Gangster “Big Bill” Lias was born on July 14, 1900 in either Greece or Wheeling. The uncertainty over his birthplace would later derail the government’s efforts to deport him.
The Prohibition era in America began just before Lias turned 20. Seeing an opportunity, he quit his family’s grocery business in Wheeling to sell illegal booze. After Prohibition was repealed, Lias moved into illegal gambling. And in 1939, when the numbers racket was made a felony, he launched a string of casino-nightclubs in Wheeling. He also played a major hand in the city’s prostitution business and became influential in local politics. In 1945, Lias purchased Wheeling Downs racetrack. Three years later, the federal government charged him with income tax evasion and, in 1952, seized his racetrack and other assets.
Lias’s organized crime empire was rife with violence, including gang wars and the mysterious death of his first wife. Thanks in large part to Lias, Wheeling became known nationally as a gambling hub.
Despite his criminal activities, though, he was often admired locally for his charity work. Big Bill Lias died in Wheeling in 1970 at age 69.