When the Friendly City Turned Rogue

With 250 years of history, Wheeling’s story isn’t only innovation, triumphs and celebrations. Just like any other city, there has been a dark past we would rather forget. And while it may not be part of the highlight reel for tourists, it’s woven into the fabric of how Wheeling has grown and changed over centuries. Part of that story is the reign of mob boss Bill Lias. 

By age 20, author George Sidiropolis had decided to devote his life to civil service. He became the youngest Executive Director of Public Housing and later Commissioner of the Division of Motor Vehicles. He had no idea at the time that by working closely with West Virginia governors and other elected officials, he would have a front row seat to the unfolding of a massive and deadly crime ring. 

If you’ve spent much time in Wheeling, you have heard the name Big Bill Lias. He’s a local legend. Even local kids know he was a “gangster.” You’ll hear his name associated with gambling and dog racing. Maybe even a reference to the Wheeling Island track. How did a hustler end up in Wheeling? And was he really the devious criminal he’s rumored to be? 

With meticulous research from a lifetime of paying attention, Sidiropolis reconstructs every detail of the devious underpinning of how crime in Wheeling became mainstream and vastly ignored by the police and government. 

It turns out, Lias’ insidious enterprises reached much further than the general Wheeling citizen ever imagined. From selling bootlegged liquor to lottery scandals, horse racing, casino fortunes and shady real estate deals, Lias had his fingers in every pot he could during his tenure as the corruption king of the Ohio Valley and beyond. 

These were not small-town isolated events. Lias was connected to those in Pittsburgh, Detroit and Chicago involved in the same activities. These infamous crime rings knew where Wheeling was and that they had a man there to fear. 

And this deviancy wasn’t just confined to the Dick Tracey-like gangsters of the 20s or the illegal liquor runs of the 30s. It continued to influence the politics, government and community of Wheeling until the final member of the villainous group died just 20 years ago in 1998. 

The cover of the book features a famous photo from the car bombing that left Paul Hankish a paraplegic. This is only the most well-known crime in nearly a century of constant criminal activity.  

Sidiropolis never shies away from naming names and digging for exact dates and locations. While the major players in the mid-century scandal are deceased, many of the names are familiar to Wheeling residents. He illustrates just how intertwined crime was with business, religion, politics, news reporting and so much more. 

This is the perfect book for history buffs or crime novel aficionados. This account of “crime and corruption in the Friendly City” is gruesome and insidious beyond imagination. It is often said that life is stranger than fiction, and in this case, it holds true. The national mob connections that turned Wheeling into “Little Chicago” in the not-so-distant past can still be seen in the city. The landmarks and legacy of this criminal underbelly are part of our history, making this a fascinating read for any Wheeling resident. 

Stacey Miller Sacco is a Wheeling native. She is a content writer and the former production editor of InWheeling Magazine. She reluctantly left Wheeling in 2019 for her husband’s job and now lives in Fairfield, Pennsylvania, with her husband and four children.

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