George Remus (1876-1952)

The life story of George Remus is a classic example of how the absurdities of the Volstead Act tempted a talented, very smart, and opportunistic German immigrant to deviate from the life of a respected trial attorney to one filled with a blind, lawless pursuit of abundant wealth and disregard for his enormous and gifted talent.

Updated: July 15, 2015

Introduction

In an effort to legislate morality in the United States, federal and state governments passed and ratified the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1919 (the Volstead Act), outlawing the manufacturing, sale, barter, transport, import, export, and distribution of intoxicating liquor.

The life story of George Remus (born November 13, 1876 in Germany; died December 20, 1952 in Covington, Kentucky) is a classic example of how the absurdities of the Volstead Act tempted a talented, very smart, and opportunistic German immigrant to deviate from the life of a respected trial attorney to one filled with a blind, lawless pursuit of abundant wealth and disregard for his enormous and gifted talent.

While the majority of German-Americans regarded a law that made it illegal to brew beer and distill spirits as ludicrous, there was nothing principled in George Remus’ decision to violate the law. The Volstead Act simply brought the complex personality of George Remus to the fore. At times Remus was a consummate professional, a kind, loving, and generous man. Sometimes he resembled the perfect husband and father. However, Remus was also an anarchist. He did not believe in God, or government, or friends, or home, or anything else. The passing of the Volstead Act merged the two personalities of George Remus into one where he found his comfort zone in a life filled with mistrust, jealousy, and lawlessness as the “King of the Bootleggers.”

Family Background

George Remus was born in Germany on November 13, 1876, to Frank and Maria Remus. He had one sister, Frances, born in Germany and a younger brother, Herman, born in Chicago. In 1913 Herman was accidentally struck in the head with a brick and disabled. He was sent to Kankakee State Asylum for the insane in Illinois and died there a year later.

When Remus was four years old, his family emigrated from Germany to the United States. It is not known from which German state Remus’ family emigrated. For a brief time the Remus family made their first American home in Baltimore. Shortly thereafter, in 1880, the family moved to Milwaukee for another brief period, and then finally settled permanently in Chicago where Frank Remus found a job as a lumber scorer.

By the 1890s Chicago’s population had swelled to roughly 1,099,850 inhabitants. The population boom was fueled by rapid industrialization and immigration, the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, and improved sanitation as a result of the engineering marvel that reversed the flow of the Chicago River taking industrial and residential waste away from source of the city’s drinking water, Lake Michigan. During this period many German neighborhoods were formed and by 1900 with a population of 1,698,575, it is estimated that “one out of every four residents – had either been born in Germany or had a parent born there.”[1]

While it was common for immigrant parents to instill a sense of German “Heimat” (homeland culture) in their children, young George Remus quickly assimilated into the American way of life and, at most, demonstrated a subtle pride in his ethnic heritage. He demonstrated superior talent as a student. He spoke fluent German as well as English, though a trace of a German accent remained in his speech.

Remus’ life changed dramatically around 1890 when his father Frank began to suffer from rheumatism. Frank’s condition deteriorated rapidly, leaving him disabled. His father’s unfortunate situation left Remus with no choice other than to quit school and begin lending financial support to his family. Rather than indulge in self-pity, Remus met his new responsibilities head on and told his incapacitated father to relax and drink his beer.

He would not permit himself to become an unskilled laborer in one of Chicago’s many factories. Furthermore he showed no interest in the traditional skilled and semi-skilled jobs associated with German immigrants and first-generation offspring, such as bakers, brewers, butchers, cigar makers, coopers, shoemakers, and furniture and wagon makers.

At age fourteen, George Remus began working in a drugstore on the northwest side of Chicago (at Milwaukee and Chicago Avenues) owned by his uncle, George Karg. While he performed his duties efficiently and thoroughly, Remus began to demonstrate signs of ambition and a desire to rise about the level of a clerk in the business. In his late teens, Remus enrolled in the Chicago College of Pharmacy and at the age of nineteen, passed the required state examination to obtain a pharmacist’s license. At age twenty-one, Remus bought his uncle’s drug store and within five years had acquired another. He also complemented his growing healthcare business by obtaining an optometrist certificate that permitted him to partake in limited practice.

As a young adult, George Remus had grown to be a plump little man who was meticulous about his wardrobe. He didn’t drink liquor or smoke tobacco.  Along the way Remus had acquired a personal taste for good food, fine art and literature. Although Remus was short and stout, he was willing to fight and knew how to use his fists. He also had a tenacious penchant for endurance. He joined the Illinois Athletic Club and became a very strong swimmer. As a member of the club’s water polo team, he participated in national events. In 1907 Remus set an endurance swimming record in Lake Michigan as “he remained in the water for 5 hours and 40 minutes in winter weather.”[2] The record would stand for several decades.

