Curtis Eriksmoen, Published January 02 2011
Eriksmoen: Las Vegas mob boss grew up in North Dakota
Davie Berman learned how to be tough and enterprising at his father’s farm near Ashley when he became the family’s primary breadwinner because his father’s farming venture failed.
Davie ran the Las Vegas gambling enterprises for the mob from 1947 until his death in 1957. His close social friends included Howard Hughes, Jack Benny and Jimmy Durante. After Berman died, it was said that he had “the largest funeral Las Vegas had ever seen.”
Donald “Davie” Berman was born Jan. 16, 1903, to David and Clara Berman in Odessa, Russia. David was a rabbinical student and a struggling violinist. Clara grew up in one of the richest families in Odessa. In 1905, David was threatened with conscription into the Russian army and fled to America.
After working at a laundry in Manhattan, he learned that a special fund had been set up to help young Jews get land grants in North Dakota. David sent for his wife and three young children.
Clara arrived in Ashley in winter 1907 with her three children. As she stepped off of the train, she burst into tears. “This is it? This is what we left Odessa for? It looks like Siberia.” On Dec. 26, 1907, the Bermans took possession of their 160 acres six miles northwest of Ashley. David knew nothing about farming.
Davie excelled in school, but was frequently in trouble because of fights. Every time a boy called him a “kike” (a derogatory term for Jew), he beat him up. Their house burned down in January 1910, and the Bermans sold the farm for $1 and moved to Ashley. David got a job at the creamery, but the family continued to live in poverty.
In 1912, the family packed their belongings into a buggy and moved to Iowa, where they hoped to make a new beginning.
Davie got a job as a newsboy and, to increase his earnings, slept in the print shop of the Sioux City Journal so that he could get an early start hawking newspapers. He organized the Jewish boys selling papers so they could keep other boys from selling papers in their territory.
At the time, Sioux City was called Little Chicago because “gangsters from Chicago used to move there when the heat was on at home.” Davie Berman soon noticed that gamblers had a lot of money, and he became friendly with them.
With Prohibition, Berman got into bootlegging. He drove his car north on Highway 75, now I-75, to Winnipeg and loaded up with whiskey. On his return south, Berman would make deliveries in Minnesota and the Dakotas. By the age of 16, “he was the biggest bootlegger in all of Iowa.” He also hired people to make home brew on which he slapped fake labels for resale. Al Capone wanted Berman to work for him, but he turned Capone down.
While still a teen, Berman turned to robbing banks. He moved his operation from Sioux City to Chicago and then to New York City. In 1927, Berman was arrested for a post office robbery in Wisconsin. He was sentenced to 7½ years in Sing Sing. When he was released from prison, Berman was called to a meeting with gangsters Meyer Lansky, Frank Costello, Moe Sedway and Lucky Luciano. In appreciation for keeping quiet, Berman was offered $1 million. He turned the offer down and instead said he wanted permission “to run Minneapolis.” His request was granted.
By the mid-’30s, Prohibition was abolished and Berman focused his attention on bookmaking and other forms of gambling. The top mob boss of Minneapolis when Berman arrived was Kid Cann. As his operation grew, Berman eclipsed Cann.
Berman tried to enlist when World War II broke out, but was turned down because of his criminal background. He then traveled to Winnipeg and enlisted with the 12th Manitoba Dragoons regiment. At the conclusion of the war, Berman returned to Minneapolis to resume his gambling operation. In 1945, Hubert Humphrey was elected mayor with a pledge to break up the rackets.
Berman knew where he wanted to move next. In 1940, he had made a trip to Las Vegas and saw that it held great potential for gambling. In 1945, Berman purchased three downtown clubs – the El Cortez, the Las Vegas Club and the El Dorado (later called the Horseshoe). He was also working with Bugsy Siegel to build the Flamingo.
After the Flamingo opened, the mob suspected that Siegel was skimming off the top. On June 20, 1947, Siegel was assassinated at the Beverly Hills home of his mistress, Virginia Hill. The murder was never solved.
The next day, Berman and his associates walked into the Flamingo and took over operation of the club. Berman later sold the Flamingo and purchased the Riviera. On June 18, 1957, while on the operating table at a Las Vegas hospital for a glandular operation, Berman suffered a heart attack and died.
“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at email@example.com.