Jim Ferguson, the first organized crime boss in Las Vegas, bootlegged moonshine and had native politicians in his pocket. Courtesy of Robert Stoldal.
First of three elements
Within the 1920s and ’30s, the U.S. authorities thought-about him a “menace to society.” Nevada regulation enforcement officers stated he led “one of the most dangerous gangs of criminals operating” in the state. And, in Las Vegas, he had the title “King of the Tenderloin.”
Meet Las Vegas’ first organized crime determine, James “Jim” Ferguson. Throughout his reign in Nevada, Ferguson left a path of destruction, from dying to political corruption, theft, housebreaking and bootlegging.
Little is understood concerning the first 30 years of his life. He as soon as advised jail guards he was born January 9, 1893, in Memphis, Tennessee. With the scars of two bullet wounds on his abdomen when arrested, he advised jailers, “I am a farmer.”
In 1924, as he turned 31, Ferguson arrived in Ely, Nevada. On the time, in a lot of the United States, playing, prostitution and the sale of alcohol have been unlawful. The similar was true in Nevada, however many residents thought-about the state extensive open to tolerating vice rackets. And Ely was on the prime of the wide-open record.
Like Las Vegas, Ely, included as a metropolis in 1907, was nonetheless a brand new city. And like Las Vegas, its work drive was in giant half made up of single males. With large copper mines feeding its financial system, Ely was a lot bigger than the railroad upkeep city of Las Vegas.
Nevertheless, when Ferguson arrived in Ely, he quickly came upon there was little alternative for somebody together with his expertise. The metropolis’s leaders and vice lords had already come to an lodging.
Ferguson did make contacts in Ely’s so-called “restricted district.” He met Vera Magness, who labored in the “district” and needed to arrange her personal brothel. She would quickly turn out to be the common-law Mrs. Ferguson.
This postcard exhibits an east-looking view of Fremont Road in the 1920s. The photographer is standing simply east of Most important Road. Courtesy of Robert Stoldal.
The two headed to Las Vegas. After arriving there in late 1924, Ferguson discovered playing, authorized and unlawful, prostitution and bootlegging all flourishing. On the time, Las Vegas’ inhabitants was about 2,300.
The younger Ferguson discovered that these in cost of the town’s pink mild district had been in management for almost 20 years. They appeared weak to a takeover.
As for the native police, they have been involved primarily with protecting conventional criminals out of city.
Ferguson determined the surroundings was ripe for the choosing and commenced engaged on taking up. He acquired some sudden assist. An area grand jury had simply been empaneled and was taking a look at methods “to clean up the present very unsatisfactory moral condition” of the group. On February 5, 1925, the Clark County Grand Jury issued its report on the state of the native society. It offered Ferguson with an overview of the weaknesses in the world’s felony justice system.
The panel criticized Clark County’s regulation enforcement, from the sheriff’s workplace to the town police for the “almost total non-enforcement” of the legal guidelines prohibiting the sale of liquor. The Las Vegas Age newspaper was of the opinion that “a careful reading impresses one with the idea that the present grand jury has determined that conditions in Clark County in respect to morals and the bootlegging evil shall be improved.”
The grand jury additionally went after playing, calling it “one of the most pernicious vices, demoralizing in its effect and which brings into a community an undesirable element.” All ranges of presidency should make “a concerted effort to clean up the present very unsatisfactory moral condition in our county.”
Not lengthy after the grand jury launched its report back to the general public, the town ready for an election. The workplace of mayor and 4 seats on the Metropolis Fee can be on the poll.
With the grand jury report nonetheless a matter of dialogue, candidates needed to middle their campaigns on morality in civic life. The incumbent mayor, William German, in search of re-election, emphasised efforts to halt bootlegging and his promise to enhance the requirements of decency inside the group.
German referred to as the bars, brothels and playing dens tolerated by the town “a brazen temptation to the susceptible.” He referred to as on the voters to elect these “who will have the courage and backbone to work with me in controlling and regulating the open vice conditions that are a disgrace to our city.”
The mayor’s opponent, Fred Hesse, replied, “Much is being said about the morals of our city. I intend, if elected, to put forth every effort to correct existing evils.” Nevertheless, Hesse added that he would implement the legal guidelines with a stability of “sanity as well as to decency.”
From the start of Las Vegas’ metropolis authorities in 1911, the elected metropolis commissioners not solely set coverage, however every commissioner would instantly management a municipal division.
The mayor had the facility to make the appointments. One commissioner can be in cost of the town police, one other the streets, one other the lights and sewers and the fourth the town’s funds.
Of the 941 votes forged, Hesse beat German by a slim margin of 38.
Within the wake of the town elections of 1925, Ferguson had emerged, one newspaper put it, as “a power in the underworld of Las Vegas.” Magness, as Mrs. Ferguson was recognized, opened a brothel in Block 16, the pink mild district. Ferguson was poised to make his transfer to grow to be the “King of the Tenderloin.”
As much as that time, just one individual stood in his means: Al James. For almost 20 years, James was the titular chief of the native purple mild industries. James owned and operated the Arizona Membership, the most important saloon and playing corridor in Las Vegas, situated on the middle of Block 16.
