters of the day, such as Al Capone, Sam Giancana, George "Bugs" Moran, Arthur "Dutch Schultz" Flegenheimer, Arnold Rothstein, Louis "Lepke" Buchalter, Charles "Lucky" Luciano, Vito Genovese, Albert Anastasia, Carlo Gambino and many others, they will find that all of these mobsters committed the most heinous crimes, cheated and stole from each other, murdered anybody who got in their way and were despicable lowlifes.
But only one of them was proud to claim that he had never killed anybody and he was renowned for his honesty, integrity, intelligence and loyalty - Meyer Lansky. Despite the fact that he made nearly all his money from gambling, Lansky was the only one who ran an honest game. In any case, it's hard to condemn a person for running gambling when most governments in the western world are running the same racket legally by allowing casinos and other gambling to operate with the odds firmly stacked against players and raking off fortunes in taxes and levies as well.
Meyer Lansky was a very odd cog in the American crime scene of the early to mid 20th century. Highly respected by his Jewish compatriots, he was held in the highest esteem by the Italian Mafia, something that no non-Italian had ever achieved. His intelligence and honesty in his dealings made him completely unique in the history of organised crime.