Christmas Spirits Ran High in Las Vegas During Prohibition, Part I

Introduction: In this article, Melissa Davenport Berry tells how Las Vegas had a festive Christmas in 1919, even though Prohibition was beginning and the town was supposedly dry. Melissa is a genealogist who has a blog, AnceStory Archives, and a Facebook group, New England Family Genealogy and History.

When prohibition was put into effect in Las Vegas just shy of the Christmas holiday in 1919, gloom descended upon the festive town. However, a sheriff and judge conspired against the temperance scrooges and saved the town from a dry, dreary holiday. As the spirits flowed the town folk glowed – except in the office of the district attorney, who was not very merry.

The Las Vegas Review-Journal recalled how Las Vegans survived the kill-joy puritanism of the prohibition grinch and celebrated a most intoxicating Christmas indeed!

An article about Las Vegas during Prohibition, Las Vegas Review-Journal newspaper article 21 December 1975
Las Vegas Review-Journal (Las Vegas, Nevada), 21 December 1975, page 129

Here is the scoop: When the Volstead Act passed, the Freemont Street area of Las Vegas, where most got their bottled joy, was mandated to remove all signs advertising the sale of alcohol. This included saloons, restaurants, hotels, and drugstores. The liquor supplies were cut off from the town and it seemed it would be a dry Yuletide.

Many prayed for a miracle, as most did not want the plug to stay in the jug. This included a tight inner circle of politicians who were notorious tipplers and knew the real heartbeat of their townies. “Did it not violate the basic rights and freedom of every Nevadan?” they declared.

Photo: Sheriff Samuel Gay
Photo: Sheriff Samuel Gay. Courtesy of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas Special Collections.

Luckily, two potent advocates favored libations over prohibition law: Sheriff Samuel Gay and Judge Henry Lillis. It was a known fact that Sheriff Sam was not a fan of Clark County District Attorney Arthur Jerome Stebenne, who brought him up for charges in 1915 for “gross intoxication.”

The Judge also had fallen out of favor with Stebenne. As this article reported:

“A gregarious lively man, the judge shared many a bottle with his score of friends. In fact, old timers recall there were frequent occasions when the judge had to be propelled into court and propped up while passing sentence.”

To quench the thirsty townies, Sheriff Sam and Judge Henry decided to grant bootlegger Lon Groesbeck a pass to push his product from the Northern Club located on Fremont Street. Groesbeck was also not very fond of the D. A., as Stebenne had busted him for illegal gambling. That just made the bootlegger more loved by the locals.

Plus, he was popular for his low-cost, high grade firewater. This holiday Groesbeck was deemed an essential worker, and his presence was kept under wraps when he arrived with the booze. And that he did! He rode into town like jolly old Santa in his false-bottomed car loaded with liquid joy.

The article reported:

An article about a bootlegger in Las Vegas during Prohibition, Las Vegas Review-Journal newspaper article 21 December 1975
Las Vegas Review-Journal (Las Vegas, Nevada), 21 December 1975, page 129

Meanwhile, the D. A. was vexed in his Olympian corner office, sober and miserable. He spied and watched in fury. He traced the festive fumes to Groesbeck in the Northern Club. As he watched the increase in traffic and gaiety, he grew more determined to keep law and order. He obtained a search warrant, but Sheriff Sam announced he was on vacation, and no one else could be found to enforce the law. The town enjoyed a season of hot toddies and spiked eggnog.

The grinch would get his way, but not until after the New Year’s toasts were made. Stay tuned for more!

6 thoughts on “Christmas Spirits Ran High in Las Vegas During Prohibition, Part I

  1. What a GREAT story and so timely!!! I so enjoy and look forward to your stories, they are filled with such upbeat passion! Thank you!!!

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