Big Bill Lias: Forgotten Criminal Kingpin Outlasted More Famous Counterparts

As Greek-Americans are fond of saying: numbers don’t lie. Let us test this assertion by reviewing the number of years notorious American criminals actively conducted their careers. The wild ride of robberies undertaken by Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow (better known simply as Bonnie and Clyde) lasted no more than 2 years before they were gunned down by Federal Agents.
Ma (Arizona Donnie) Barker ran with the Barker-Karpis Gang just under three years, from 1931 until 1934. Lester Joseph Gillis, better known as Baby Face Nelson, managed to rob banks (while burning the mortgages of poor farmers at the same time) from 1928 to 1934, a total of six years. While Al Capone began his criminal career in his early twenties, he only led the Chicago Mob for seven years (1925-1932). Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd just barely made seven years in his mad dash of crimes. While frequently in trouble with the law as a youth, John Dillinger’s real life of crime only occurred between 1924 and 1934. But William George Liakakos was a professional criminal for 52 years, spending a total of only two and a half years in prison.
Every criminal mentioned above is known to most Americans, except Liakakos, the one whose reign lasted more than half a century. My question is, why would the most successful criminal from this select roster of 1930s Depression/Prohibition Era gangsters be so utterly forgotten a figure?
Liakakos, better known as “Big Bill” Lias did it all: he began as a bootlegger of humble origins who became enormously successful; using the money he made running moonshine to controlled a diverse empire of gambling. Then, he went “legit” as the owner/operator of a $ 5 million horse track. To be sure, Lias is said to have engaged in gangland killings and tax evasion, resulting in his spending quite a bit of time in court, especially towards the end of his life. Still, Lias conducted his criminal career with barely a bump for over five decades while newspaper and radio exposes of his actions rained about him. Lias was such big news that two Life magazine accounts featured his criminal activities, packed with its customary lavish photographs, showcasing his life of crime.
Given his high criminal profile, state and federal charges were often brought against him. Never a charge from a local community police department. Then, on October 19, 1951, as if to prove Lias was anything but small potatoes, U.S. Senator John James Williams (Delaware) stood on the Senate floor and demanded to know why a national racketeer such as Lias was allowed to remain free – and with all his ill-gotten goods!
Given his time and place, the American public instantly recognized Senator Williams. It is something of an understatement to say that Senator Williams was hard on crime. During his Senate career, Williams was known in the public press as the “Lone wolf investigator,” “watchdog of the treasury,” and most often, “the conscience of the Senate.”
During the early 1950s, Lias went to trial (several times in fact) but he survived all the personal attacks and (more significantly) criminal charges raised against him.
To understand Big Bill Lias is to come to terms with the complexity of crime in American society. Some levels of flagrant immoral crime are accepted – if you are the right sort of person and it is all conducted discretely and without too much violence. It may be said that all citizens are equal before the law but the actual practice of justice is most certainly not equally applied to everyone. A quick review of Lias’ life provides us ample examples of this social reality in everyday life.
Born on July 14, 1900 to Greek immigrant parents George and Antonia (Kokoliades) in West Virginia, Lias was the youngest of a family with three boys and two girls. George Liakakos died in 1903 leaving his young family in poverty. By age 12, young Lias was known as Big Bill, primarily due to his physical size. Lias was always obese and in his early youth was called (but even, then, never to his face) Humpty Dumpy.
By 12, Lias supported himself and his mother through the only job he could get: driving a bread truck. At first, it was long hours and low pay. Then, in 1912, West Virginia passed a prohibition amendment against the manufacture, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages. Nationwide, prohibition did not begin until 1920.
With the passage of that law, Lias immediately began to use his truck deliveries to smuggle bottles of alcohol underneath his usual supply of bread. By the time he was 17, Lias was bringing in regular shipments of liquor from Ohio, which still legally allowed liquor until 1920. At his peak, it is said Lias sold 5,000 gallons of moonshine a week through both his wholesale and retail trade. During these “thunder road” days, Lias lost more than 100 expensive trucks and automobiles to prohibition agents. All these vehicles were outfitted to carry moonshine in some concealed manner. One of these specially-designed vehicles was a gas truck with an array of spigots from which real gas would flow. However, inside this specially-built truck, five-gallon cans of moonshine filled 90% of the interior. At this time Lias was the principal bootlegging figure in Southern Ohio and West Virginia with his headquarters being in Wheeling.
After 1933, writers would contend that the reason Prohibition did not work was because “good people” did not like that law. Which only begs the question of who then voted for this law in the first place?
Never losing a step, with the end of Prohibition in 1933, Lias used his bootlegging profits to establish his gambling operations. In December 1930, Big Bill brought the idea of the numbers game from Detroit. Also known as a numbers racket, it is an illegal lottery played mostly in poor neighborhoods. The amount bet is usually very small a penny, a nickel or a dime. Individual bettors pick three numbers, which they hope will match those that will be randomly drawn the following day. It may not sound like much but during the first 10 months of Lias’ numbers operation he (and his partners) made $730,000. Soon the daily gross varied between $5,000 and $8,000.
By the Fall of 1937, Lias was out of the numbers racket and on to other enterprises. Lias started the Automatic Cigarette Sales Company by buying more than 300 slot machines, several hundred one-ball machines, 460 jukeboxes, and hundreds of cigarette and peanut machines. At first, these machines formed the basis for a series of gambling clubs. Then in 1940, Lias made a deal with city and county officials known as the “Big Deal,” were the gambling was legally taxed. Wheeling soon became known as the Reno of the Ohio Valley.
In 1945, Lias purchased Wheeling Downs racetrack located on Wheeling Island, in the middle of the Ohio River (which is nevertheless a part of the city of Wheeling, West Virginia) at a bankruptcy sale. Lias immediately invested $500,000 into this track and during his lifetime its value increased to $5 million dollars.
Lias died in his bed on June 4, 1970 of heart failure. Prior to his death, he faced the possibility of ongoing legal actions by either the state or federal governments. Lias divested himself of all his business holdings and personal wealth/property, distributing it to his relatives.
I believe William Lias has never become a figure of popular culture for an array of reasons. First, Lias beat the system because he understood its inherent contradictions. While what is today called gangland violence did occur under Lias, it was strategic and never the showboating violence of Capone’s St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Lias was always obese, weighing somewhere near 400lbs in his prime. Hollywood can hide a lot in their recreations, but not that much. Lias also liberally spread his criminal money around to local officials as well as local citizens. We can see this same practice today as Wall Street spreads money across the Congress. And since Big Business owns the media bringing up troubling questions, such as the success of Lias’ life of crime, through popular culture outlets is simply not in their best interests.
Anyone even vaguely familiar with the many tales of Big Bill Lias will immediately note how much I have left out of his life of true crimes. And here, once again, we return to the core mystery. Why does a lifetime criminal such as Lias with such complex tales that stretches across decades remain so unknown in our times?