Remus’ first romantic affair began when he met Lillian Klauff, a customer in one of his drug stores. George and Lillian were married on July 10, 1899. In 1900 the couple’s only child, their daughter Romola, was born.

While Remus had been forced into the pharmacy business out of economic necessity, he never felt professionally fulfilled by it. He was ambitious and ready for another challenge. So he began attending law school at night and completed the three-year course in just eighteen months. In 1900 George Remus was admitted to the Illinois Bar. He set up his law office in the landmark Ashland Block Building at 167 North Clark Street in Chicago and began practicing as a trial attorney in 1901. The Ashland Block Building also held the offices of famed attorney Clarence Darrow. In his first year of practice, Remus defended eighteen persons accused of murder. However, a large number of his clients were convicted and executed by hanging. Remus found this particularly troubling as he was very much opposed to capital punishment. He even joined the Anti-Capital Punishment Society and became an active participant.

As an attorney George Remus gained a reputation for representing clients in cases that were controversial and newsworthy. The most spectacular murder case that he was involved in as a defense attorney took place in early 1914. William Cheney Ellis, a Cincinnati merchant, was charged with killing his wife Eleanor Hosea Ellis in a jealous rage in Chicago’s Sherman House Hotel on October 16, 1913. The case drew national attention and Remus put up an unheard of defense at the time by having Ellis plead guilty of murder by reason of “transitory insanity.”  Remus read extensively and as a result was introduced to the writings of Austro-German psychiatrist Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing (1840-1902) when he read the English version of Krafft-Ebing’s bookTextbook of Insanity. Krafft-Ebing argued that it was possible for a person to commit a heinous crime, go to sleep, and when they awoke not remember what they had done. In short, the accused suffering from a state of prolonged stress would have suffered a total blackout and be completely oblivious to the crime. Remus advanced the theory that William Cheney Ellis had repeatedly stabbed his wife until she died while in jealous rage, and then gone to sleep. When he awoke he did not remember committing the crime either due to loss of blood or exhaustion.

The Ellis trial lasted for more than three weeks and George Remus was animated in his defense oratory throughout the trial. The William Cheney Ellis trial became the most photographed trial in the history of the Cook County Court House up until that time. On March 6, 1914, William Cheney Ellis was convicted of murder and sentenced to fifteen years in the penitentiary. The verdict had been a narrow compromise among the jurors.

Many courtroom observers, several members of the press, and a sitting judge in Chicago, Judge Wade Cushing, believed that attorney George Remus had duped the jury with his insanity plea. Indeed it had been a very creative defense for the time and brought a very light sentence for William Cheney Ellis considering the crime he had committed. George Remus had successfully turned the trial into a matter of science rather than pre-meditated murder.

By 1916 George Remus had built up a very successful law practice and was living a comfortable middle class life with his wife Lillian and daughter Romola in their home on the north side of Chicago. However, all was not serene on the domestic front. In 1915 Lillian had threatened to divorce Remus. She had heard rumors about her husband not only being involved with another woman, but also paying that woman’s rent. Remus had indeed become overwhelmingly infatuated with a young woman in her late twenties by the name of Augusta Imogene Holmes. Imogene was working in a delicatessen and in the process of divorcing her husband, Albert W. Holmes. She was living with her daughter Ruth in Evanston, just across the north side border of Chicago. Remus would come into the delicatessen, buy some groceries, and make small talk with Imogene. When her divorce was finalized in 1917, Remus vigorously began to pursue a relationship with Imogene, eventually moving out of the family’s home to take up residence with her on December 26, 1918.

Shortly after moving in with Imogene, an incident involving Remus and a plumber by the name of Herbert Youngs would demonstrate Remus’ tendency for unprovoked violence. Youngs had come to Imogene’s home to return a watch that her daughter Ruth had lost. Youngs demanded a $15 reward (about $217 in 2010$).[3] While Imogene agreed to provide a reward, she felt that $15 was excessive and instead offered Youngs $5 ($72 in 2010$). They began to quibble over the amount when suddenly, out of nowhere, Remus appeared, punched the plumber in the jaw, and then chased him from the property. Youngs proceeded to file a charge of assault and battery against Remus with the Evanston Police. When the case came up for a hearing on February 8, 1919, Remus asked for a change of venue and the prosecuting attorney dropped the charge. Of course, all of this was reported in the press and confirmed Lillian Remus’ suspicion of her husband’s infidelity.

All along Lillian had been wondering where the family car was. Remus told her that it was being kept in storage waiting for their daughter Romola to return from school in the south. Then an article appeared in the Chicago press stating that the vehicle had an Evanston tax license issued to George Remus and listed Imogene’s address. When the press asked Remus about the car, he stated that he had loaned it to Imogene.

