The Williamsburg section of Brooklyn in the early part of the 20th Century was the proverbial melting pot of America. Within its tight confines lived thousands of Irish, Italian and Jewish immigrants all struggling to make a life for themselves in the New World. The streets were lined with tenements which teemed with poverty and disease. Push-cart vendors hawked their wares, yelling in Yiddish or Italian, ethnic tensions ran high, and the streets of Hells Kitchen were a perfect breeding ground for crime. This was the world to which Benjamin Siegelbaum was born in 1902. His poor immigrant parents raised five children, including Ben, on the meager wages that a day laborer could bring in. Ben saw how hard his Russian-born father worked for pennies and vowed that he would rise above this life. There would be no backbreaking garment industry job for him, he said. He was destined for bigger things.
As a youngster, Bens best friend was Moey Sedway, a diminutive lackey who was willing to go along with whatever plan Ben was hatching. Their favorite pastime was a two-bit extortion racket launched against the street vendors.
It was while Ben was running this protection racket that he met another immigrant teen outlaw with big plans. Together, these two youngsters would build up a gang of killers that became first the underworlds murder-for-hire squad and later an integral part of the fledgling national crime Syndicate. There are several stories of how Bugsy Siegel met Meyer Lansky. The first, probably apocryphal, is that Bugsy had been enjoying the unpaid favors of a prostitute in the employ of a young Charlie Luciano and that Lucky was none too happy about her extracurricular activities. He began to beat the hooker and Siegel after catching them in the act and Meyer, then a tool-and-die apprentice, happened upon the scene. Lansky came to Siegels rescue by beating Lucky with one of his tools and the trio reportedly became friends.
Another version of how the two met, retold in Little Man: Meyer Lansky and the Gangster Life by Robert Lacey, claims that Lansky was watching a street corner craps game when a scuffle broke out and a gun fell to the pavement. Siegel picked up the piece and was preparing to shoot the guns owner when police whistles sounded. Lansky knocked the gun from Siegels hand and dragged him away from the ruckus. Although Siegel was not happy about losing the gun, a friendship blossomed. Uri Dan, an Israeli journalist who interviewed Lansky for his biography Meyer Lansky, Mogul of the Mob, also cites this story.
Lansky, who had already had a run-in with a young Salvatore Lucania, later known as Lucky Luciano, saw that the Jewish boys of his Brooklyn neighborhood needed to organize in the same manner as the Italians and Irish. The first person he recruited for his gang was Ben Siegel.
"I told little Benny that he could be my number two," Lansky remembered years later. "He was young but very brave. His big problem was that he was always ready to rush in first and shoot to act without thinking."
Siegels gang mates included Abner "Longie" Zwillman, who later ran the rackets in New Jersey; Lepke Buchalter, the head of Murder, Inc. and the only top mobster to get the chair; Lanskys brother, Jake; and a young boy named Arthur Flegenheimer, who would go make a name for himself as Dutch Schultz. Benny and Meyer Lansky were so close that the gang became known as the "Bugs and Meyer Mob."
"Doc" Stacher, another member of the Bugs and Meyer Mob, recalled that Siegel was fearless and saved his friends lives many times over as the mob moved into bootlegging.
"Bugsy never hesitated when danger threatened," Stacher told Uri Dan. "While we tried to figure out what the best move was, Bugsy was already shooting. When it came to action there was no one better. Ive never known a man who had more guts."
Lucky Luciano remembered a similar Ben Siegel in his biography, The Last Testament of Lucky Luciano: "We was like analyzers," he said of himself and Meyer. "We didnt hustle ourselves into a decision before we had a chance to think it out. Siegel was just the opposite, and I guess thats what made him good for us, because he would make his move on sheer guts and impulse."