Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Mickey Cohen

Mickey Mouse Mob

Charles "Lucky"
Los Angeles was a good 30 years behind in many aspects of organized crime. In fact, crime in Southern California was barely organized at all. Jack Dragna was running things with very little input from the national Syndicate and most of his operations consisted of immigrant shakedowns and gambling ships which took players outside the 12-mile national limit to gamble on the high seas. Dragna reluctantly accepted Lucky Lucianos admonition that Ben Siegel was heading west for his health and the health of us all, but Dragna didnt like playing second-fiddle to Ben Siegel.

Jack Dragna mugshot
Jack Dragna
Mob scholar Carl Sifakis refers to Jack Dragna as "a man who thought small." A native of Corleone, Sicily, he bounced back and forth between Sicily and America from 1898 to 1914, when he returned to Southern California to stay. Dragna quickly fell in with the Unione Siciliano, a legitimate benevolent and protective organization for immigrants that had been subsumed by mobsters into a protection and shakedown racket. Dragna was the visible front man for the Unione, but his interest was clearly criminal and his abilities limited.

One of Dragna's favorite scams was to sell protection and then send in some goons to threaten the marks. When they came to Dragna for help, he'd charge them extra to chase away his own people. That way he caught the victims coming and going. Dragna wasn't above murder, though. When the scheme backfired and the victim wanted his tormenter rubbed out, Dragna instead had the victim killed.

What makes a mobster successful is presence and follow-through. A tough guy who walks into a joint and looks intimidating is one thing, but following up on the promised threat is essential. A mobster who is incapable of showing he has the power and guts to pull off a beating just looks pathetic. This is the problem Jack Dragna had. Independent bookmakers knew that Jack was in no position to shake them down, so when he demanded protection money from them, they shrugged it off without repercussions.

"Dragna rose to the top among the 'homegrown' California mobsters only because he was the best of a poor lot," Sifakis wrote.

Along with mobster Johnny Roselli, another of Al Capone's friends, Dragna created the off-shore gambling industry. Roselli and Dragna gutted a schooner, the Monfalcone, and put in an orchestra pit, gambling rooms, and sports/racing book. The ship was an instant hit with the Los Angeles in-crowd and unlike speakeasies, where somebody had to know somebody and everything was hush-hush, the gambling ships openly touted their operations on billboards and advertisements. The Monfalcone caught fire and was scuttled, but the gambling ship industry was a Dragna-Roselli staple for years.

"Jack was very powerful and very well respected," Mickey said of Dragna. "But he got lackadaisical. He wasn't able to put things together to the satisfaction of the Eastern people, or even keep things together to their satisfaction."

Frank Costello, 1939 (CORBIS)
Frank Costello, 1939
Dragna didnt work the political angles like Frank Costello did on the East Coast or even like Al Capone in Chicago and that made it difficult to keep operations going. The protection that owning a politician or two provides is essential, and Dragna was unable to pull this together. The Syndicate knew that Los Angeles was worth the effort and thats another reason they sent Ben Siegel out there.

The relationship between the Chicago and New York mobs put a strain on the Syndicate, and California was the fault line. There was respect, but little love, between the forces of Al Capone and later Tony Accardo and the Five Families of New York plus the Jewish mobsters. When Ben Siegel came west to set up the Syndicates wire services there, the tremors were felt all over the country. Dragna was backed by Tony Accardo after Capone went to prison, but the Chicago Outfit was not tough enough to extend enough protection to L.A. to keep New York away. Johnny and Jimmy Roselli chafed under the direction of Benny Siegel, but were smart enough not to take him on directly. In many cases, their wrath was directed at his number two, Mickey Cohen.

Tony Accardo and Johnny Roselli (AP)
Tony Accardo and Johnny Roselli
If having to put up with two Jewish mobsters with the backing of Lucky Luciano wasn't bad enough for Dragna, having those mobsters start pushing an alternative wire service for bookies was. Dragna and Roselli were backing James Ragen's Continental Press Service, while Cohen and Siegel were pushing the Trans-Continental Wire. The stakes were high, with bookies paying anywhere from $100 to $1,200 a week for access to wire service race information depending on their own handle.

Under Benny's direction, Cohen and his boys busted up a Continental office, breaking heads and tearing out phone lines. Eventually, Benny had Ragen killed in Chicago.

"Benny Siegel's knocking over Continental was kind of a slap in the face to Dragna and Roselli," Cohen said. "Because they thought they were running the West Coast. Dragna was really from the old moustache days. The worst thing you can do to an old-time Italian mahoff is to harm his prestige in any way, and that's what took place when Benny came out here."



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