Block 16 was the 16th block in the grid laid out by the San Pedro, Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad when it auctioned off its land inside the Las Vegas Township in 1905. One of many railroad’s stipulations in the deeds from the land sale targeted on the sale of alcohol. Solely in Blocks 16 and 17 might the retail sale of alcohol be the first perform of a enterprise.
Las Vegas Mayor Fred Hesse was accused of defending bootlegger Jim Ferguson from prosecution. Courtesy of UNLV Particular Collections.
The deed restriction didn’t maintain up for lengthy. In lower than a yr, the town permitted companies posing as lodges alongside Fremont Road — the town’s primary enterprise district — to promote liquor. This modification pressured the saloon house owners in Block 16 to increase their vice providers. On the prime of the listing was prostitution.
In late Might of 1925, stories began circulating of “trouble” in the underworld relating to a potential “shake up” for management. On the night time of July 21, 1925, Ferguson made a really public strong-arm transfer on James. The outbreak of violence on the Arizona Membership made the entrance pages of each Las Vegas newspapers.
“Fires of a feud which have been smoldering for some time past burst forth into lurid flames in the red light district,” the Clark County Evaluation reported. The Las Vegas Age reported that “what is described (as) a wild night” befell “when the clan of one James Ferguson” who seems to “have ambitions to be King of the Tenderloin” stormed the membership.
Each papers instantly noticed the importance of Ferguson staging a violent brawl inside James’ bar and on line casino. Following the carnage, James swore out “complaints against Ferguson,” which, the Evaluate said, “rather speaks for itself to those in the know. The incident bears with it more than usual [significance], since the assaults took place principally in the rooms of the Arizona Club.”
Police arrested Ferguson, and he was charged, the Las Vegas Age reported, with “assault with a deadly weapon with intent to commit bodily injury.” Additionally amongst these arrested have been three ladies described by the Age as “denizens of the district.”
Ferguson had sufficient assets to rent the perfect lawyer in city, Artemus W. Ham, to defend him, however the courtroom nonetheless convicted him. A decide sentenced him to 4 months in the county jail.
Together with his spouse and gangster cohorts holding his plan to dominate Block 16 shifting on the surface, Ferguson had efficiently pushed his essential rival apart. James nonetheless owned the Arizona Membership, however Ferguson now ran the saloon.
One other improvement that helped solidify Ferguson’s energy base was the appointment of a brand new metropolis marshal. At its December assembly, the Metropolis Fee appointed Robert Earnest “Spud” Lake to function metropolis marshal. The job was higher recognized by its unofficial title: chief of police.
Lake was a part of a pioneer household that got here to Las Vegas in 1904. Through the years, he had served in numerous native regulation enforcement positions.
When Ferguson acquired out of jail in early 1926, he assumed a much less public posture, however quietly arrange an operation to fabricate and distribute unlawful liquor in Las Vegas. Working with Mayor Hesse and Police Chief Lake, Ferguson devised a system of month-to-month charges and fines. The settlement allowed his bootleggers, each wholesalers and retailers, to function freely in the town and environs whereas paying metropolis officers charges to maintain the liquor flowing.
Ferguson’s cope with the town brass had each official and unofficial guidelines. Each side agreed that Ferguson’s operation would pay a daily, however small high-quality to the town. The metropolis’s high quality can be lower than a federal high-quality. In return, the town wouldn’t shut down any of Ferguson’s stills, liquor wholesalers or shops. The metropolis additionally referred to as for Ferguson’s vice companies in Block 16 to keep away from inflicting issues for the general public at giant.
Ferguson had a separate plan. He would cost the bootleggers a month-to-month charge for “protection” in change for restricted arrests and fines. In some instances, this “protection fee” got here with the requirement that the bootleggers purchase their whiskey direct from Ferguson’s stills earlier than promoting it to saloons and people. Ferguson additionally unfold the phrase that bootleggers who did not pay him for cover can be arrested and fined extra typically.
For the remainder of 1926 and 1927, Ferguson tightened his management over Las Vegas bootlegging and prostitution rackets, and he cemented his relationships with native regulation enforcement and metropolis authorities. On the similar time, he expanded his gang’s exercise elsewhere in Nevada, in addition to elements of California and Utah. Ferguson bragged to federal undercover brokers about supplying Southern California mobsters with bootlegged whiskey.
Mayor Fred Hesse ran for re-election in 1928. Based mostly on a current change to the town constitution, if he gained, he can be the first Las Vegas mayor to serve a four-year time period as an alternative of two years.
In his re-election marketing campaign, Hesse claimed that by means of his administration’s “most careful management,” a lot of the “undesirables” in Las Vegas had been “arrested, punished and have departed the city.” The mayor added that the city was “practically free of undesirables.”
Hesse was re-elected. Voters additionally chosen as a metropolis commissioner a newcomer, 30-year-old native businessman Roy Neagle. It was Neagle’s first attempt at public workplace. On the first assembly of the Metropolis Fee following the 1928 election, Hesse appointed Neagle to supervise the police division.
On the similar assembly, Lake stored his job as chief of police, and Joe Might as night time police officer. The mayor and police chief introduced Neagle into the loop on the controls over Ferguson’s bootlegging operation and the town’s vice district.
Robert Stoldal, a longtime tv information government in Las Vegas, is a Las Vegas historian and member of The Mob Museum’s Board of Administrators.
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