The most notorious gangster of mid-century Phoenix was Gus Greenbaum, but most people only know the end of the story. Where, in 1958, he and his wife were cooking steaks at their Palmcroft home on Monte Vista Drive when hitmen killed both.
Greenbaum's body was found in a bedroom, nearly decapitated in having his throat slit. His wife Bess' throat was cut, too. She was on a sofa facing the fireplace in the living room, trussed from behind and badly beaten in the face with a heavy bottle. Police found her propped face-down on pillows, which prevented blood from dripping on the carpet. They also found evidence that the assassins stayed on that December evening and ate the steaks.
Phoenix as a back office to Las Vegas and second home for Chicago Outfit mobsters (Willie Bioff, for example), is often traced to Greenbaum. But he was actually sent to Phoenix in 1928 to run the southwest hub of the Outfit's gambling wire service, the Trans-America Publishing and News Service (Western Union would have frowned on accepting illegal telegraphs). This proprietary circuit also gave the Outfit an edge in national bookmaking rackets over rivals in New York and Detroit.
Gambling wouldn't be legalized in Nevada until 1931. Las Vegas was a village on the Union Pacific's main line from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles, population little more than 5,000. Legalization came because Nevada, whose population was centered around Reno and Carson City, was losing people and economic power as its mines played out and were destroyed by falling demand from the Great Depression.
Gus Greenbaum, a protege of the infamous Meyer Lansky, was 34. In Phoenix, he found a city of almost 48,000 and wide open. Gambling and prostitution flourished, with city commissioners and detectives taking a cut. The police department was deeply corrupt. Rail connections to Chicago were plentiful on the Santa Fe and Southern Pacific. Before the end of Prohibition, liquor was plentiful, too, thanks to Al Capone. Rising local leaders such as department store heir Barry Goldwater, contractor Del Webb, and liquor baron and rancher Kemper Marley befriended Greenbaum. No wonder the Outfit thought it was the ideal home for Trans-America.