Historians are skeptical because the claims are based on information passed down to author Deirdre Marie Capone by her grandfather, Ralph Capone, who was the older brother and business partner of the infamous Al Capone.
But the self-described Capone family historian says she has no doubt the duo lobbied the Nevada Legislature to legalize gambling in Prohibition’s waning years, and opened the first “upscale’” casino in Las Vegas long before Siegel’s Flamingo resort opened there in 1946.
“We were a very close Italian family, so they told me a lot of things and kept reminding me of things,” the 72-year-old Chicago native said, adding she made frequent visits to Al Capone’s home as a child and had numerous talks with her grandfather until his death in 1974.
Al Capone dominated the Chicago underworld during Prohibition until his 1931 arrest for tax evasion and imprisonment at Alcatraz. He died in 1947.
When the Capone brothers set their sights on Nevada in the late 1920s, law enforcement authorities were closing in on them and their bootlegging empire as the end of Prohibition loomed.
Seeking greener pastures, they traveled to Carson City in 1929 or 1930 to lobby state lawmakers to legalize gambling, alcohol and prostitution, Deirdre Capone said. Nevada in 1931 became the first state to legalize gambling.
“They said, ‘If you (lawmakers) legalize alcohol and gambling in Nevada, you would have a gold mine’,” she told The Associated Press.
Ralph Capone opened the first “upscale” casino — The Pair-O-Dice Club — on what now is the Las Vegas Strip about the same time, she said, adding it was operated by an Italian couple.
The Capone brothers conducted business behind the scenes because of law enforcement’s interest in them, she said. They dealt only in cash, she added, and did not sign official documents.
“Ralph and Al were in Las Vegas many times, primarily to gamble and oversee their own casino,” said Deirdre Capone, who now lives in the Naples, Fla., area.
Experts question the claims made in her book published (Recap Publishing LLC) last year, “Uncle Al Capone: The Untold Story From Inside His Family.”
“It’s amazing the number of people that now claim they were the visionaries that created Las Vegas,” said Robert A. Stoldal, chairman of the Nevada State Museum and Historical Society board and vice president of news for Las Vegas-based Intermountain Media.
Stoldal, a leading expert of Las Vegas’ gambling past, said his research has turned up no documentation to bolster Deirdre Capone’s claims.
While The Pair-O-Dice Club in 1931 became the first actual casino to open on the Strip, there are no records or newspaper articles linking the Capones to it, he said. The Red Rooster offered gambling before then, he said, but was just a roadhouse. There also were several casinos before then in downtown Las Vegas, which is a few miles north of the Strip.
Eric Moody, former curator of manuscripts for the Nevada Historical Society in Reno and an expert of Nevada’s gambling history, said he’s unaware of any documentation to support Deirdre Capone’s claims, either.
“They (Capones) could have been here, but I’ve never seen any hard evidence to that effect,” he said. “It’s just rumor and family stories.”
Stoldal noted Deirdre Capone’s claims are similar to those made in a 1999 interview by the son of Italian-born Frank Detra, who along with his wife owned and operated The Pair-O-Dice Club from 1932 to 1939.
John Detra told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that while he didn’t think his father was a mobster, his dad was close to Al Capone and did business with gangsters. Al Capone gave his father money to help win legalized gambling in Nevada, he added.
Deirde Capone also insists her grandfather was the first person to notify Siegel about Las Vegas’ potential.
Siegel’s lavish, trend-setting Flamingo liberated Las Vegas from its western heritage, and led Sin City to a new era as a “full-fledged resort city,” according to historian Eugene Moehring. Siegel was gunned down in Beverly Hills in 1947 only months after it opened.
In any event, Deirdre Capone takes pride in her gangster ancestors. She maintains Al Capone had nothing to do with the “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre” in 1929, when seven rivals of his gang were gunned down in Chicago.
“Was he a mobster? Yes, he was,” she said. “Was he a monster? No, he wasn’t. Was he a villain? No, he wasn’t. He was a victim.
“Italians at that point in our nation’s history were the low man on the totem pole. Being a mobster was the only way to make a living to support your family. Al and Ralph Capone were in the business of providing what people wanted.”