With the enactment of the Volstead Act in 1919, the manufacture and sale of alcohol became illegal in the United States. For gangsters like Bugsy Siegel, this was a license to steal.
Other than speed limits on Interstate highways, there have been few laws on the books in America that have been flouted with such abandon. Across the country, speakeasies, blind pigs and bathtub gin joints sprang up with amazing frequency. Bootleggers smuggled booze across every border, in trucks, boats and pipelines. Judges were reluctant to enforce the penalties of the Volstead Act and police would often look the other way for a price. Prohibition did little to curb the consumption of alcohol and only served to provide the underworld with access to easy money.
In New York, Arnold Rothstein knew a good thing when he saw it, and to him Prohibition was a very good thing. Rothstein, a.k.a. "The Brain", was mostly a high-stakes gambler. It was Rothstein who brought floating craps down to earth and probably invented the "carpet joint" an upscale casino where upper class gamblers could enjoy a quiet game of big money poker or blackjack and where the patrons could rest assured that the craps games werent fixed.
Rothstein wanted to make money during Prohibition, but he wanted to do it high class. To do this, he needed partners. He turned to Charlie Luciano and the Bugs and Meyer mob.
Summoned to Rothsteins Central Park residence, Meyer Lansky and Charlie Luciano were offered their chance at the big time.
Over a six-hour conversation, Rothstein laid out his plans.
"Theres going to be a growing demand for good whiskey in the United States," Rothstein said as the men enjoyed a pre-dinner libation. "And when I say good whiskey, that is exactly what I mean. Im not talking about that rotgut rubbish your Italian friends are making right now on the Lower East Side."
Rothstein proposed that under the direction of the Bugs and Meyer mob specifically Lansky (he had no patience for a man of Bugs temperament) Dutch Schultz would take over the New York bootlegging operation and Longy Zwillman, Lanskys close friend and kindred intellectual spirit, would run North Jersey. Other men who were later brought into the operation included the dapper Guiseppe Doto, a.k.a. Joe Adonis, Carlo Gambino (the future head of the Gambino crime family), Vito Genovese, Gambinos predecessor as godfather, and the sinister Albert Anastasia.
As cover for their rumrunning operation, Siegel and Lansky operated a car and truck rental operation through a garage on Cannon Street in Brooklyn. Ironically, Lanskys skill as a businessman made the rental business almost as much of a success as the bootlegging.
While Lansky watched over the gangs ever-increasing businesses, Bugsy was the point man for the rumrunning racket. Lansky was never shy about lending a hand when an extra gun was needed, but it was Siegel who craved the excitement of taking a shipment of illegal booze or highjacking another gangs property.
One such hijacking took place after Bugsy got wind of a shipment coming in on the South Jersey Shore. "The stuff belongs to Joe Masseria," Ben reported with glee.
Lansky and Siegel, still anxious for revenge for Masserias attempted power grab in Brooklyn, traveled down to Atlantic City and set up an ambush where they knew Masserias boys would be coming. They felled a tree and then hid in the nearby woods, waiting for the truck convoy to approach. Thanks to a two-grand bribe, Siegel knew exactly when and where the shipment would be coming.
The shipment of top-grade scotch whisky was on its way from Masserias boats to another Rothstein partner, Irving Wexler, a.k.a. Waxey Gordon. Waxey planned to mix the scotch with some of his homemade Philadelphia rotgut and sell it at a quick profit. The raid was dangerous for several reasons. First, Masseria was still a force to be reckoned with on the East Coast. He still controlled his 200-man force and had tentacles that could reach anywhere the boys tried to hide if the raid went bad. Second, Waxey Gordon was the boss of Philadelphia and would be out for blood when his investment failed to arrive. And finally, the Bugs and Meyer gang was going against Arnold Rothstein, who was Gordons Philadelphia partner. Rothstein had forbidden his minions from stealing from one another and the penalty for such insolence would probably be death.
Exactly on time, the trucks rumbled up the deserted road. Seeing the tree lying across the road, the driver of the first truck halted the convoy and jumped out to move it. As soon as the group approached the tree, a fusillade of bullets rained down on them and sent them scrambling for cover. A furious gun battle ensued, and three of Masserias men fell. As the battle turned in favor of Siegel and his men, they emerged from the woods and began clubbing and beating the remaining Italians who had surrendered.
In the course of this savagery, one of Masserias men recognized Meyer Lansky. Through Masseria, Waxey Gordon learned that the Bug and Meyer mob was responsible for his loss, but because he didnt want Rothstein to know he was working with the Brains despised Sicilian adversary, he kept his mouth shut. But Gordon didnt forget, and, like Masseria, who was still courting Luciano, he vowed to get revenge.