Introduction: In this article, Melissa Davenport Berry finishes her story about 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.
In yesterday’s story I covered how a Las Vegas sheriff and a judge evaded the Volstead Act during the 1919 Christmas holiday in Las Vegas, making sure spirits still flowed even though Prohibition had begun.
The reporter Georgia Lewis recalled the story in a Las Vegas Review-Journal newspaper article in 1975 that I showcased in yesterday’s blog article.
In today’s follow-up article, I will finish Lewis’ dramatic take on how the district attorney pursued the criminal bootlegger selling the spirits that kept Las Vegas merry that Christmas. Despite every attempt the D. A. made to enforce the law, he could not keep the city dry during that holiday season.
According to the Las Vegas Review-Journal article, finding law enforcement officers to serve a search warrant on the bootlegger Lou Groesbeck was not easy. Sheriff Samuel Gay’s deputies vanished, and the good sheriff himself announced that he was “on vacation.” Thanks to Groesbeck, the town continued to flow with good spirits and moonshine.
Clark County District Attorney Arthur Jerome Stebenne was on his last nerve and finally tracked down some law officials. Confronted by the D. A., Sheriff Sam and his constable Robert E. Lake were obligated to make the bust.
Unlike the local sheriff and judge, another newspaper – the Las Vegas Age – was very much on the side of temperance, law and order, and the D. A.’s office. This is how it covered the bootlegger’s arrest:
When the raid went down, Groesbeck was in his room at the Northern Club, surrounded by empty bottles, passed out. As expected, large amounts of hootch were found in his possession. Groesbecker told the fuzz he was too sick to go outside in the cold, so they let him sleep off his hangover.
The Las Vegas Age reported:
The Las Vegas Age applauded the district attorney’s action:
Meanwhile, Stebenne was at a loss again because at first he could not find Judge Henry Lillis, who was rumored to be on a bender with Groesbeck’s jolly juice. Finally, the D. A. got the judge to fix bail, and later got the bootlegger into a courtroom – and on 7 January 1920 at 2 p.m. the Judge announced his sentence for Groesbeck: a $400 fine and three months in jail. Then he immediately suspended it.
Stebenne scrambled to overturn Judge Lillis’ lenient ruling by filing an appeal with Judge William E. Orr, who preferred sober citizens to sauced ones. Sheriff Sam and Judge Lillis pleaded with Groesbeck to get out of town, but he insisted he had a few more bottles to unload. The drama heated up and Stebenne arrived with papers commanding Judge Lillis by writ of mandamus to set aside the suspended sentence and immediately put Groesbeck in the jug.
Not surprisingly, all that legal paperwork became a long process for Judge Lillis to complete and absorb, and by the time it was ready Groesbeck had sped off in the false-bottomed car he had used to bring the Christmas booze into Las Vegas.
So, duty was served, but the bootlegger who brought Christmas spirits to Las Vegas got away – and the popularity of Sheriff Gay and Judge Lilly grew stronger. The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported that “the two old timers” (Gay and Lilly) did just fine.
Stay tuned: In the New Year I will do a story on Sheriff Sam Gay, the man who tamed Las Vegas and never packed a gun doing it.
Were your ancestors moonshiners? Do a search in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives. The site is filled with informative articles on prohibition and bootleggers!