William “Bill” Graham was born in San Francisco in 1888. As a man looking for adventure, he passed through several mining and saloon towns like Nevada's Virginia City and Gold Hill, but settled down in Millers, where he sold stock for George Winfield and others. He did well, but found what he wanted when he reached Tonopah in 1915.
Graham loved the town and its Casino Athletic club which had a boxing ring and workout facilities. Goldfield and Tonopah had featured boxing matches like the Joe Gans and Oscar Nelson fight Graham read about as a boy, and he found plenty of boxers plying their trade in the mining towns. He was there when future Heavyweight Champion Jack Dempsey fought Johnny Sudenberg on June 13, 1915 and had no intention of leaving anytime soon.
George Wingfield, former resident and now Reno socialite, asked Nick Abelman to put Graham to work at the Tonopah Club and make him a partner. Nick obliged. Graham took quickly to the faro and poker games,and Graham turned out to be as tough on the drunks and cheats as the boxers were on their lesser opponents, but he had other qualities too, such as a long list of friends who could provide favors.
When prohibition was passed, Abelman and Graham took advantage of his friends in Millers, stocking years’ worth of booze in the small town. According to the book, The Roots of Reno, in 1919 they were stopped on their way back to Tonopah from Millers by Capt. Hendricks and two State police cars filled with officers. They were arrested and driven to town where the men were arraigned before the acting Tonopah Justice, who released them on $1,000 bail. Abelman’s lawyer worked the case for months, eventually drawing a reprimand and a $2,000 fine per man.Finding a Path to Reno
Nick Abelman was older than Graham, and Bill spent more time with fellow worker Jim McKay at the casino. They would eventually become best friends and business partners after selling their shares in the casino, Graham’s 20 percent to G.T. Osborne and Chet Carpenter, and moving to Reno at the behest of George Wingfield.In 1922, Graham traveled to Chicago to see his brother Roy catch for the Chicago White Sox. Roy had a short career, but batted a fine .296 Brother Bill was still more interested in boxing, and became friends with Heavyweight Champion Jack Dempsey when he was in Reno to establish residency to file for divorce.
Dempsey would become a partner in the boxing concession and casino at the outdoor arena built in 1931 at the Reno Race Track. Together they promoted the Max Baer - Paulino Uzcuduno fight and the Max Baer – Kingfish Levinsky fight.
Graham and McKay were very successful in Reno, and Graham learned early to grease the wheels, and beat down those who questioned his right to do as he pleased. The partners took over The Stockade, the local red light district, and took their profits and purchased The Willows, a recently closed roadhouse, in 1922, for $40,000. The partners updated the facilities at a cost of nearly $160,000. The casino allowed customers, men and women alike, to spend hours playing roulette and blackjack in formal surroundings. The Willows was the most successful casino in the Reno area until a fire devastated the property in 1932.
By that time, Graham and McKay were running Reno’s most successful business, the Bank Club, with Ray Kindle. Located at 239 North Center Street, the casino sported craps, roulette, 21, faro, hazard, keno, slots, and three poker games. Bill Graham had been a driving force in getting the open gaming law passed. Always a snappy dresser, he wore suits with vests, silk ties, and always a hat on his head, as was the custom for most men at the time. However, Bill wasn’t against wearing a cowboy hat with his suit on occasion.Open Gaming Passes in 1931
To get the gaming bill passed, Graham smooth-talked legislators, spoke to councilmen, called in old markers (of which there were plenty), and forced his will on those who hesitated to support the effort.
Graham and McKay also owned the Cal-Neva casino at North Shore Lake Tahoe, a very successful operation that attracted movie stars and high rollers during the Lake’s summer months. And, Bill and his partner had taken to running a series of money laundering operations at clubs like the Rex and the Haymarket, two of their Reno casinos.
Access to Wingfield’s Riverside Bank allowed the pair to help swindle gullible travelers out of their stock certificates, and launder money for gangsters like Alvin Karpis, who had $100,000 reward money from the famous Hamm kidnapping.
Graham also put “Baby Face” Nelson to work as a driver and housed him a block from his own home on California Avenue in Reno. Always an easy touch, Graham traveled often to San Francisco to take in the fights, and was known to buy drinks at the bar for everyone, often leaving enough cash to cover bar-owners rent for an entire month.
Graham and McKay were indicted for mail fraud after several swindlers were caught and ratted-out the Reno partners. Roy Frisch, the Riverside Bank manager who authorized money transfers for Graham, went to New York to provide depositions about the transfers. According to several sources, including The Roots of Reno, “Baby Face” Nelson kidnapped Frisch before shooting and burying him at a sprawling ranch owned by George Wingfield.Prison Awaits
In 1934, Graham and McKay were arraigned on charges of using the mail to defraud, and eventually spent seven years in Leavenworth prison. President Truman issued them full pardons. Graham sold his share of the Cal-Neva at Lake Tahoe soon thereafter, but retained his ownership of the Bank Club in Reno with a partner from Chicago, John Drew, until sold in 1955 for $425,000.
Graham continued to attend prize-fights in San Francisco, often scouting upcoming boxers and arranging managers for them. Even when he was older, Graham would be ringside, in the best seats in the house, encouraging his boxers. He would often stand, ducking, jabbing and punching right along with the men in the ring. It kept him young and active, even into his seventies. He passed away November 5, 1965 at his home on California Ave. in Reno.