By a Biometrica staffer
Last month, we kicked off our mini series on the history of Las Vegas, a city that was originally built as a desert railroad town but evolved into the casino capital of the world. The city, its residents, and all the millions upon millions who visit it have long made their peace with the fact that the ‘underworld’ had an instrumental role to play in the transformation of Vegas. The patronage of organized crime groups was crucial in laying the base for some of the earliest casinos in the city — including El Cortez and the Flamingo.
The mob’s heyday in Vegas started roughly from the 1940s and lasted until the mid-1980s. In our first piece of this mini series, we already briefly touched on the role played by the most important mob bosses in the shaping of the city. We mentioned in that piece, for instance, that ownership of the El Cortez ended up being transferred into the hands of the mob. And, of course, like everyone else, we couldn’t go without mentioning the most well-known of the Vegas mobsters who’s often credited with establishing the stronghold of the mafia in the city: Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel.
But, Bugsy Siegel was not the first mobster to arrive on the scene at Las Vegas. According to the National Museum of Organized Crime & Law Enforcement (or the Mob Museum), James “Jim” Ferguson was the original (or OG, in today’s internet-speak) mobster of Vegas. And it’s his story and role in shaping the history of the city that we examine in this piece. (Much of the information in this piece is sourced from the Mob Museum’s blog posts.)
The OG Mobster Of Vegas
Ferguson was, effectively, the first organized crime boss to arrive in Vegas, and one who made a big enough impact for federal authorities to take notice. What adds to the intrigue around him is that very little is known about the first 30 years of his life, and about the end of it. Per the Mob Museum blog, he allegedly told prison guards once that he was born in 1893 in Memphis, Tennessee, and also claimed to be a farmer.
In any case, he was considered a “menace to society” by the U.S. government in the 1920s and the 1930s. Ferguson is said to have arrived in Ely, Nevada around 1924. At that time, gambling, commercial sex work and the sale of alcohol were illegal through out most of the country. The same was true in Nevada, but many residents considered the state wide open to tolerating vice rackets, and that’s what brought Ferguson to Ely. Like Vegas, Ely was also a new town back then and its workforce was largely made up of single men. But, when Ferguson arrived there, he discovered that the city’s leaders and vice “lords” had already come to an accommodation.
Discovering that there was little opportunity in Ely, Ferguson decided to try his luck at Vegas. But not before making an important contact in Ely in the form of his partner and the future “Mrs. Ferguson,” Vera Magness. Magness worked as a commercial sex worker and wanted to set up her own establishment. Ferguson and Magness headed to Vegas together. When they got to Vegas, Ferguson realized gambling, both legal and illegal, commercial sex work, and bootlegging were all thriving in the city. What made it more “attractive” to Ferguson was that those in charge of the city’s red light district had been in that position for nearly two decades, and appeared vulnerable to a takeover.
In a rather clever manner, Ferguson ended up using a local grand jury’s report on the city’s illegal activities as a way to understand “weaknesses” in the system. He also ended up getting unexpected support from the city’s newly elected mayor, Fred Hesse, and from police chief Spud Lake. By paying city officials monthly fees and fines, both wholesale and retail bootleggers were able to operate freely under Ferguson’s “protection.” Magness was able to open her own commercial sex work establishment in the red light district.
With that first step accomplished, Ferguson had his eyes on the next goal, i.e. defeating Al James, who was his only real competition until that point. “For nearly 20 years, James was the titular leader of the local red light industries. James owned and operated the Arizona Club, the largest saloon and gambling hall in Las Vegas, located at the center of Block 16,” the Mob Museum blog says. The retail sale of alcohol was permitted to be the primary business only in Blocks 16 and 17. But soon, the city permitted businesses posing as hotels along Fremont Street — the city’s main business district — to sell liquor. This change forced the saloon owners in Block 16 to expand their vice services.
It was a public assault with James at the Arizona Club that landed Ferguson in trouble with the authorities, for possibly the first time, in Vegas. He was arrested and charged with “assault with a deadly weapon with intent to commit bodily injury.” Ferguson was convicted on those charges to four months in county jail (it was at this point that the police chief Lake entered Ferguson’s life). Until end-1927, Ferguson tightened his control over Vegas and cemented his relationships with local law enforcement and city government. At the same time, he expanded his gang’s activity elsewhere in Nevada, as well as parts of California and Utah.
But, federal officials were unhappy with the inaction by local authorities in Vegas. So in 1928, Prohibition enforcement agents conducted a massive surprise raid on the city’s “booze halls.” As a result, Ferguson’s liquor joints were shut down and members of his gang were arrested. Mayor Hesse came to his rescue by getting the federal officials to transfer the case to local jurisdiction. By spring of that year, the Mob Museum blog says, Ferguson’s businesses were back. But when an eight-year-old son of a bootlegger was shot by police chief Lake, it led to more federal involvement, and Ferguson was jailed.
This time, federal agents raided Ferguson’s house and found “enough” liquor to supply the “needs of the city for a considerable time.” Needless to say, he was arrested again. He pled guilty to the charges, paid a fine, and returned to Vegas. Meanwhile, though, a jury was hearing testimony about the “inner workings of Ferguson’s bootlegging business and his relationship with Las Vegas officials,” the Mob Museum blog says. Under that investigation and the resultant charges, too, Ferguson was found guilty. He was sentenced to one year and one day in prison.
This time when he got out of jail, he realized that the balance of power in the underworld had shifted. New faces had taken over. A little while after that, Ferguson was in trouble again: It was thought that he was involved in a daring robbery at one of his old booze lounges, the Green Lantern. He was arrested on suspicion of being the “mastermind.” But, a judge dismissed charges against him after a preliminary hearing. He was arrested and released once more for the same charge even a few weeks later. From there on, he would wind up getting involved in safe robberies in Utah, among other run-ins with law enforcement.
Meanwhile, Magness’ licenses were pulled and she was charged with allowing underage girls in her “sporting house.” When Ferguson got out of federal prison in 1936, there were unconfirmed reports that he returned to Vegas, the Mob Museum blog says. “But in truth the city’s former bootlegging and vice kingpin had disappeared … Whether he was tired of prison time and went “straight” for the rest of his life, or used another one of his many aliases, Ferguson dropped out of sight. His death, whenever that occurred, was not recorded by Las Vegas newspapers.”
As part of this mini series on the Vegas mob, Biometrica will explore the stories of other key mobsters and how they shaped the city in future pieces.