James C. McKay, along with William J. Graham, was the biggest criminal authority in Reno in the twenties and thirties of the last century. Recall that “the largest small city in the world,” as Reno is often called, until the heyday of Las Vegas was considered the capital of gambling in the United States.
Mackay owned the largest local gambling houses before the official opening of the casino in 1934. Accordingly, we can say that he played a very important – albeit far from positive – role in the history of the city.
James was born and raised in the city of Virginia City, Nevada. His rather well-off family was engaged in coal mining, and at first the guy also showed interest in the family business. Later, he worked as a security guard for a banker and coal miner George Wingfield. Soon he saw the potential in the young man and began to give him more responsible assignments.
Some time later Wingfield recommended McKay to Nick Abelman, who gave him not only a leadership position, but also a stake in his Big Casino. So James was in the gambling business. According to the memoirs of his contemporaries, he never differed in decency and cleanliness in the choice of means to achieve the goal. He could easily beat the casino visitor who had gone too far, grab someone else’s money or turn some kind of machination behind his partners.
Moving to Reno
In 1920, McKay and his new friend Bill Graham moved to Reno. They went there on behalf of George Wingfield, who decided to open a casino in his property. There, Jim and Bill decided not to limit themselves to solving the affairs of Wingfield and engaged in criminal business. In the sphere of their interests were bootlegging, prostitution, bookmakers and, of course, underground casinos.
Mackay soon became famous as a skillful player. He skillfully rubbed himself in the confidence of jockeys at races, dealers, pit bosses and sports managers to gain access to insider information, which he skillfully used for his own purposes. He was even nicknamed “Cinch” (“Werniak”), because his stakes were rarely losers.
In addition, he had a well-hung tongue, which allowed him to hang noodles on the ears of gullible casino customers, drive the police to the nose and deal with other representatives of the criminal world.
Some time later, McKay and Graham bought for forty thousand dollars a club on the outskirts of Reno. They completely reconstructed it and opened it under the sign of The Willows. Although there was a “dry law” in the country, the companions offered customers a wide selection of the best spirits they were supplied by a familiar bootlegger from San Francisco. Also in their institution there was a large casino, and clients could use the services of girls of easy virtue.
Their business flourished, and in a few years the partners opened several more such institutions, including the Bank Palace Club, which was, apparently, the largest in the country.
At that time, the influence of Graham and Mackay in the criminal world of Reno was so great that without their participation, not a single solid case was being rotated. Visitors to their establishments were not only ordinary citizens, but also movie stars, popular musicians and even very famous politicians.
In the first half of the thirties, a campaign began in support of the legalization of the casino. Mackay knew in advance that the gambling business would be allowed, and began to modernize the Bank Palace Club. Casino doubled in size and expanded the range of services offered, which made it uniquely the best gambling house in the United States.
Jim was engaged in gambling business until 1952. By that time, its establishments were no longer able to compete with larger gambling monopolies. Moreover, he had to spend several years in prison for fraud, which also did not contribute to the successful functioning of his casino.
Having finished with gambling, Jim spent the rest of his life in peace and quiet, enjoying communication with family and close people. Died McKay in June 1962.