5A. GEORGE REMUS (1920 - 1950)
& The Roaring Twenties
THE ROARING TWENTIES & THE BOOTLEGGERS
No sooner than Prohibition began, enterprising and lawbreaking individuals began to devise ways to circumvent the police and profit from the illegal sale of alcohol. (Think Boardwalk Empire.) These individuals became known as bootleggers. They acted during a time of change in American history. In addition to the 18th Amendment that established Prohibition, the 19th Amendment was also passed, allowing women to vote and entitling them to more freedom and influence than they had ever enjoyed before. In addition, the economy in the 1920s was booming. Despite the passage of Prohibition, speakeasies and other hidden places made it relatively easy for people to obtain alcohol and celebrate. This also provided an opportunity for various disreputable characters to make large profits producing and/or distributing liquor and beer illegally, which helped organized crime to flourish.
King of the Bootleggers
George Remus once self-proclaimed himself the "King of the Bootleggers." It was a term that seemed fitting for him, and it stuck. Remus had spent most of his youth in Chicago, becoming first a pharmacist and then a defense attorney. Remus defended clients accused of murder and also began to represent bootleggers after Prohibition began. Upon learning how lucrative the illegal liquor business was for them, and using his intelligence and background, he devised ways to bypass the Volstead Act prohibiting alcoholic beverages. He discovered that liquor could still be made and sold to drug stores for medicinal purposes. To avoid competition in Chicago, he looked for an untapped area to establish his business.
Finding Cincinnati, OH
Remus found that most distilleries and breweries were located within a 300-mile radius of Cincinnati. So, he moved to Cincinnati and bought several of these distilleries along with numerous drug stores to dispense some liquor legally. But he also had his own men hijack the liquor while in transport, selling it illegally to other bootleggers. Within only a few years, Remus established and operated what would become a bootlegging empire. In the early 1920s, he settled in a Price Hill mansion in western Cincinnati that was only a couple miles away from where Will and Lucia Schott were building an estate called Pine Meer that would be completed in 1924. Remus nicknamed his home, formerly of the mansion owned by the successful Cincinnati brewer Herman Lackman, the Marble Palace. By around 1923, his empire employed over 3,000 people and he was worth over $40 million. (In today's dollars that amount would be increased about tenfold.) Occasionally, he threw lavish parties, giving away free cars to dozens of ladies in just one night. Apparently, he may have even been the inspiration for the story "The Great Gatsby." Photos of his mansion and pool are below.
The Death Valley Farm
One of Remus's distilleries was located on a farm at 2656 Queen City Avenue on the west side of Cincinnati, only a couple of miles from Remus's mansion. The alcohol was distilled in the attic of the farm house (shown in the photos below) and then transferred via dumb-waiter to the basement. It was then transported via a 100-foot tunnel to a waiting car, usually whisking it safely away. As shown by the first photo below,
there was a long and narrow entrance that lead to the farm's buildings. It was well guarded with armed men, making it a death trap for other bootleggers who may have been tempted to steal the liquor on the premises. The stories of danger surrounding the entrance earned it the nickname "Death Valley."
Remus was shrewd and paid considerable sums for bribes and favors. His main "get out of jail card," to whom he paid handsomely, was Jess Smith. Smith was good friends with the U.S. Attorney General, Harry Daugherty, and part of what was called President’s Harding's "Ohio Gang." Smith had an office in the Justice Department and also shared an apartment at times with Daugherty, when Daugherty's wife was convalescing back in Ohio. However, after Smith committed suicide - under questionable circumstances - Remus became vulnerable. (See Boardwalk Empire Season 3, Episode 9.) Remus was found guilty of hundreds of violations of the Volstead Act. He was sentenced to prison for two years and began serving time in a Federal penitentiary in Atlanta in 1925. Below are photos of his incarceration.
While Remus was serving time at the Federal Prison, he developed a friendship with another inmate, Franklin Dodge. Unbeknownst to Remus, Dodge was an undercover Federal agent who was actually gathering evidence on crimes against the Volstead Act and Prohibition. Remus confided in Dodge that he had transferred a fortune to his wife, Imogene Holmes. Dodge left prison about a year before Remus, quit his job and conspired to have an affair with Imogene and take Remus's fortune. It resulted in a love triangle, leaving Remus on the outside. Remus had trusted Imogene and provided her with the power of attorney for him when he was in jail. This enabled Imogene and Dodge to liquidate and hide most of Remus's assets, including the sale of the most famous bourbon-maker in the country, the Fleischmann Distillery. For fear of a reprisal when Remus was released, Imogene and Dodge tried to have Remus deported, and when that didn't work, hired a hit man to murder Remus for $15,000. But the hit man was also concerned about being double-crossed, and told Remus instead. The photos below, from left to right, are of Franklin Doge, Imogene Holmes Remus, and George Remus.
After Remus was released from prison and returned to Cincinnati, he discovered he had no place to live. The furnishings in his home were removed and it was locked. Imogene offered him a mere $100 to disappear from her life and Remus soon found out about her betrayal to him. She also filed for divorce in 1927. On the way to court to finalize their divorce, he had his driver follow her car, which resulted in a car chase through Eden Park. Her car was forced to stop near a pavilion (shown on the right). She tried to escape by fleeing her car. But when he caught up to her, he shot her to death, in front of their daughter, who became traumatized. His car and driver left the scene, forcing Remus to walk to a more traveled street where he hitched a ride. He was taken downtown, and then walked over to a police station where he gave himself up and was arrested.
Remus was charged with murder. Representing himself in a highly publicized legal trial, he pleaded innocence by temporary insanity, using arguments that he was the first to develop in successfully defending a client while he was practicing law in Chicago. He is shown during the 1927 trial in the photo on the left below with his daughter Romola and his co-counsel, Charles Elston. In the other photo below, he is in front of his jury. After a sensationalized trial lasting a month, the jury agreed with his defense. He was acquitted, but sentenced to an asylum. After serving seven months, he was released on the basis that three psychiatrists used by the prosecution during the trial had considered him sane. Thereafter, he was sometimes referred to as “the wife murderer.”
Remus's Remaining Days - in Covington, KY
After the trial, Remus wed for a third time to his long-time secretary, Blanche Watson. They settled in a home at 1810 Greenup Street in Covington, KY. He spent time trying to recover some of the assets he had previously owned, but mostly occupied himself by operating a small firm called Washington Contracting. Remus suffered a stroke in 1950, and after a two-year stay in a Covington nursing home, died in 1952 at the age of 73. He was buried in Riverside Cemetery at his third wife's family plot in Falmouth, KY, south of Covington.
Note: Remus's Covington home was only about a mile from the Bavarian Brewery, and a photo of it is shown on the side. Source: John Boh / Kenton Co. Historical Society.
More Information About George Remus
If you are interested in the history of George Remus, you may want to consider the publication The Bourbon King, by Bob Batchelor. For a brief but more detailed writing about Remus than above, please refer to an article by John Boh in the March/April 2018 Bulletin of the Kenton County Historical Society.
Batchelor, Bob, The Bourbon King
Behringer Crawford Museum, Covington, KY
Boh, John, Kenton County (KY) Historical Society Bulletin, March/April 2018
Newspapers.com and Cincinnati Enquirer (1919 - 1929)
Schott Family Information
c. 1923. Shown in the background during Prohibition at a dinner party in his home is George Remus, seated on the far right. His wife Imogene is on the left and her daughter Ruth in to his right with her arm on her step-father.