FEDERAL VICISSITUDES AND LOCAL AMBIVALENCE:
THE COMPLEX RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN “DEMON RUM,” LAW ENFORCEMENT, AND ORGANIZED CRIME
Shae Cox and Lee Hanover
The Las Vegas area was characterized by a tension between legal and illegal, prosecution and neglect, and entertainment and morality. Ambivalent federal policies during Prohibition served to promote decentralized enforcement of local communities. This decentralization created opportunities for organized crime to operate within and between local enforcement agents.
The Republican federal government focused on cutting taxes and budgets, which influenced their initial neglect of Prohibition. Some of the individual actors at the federal level were themselves criminals, failing to prosecute the laws they claimed to uphold. According to Elmer Irey, an agent of the Special Intelligence Unit of the United States Treasury, who wrote, “[t]here were no civil service requirements, and, as a result, the most extraordinary collection of political hacks, hangers-on, and passing highway men got appointed as Prohibition agents.”Furthermore, Prohibition faltered due to lax prosecution of federal law, the federal Attorney General under President Warren G. Harding, Harry Daugherty, was fired for accepting money under the table. The federal government encompassed ambivalent Prohibition policies and legal complexities that enforcement at the local level mimicked.
Organized crime in Las Vegas was not the norm. Initially, during the passage of the Volstead Act on January, 16th, 1920, independent bars and saloons closed, but were reopened as entertainment clubs. As the commodity became profitable, organized crime took interest in the Las Vegas area, and independent stills operated in North Las Vegas and Boulder City. Anthony Cornero and his brothers ran gambling cruise ships off the California coast, and viewed Las Vegas as another market to corner. Specifically, the Arcade, a Block 16 club represented this turn toward organized criminal activity. The Las Vegas Age, on March 8th, 1919, reported, “nine quarts of Melwood whiskey were found in the room occupied...by [three women]…another quart of whiskey, a pint of vermouth, some alcohol, wine and brandy were [also] found.”“New Age” women were at the forefront of complex relationships between law enforcement, entertainment, and sexuality.
Block 16 operated as the hub for alcohol sales and prostitution. Under Prohibition, local law enforcement agents selectively policed the area. When forced to demonstrate their authority, law enforcement combined practices of prosecution and neglect. For instance, Sheriff Samuel Gay practiced differential treatment of criminals, in the above Age article, Sheriff Gay fined and released two of the women, but Esther Flores “left town on the first train.” Also, as prohibition on Block 16 was enforced, the illegal trade was reborn in North Las Vegas. The Twin Lakes, a local resort in North Las Vegas, created a man-made lake with an island at the center. This served as a storage facility and social club where North Las Vegans flaunted Prohibition, and it also functioned as a gateway for alcohol coming in and out of the greater Las Vegas area. The local level took their cue from state and federal neglect, as ambivalent state agents sporadically policed Block 16, local citizens skirted morality and became patrons to the local booze trade.
Ambivalent actors at all levels during Prohibition created complex relationships fostering opportunities that allowed organized crime to take root in Las Vegas. The first decade of federal policy (1919-1930) deregulated and decentralized law enforcement to the local level, which in turn administered sporadic justice to police “Demon Rum.” Prohibition ended through cumulative forces of economic, social, and political turbulence. Franklin Delano Roosevelt represented this social atmosphere. In 1932, as President, FDR immediately created the Beer-Wine Revenue Act, which legalized light alcohol under 3.2 percent. On December 5th, 1933 Congress repealed the 18th Amendment, officially ending Prohibition. A fifteen-year social project ended as it began: highly contested, sporadically administered, and fundamentally flawed.
 Anne J. Funderburg, Bootleggers and Beer Barons of the Prohibition Era (Jefferson: McFarland and Company, 2014), 336.
 Ibid., 338.
 Gary B. Nash and Julie Roy Jeffrey, editors, The American People: Creating a Nation and a Society, concise 6th ed. volume II (New York: Pearson Education, 2008), 715
 Michael Green, Lecture, . February 9th 2016.
 Ibid., February 9th, 2016.
 Las Vegas Age, March 38th, 1919, pg. 1.
 Michael Green, “Prohibition in America” Lecture, February 9th, 2016.
 Nash and Jeffrey, The American People, 728.