Gangster William George ‘‘Big Bill’’ Lias (July 14, 1900-June 1, 1970) was a flamboyant bootlegger, leader of organized crime, and professional gambler in Wheeling. He was born in Wheeling or Greece, and christened William George Liakakos. By 1920, he had left the family grocery business for a career in the illegal sale and distribution of liquor during Prohibition.
A short sentence in the Atlanta federal penitentiary prepared Lias for a new life in illegal gambling once Prohibition was repealed. When operation of the numbers racket was made a felony in 1939, he opened a string of casino-nightclubs along Market Street in Wheeling, where he was also prominent in prostitution and politics. In 1945, he purchased Wheeling Downs racetrack on Wheeling Island. In 1948, the federal government charged Lias with income tax evasion; his track and other assets were seized in 1952, the year before Washington failed in an attempt to deport him. By then he was a national figure whose control over ‘‘wide-open Wheeling’’ had made the city a magnet for free-spending adherents to the sporting life. He had criminal ties to Detroit and Cleveland.
Lias’s rise was accompanied by violence, including gang wars and the mysterious death of his first wife in 1934. Yet Big Bill was lionized as well as feared by ordinary citizens as much as he was despised (and feared once again) by the local establishment and press. He survived more than one assassination attempt and lived out his life in obvious but never ostentatious comfort, alternating between homes in Wheeling and the Detroit area. In the 1950s, Life magazine estimated Lias’s weight at 368 pounds. His acts of public charity during the Depression and later meant that he would be known for his largess as well as his largeness. Big Bill Lias died in Wheeling.
Written by George Fetherling