Before Las Vegas, a farming community in South Florida was the gambling paradise of the U.S.
by Alfonso Muñoz
It was the time of Prohibition, and rum-running was rampant throughout South Florida.
There was still a demand for alcoholic beverages, however, and plenty of illegal alcohol made its way to market. "Rum-runners" took advantage of Florida’s many miles of coastline to bring it in from Cuba, the Bahamas, and elsewhere. Many Floridians in the state’s rural interior made moonshine or other bootleg liquor and sold it to make extra cash. State, local, and federal authorities all attempted to enforce the prohibition laws, but they were never able to fully stamp out these illegal activities.
By the early 1930s, many Americans considered Prohibition a noble experiment that had failed. It did not end alcohol consumption in the United States, but instead drove much of the activity underground. Rum-running, moonshining, and organized crime all increased as a result.
Alcohol was big business for the mob, and when Prohibition ended in 1933, the next big thing was gambling, which would lead to the consolidation of powerful criminal syndicates in most large cities in the United States.
The rum-runner Linwood afire. With capture and arrest imminent, the fire was set by the crew of bootleggers trying to destroy the evidence and sink the ship.
Meyer Lansky, a Polish Jew born in the Russian Pale of Settlement, known as the "Mob’s Accountant", became important in the gambling scene in Miami, while his brother Jake lived and worked in Hollywood. But it wasn’t really Hollywood that became the center of Broward County’s illegal activity going into the 1930s. It was Hallandale Beach, a farming city, which soon had speakeasies, drinking establishments, and stylish gambling houses up and down its Boulevard.
Hallandale was indeed the "hotbed of sin" of the Sunshine State in the 1930s. The local farmers often made good profits selling their products to the casinos, and other residents were happy to take advantage of the employment opportunities provided by the illegal establishments. The city was growing exponentially, and everyone wanted to be a part of it.
Slot machines were ubiquitous in the early 1930s; in 1935, the Florida Supreme Court legalized them, and suddenly Hallandale had legal slot machines everywhere — in drugstores, gas stations, stores, and even fishing camps.
Hallandale was a gambler’s paradise and soon became known as the "Wall Street of South Florida", due to the many banks and other financial companies that had opened there to support the illegal gambling trade that operated around Hallandale under the beneficial eye of a crooked sheriff who once, when a reporter asked why he allowed gambling, replied: "Why? Because I’m a goddamn liberal, that’s why. I will not go around these parts and stick my nose in the private business of the people."
Soon, there were 12,500 licensed machines statewide; most were in South Florida. They brought an estimated $60 million a year into state coffers — at 5, 10, and 25 cents a spin. Within two years of legalizing slots came the real pros — gangsters from New York and Chicago — and their illegal machines.
A bookmaking operation started by two Chicago mobsters in a Hallandale tomato packing shed grew into the Plantation, one of the more famous carpet joints, where pampered patrons could drink and dine in style, watch a show, and, of course, gamble.
Though in 1937 the Legislature outlawed slots, their illegal cousins stayed on.
Some of the chips used in the illegal Hallandale casinos run by Meyer Lansky and his associates.
For $2, a patron could play six games to win $50, $100, or much more. Operators would dump all remaining proceeds into the final game, driving the winnings up to at least $1,000, a considerable sum during the Great Depression. The house took no cut, knowing they now had players for more lucrative games. The casino provided bodyguards to women who won and wanted escorts home to safeguard their winnings.
The gambling generated so much cash that the gangsters suppressed their violent natures. The Mafia had an understanding that there would be no killings in Broward County because it was such a lucrative business.
Opened in Hallandale (a few miles south of Fort Lauderdale) in December, 1945, The Colonial Inn was one of the plushest illegal gambling spots in the eastern United States.
Broward County boasted several casinos, the most famous being the Colonial Inn on Hallandale Beach Boulevard (owned by the Lansky brothers). La Boheme, Greenacres, and Plantation Resort also operated in South County. The accounting of most of these casinos was the responsibility of the Eisen brothers, allies of Lansky, who then, in 1950, had to explain all their movements to justice due to a resolution authorizing an Investigation of Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce.
But while all that gambling was taking place in Hallandale, the wise guys in charge kept their families safe in beautiful seaside homes in the nearby city of Hollywood.
Some of these characters were, of course, the Lansky brothers: Julian "Potatoes" Kaufman, Joe Adonism, and Vincent "Jimmy Blue Eyes" Alo. These men were just some of the masterminds of organized crime during the 20s and 30s in South Florida. Upon their arrivals, all began to give generously to Hollywood’s churches, synagogues, fraternal organizations, hospitals, and more.
Vincent “Jimmy Blue Eyes” Alo , Meyer Lansky and Harry "Nig" Rosen
Meyer Lansky was undoubtedly one of the most famous mobsters of all time and the most important character of the "Kosher Nostra". While he was a resident of Miami, his brother Jake made his home at 1146 Harrison Street.
Jake kept a low profile compared to his brother but was known to be by his side and also a money counter both in Florida and later in the family’s Las Vegas operations.
His neighbor at 711 Tyler Street, Benjamin Eisen, was the head financial officer for Gulfstream Racetrack and the Hollywood Kennel Club and was also the bookkeeper for the Lansky family.
A normal race day at the Gulfstream Park
All good things come to an end, and for the gangsters, South Florida stopped being (for a moment) a land of opportunity when, on May 3, 1950, the Senate established a five-member Special Committee to Investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce.
The committee quickly shut down illegal gambling in South Florida, but the gangsters still had their hands in local dog and horse tracks, jai lai frontons, and some other businesses.
Lansky, who lived for years in a canal home in Sunny Isles, took his people to Havana, Cuba, where they expanded their gambling ventures and built an empire under the eyes of Cuban leader Fulgencio Batista, who was more than happy to take bribes.
When the Castros took power in Cuba, the mobsters had to move their businesses to Las Vegas.
Carmine Galante, Meyer Lansky & The Mob In South Florida. News reports, footage.
“Everything we did back then is legal now,” Jimmy Blue Eyes was said to lament soon afterwards.
Years later, Meyer Lansky, it is said, was asked why, being the brilliant businessman that he was, he never went legit. His answer? “It’s just more fun this way!”
Meyer Lansky died in Miami Beach, Florida.
After nearly 60 years in the underworld, Meyer Lansky was never found guilty of anything more serious than illegal gambling. Lansky beat six murder charges and only spent 3 months and 16 days behind bars between May and July 1953. At one time, he was said to be worth an estimated $20 million (equivalent to almost $200 million today) or more.
He died of lung cancer in 1983 at age 80, leaving behind a widow and three children. On paper, he was worth almost nothing.
"I wouldn’t have lived my life any other way," Lansky told the authors of Meyer Lansky: Mogul of the Mob in 1978. "It was in my blood, in my character. The environment certainly had something to do with it, but basically, my own personality determined my fate. I have nothing on my conscience. I would not change anything."
Lansky was buried at Mount Nebo Cemetery in Miami Beach.
Meyer Lansky lived here at Golden Isles 512 Hibiscus Dr.
For as long as there have been palm trees, good restaurants, and easy money to be made here, mobsters have treated South Florida as their sunny home away from home. Hundreds of them made Broward their second or retirement home.
South Florida has always been "open territory" for the mob, with no crime family claiming exclusive rights or control.
Read more Miami true crime stories in the VÉHICULE Print Edition.