Lillian Remus filed for divorce on the grounds of extreme and repeated cruelty. The case was heard in Superior Court on March 7, 1919. In her testimony Lillian stated that her husband had provided a home for another woman for the last three years. She also charged that Remus had beaten her on several occasions, pinched, choked, and kicked her. The court granted the divorce to Lillian along with $25 per week ($315 in 2010$) in alimony. In addition, she was granted a $50,000 ($630,000 in 2010$) lump sum payment. Remus’ daughter Romola was also awarded a $30,000 ($378,000 in 2010$) lump sum payment.

On June 25, 1920, Remus and Imogene were married in Newport, KY. Remus began the legal steps to adopt Imogene’s thirteen-year old daughter Ruth. On July 22, 1920, the Chicago Daily Tribune reported Remus’ marriage stating that “George Remus, militant genius of a thousand open court battles, has been married again.”

Business Development

In the midst of the anti-German hysteria created by World War I that led to riots and attempts to eradicate traces of German culture in cities with large German-American populations such as Chicago, Cincinnati and Milwaukee, the movement for a federal prohibition law increased dramatically. The fact that German-Americans owned the majority of breweries helped fuel the anti-German fervor. Notable among the brewers was Adolphus Busch, who in 1857 had emigrated from Wiesbaden in Hesse-Kassel (now the state of Hesse in central-western Germany) to the United States and with his father-in-law founded the Anheuser-Busch brewery in St. Louis. Also prominent was the Schlitz brewery of Milwaukee; Joseph Schiltz had emigrated from Germany in 1850 and through marriage gained control of a Milwaukee brewery which by 1902 had grown to become the largest brewer in the United States.

Although Chicago Mayor William “Big Bill” Thompson supported the German population during World War I, anti-German hysteria in the city had become very pronounced. Street names with a German name were changed, German Hospital in Lincoln Park became Grant Hospital, even the German immigrant conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra was pressured to either become a naturalized citizen or step down.[4]

By 1916 nineteen states had enacted prohibition laws making the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages illegal. However, there was growing pressure from groups such as the Anti-Saloon League to enact federal legislation. By 1919, a year before enforcement of the Volstead Act, which outlawed the manufacturing, sale, barter, transport, import, export, and distribution of intoxicating liquor (anything stronger than 0.5% alcoholic content, aka “near beer”),  began, thirty-three states had already passed prohibition laws.

The United States Congress passed the Volstead Act on October 28, 1918. Subsequently, the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified by the necessary three-fourths majority of the states in only thirteen months. On January 16, 1920, the Volstead Act became law and America officially became dry. But within three months, $500,000 ($5,440,000 in 2010$) worth of liquor had been stolen from government warehouses. By mid-1920, the federal courts in Chicago had a backlog of more than 600 violations of the Volstead Act. The situation in Chicago was a harbinger of things to come nationwide in the enforcement of the prohibition law.

George Remus continued to run his law practice, earning $50,000 ($630,000 in 2010$) per year. With prohibition now the law of the land, he was suddenly defending more clients for liquor law violations than any other felony. Many of the cases that Remus argued were in the United District Court for the Northern District of Illinois in the courtroom of legendary Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis.[5] He liked cases heard in his courtroom to follow a direct and clear path of argumentation toward rapid conclusion. However, George Remus had a habit of injecting long-winded oratories pertaining to arcane points of law in his defense arguments. Judge Landis became weary and in cases argued by Remus pushed hard for adjournment for the day or to a point where he could render a verdict.

In his liquor violation defenses, Remus was becoming disgruntled with Judge Landis’ habit of finding his clients guilty and then levying indiscriminate fines of $10,000 ($126,000 in 2010$) or more on them. Remus also was increasingly amazed at how nonchalantly his clients went about paying their fines. Some paid with war bonds, while others simply reached into their pockets and pulled out large wads of cash. For the most part, these were men of working class backgrounds with minimal education, but they all seemed to be getting rich.

Remus liked being an attorney. He enjoyed the prestige and the monetary gain, but he had never been satisfied with his rapid rise from an obscure, immigrant, working-class background to being one of Chicago’s most notable trial attorneys. To Remus, America was the land of opportunity. He began to realize that Prohibition was actually an opportunity for acquiring great wealth. Later he stated, “I was impressed by the rapidity with which those men, without any brains at all, piled up fortunes in the liquor business. I saw a chance to make a clean-up.”[6]

George Remus did not want to be just an ordinary bootlegger, however, his goals were more grandiose. His ultimate ambition was to obtain possession of all the whisky in the United States: “It was my intention to do business with Wall Street. I realized the frailty of human nature, but I didn’t count on the fact that in a clash between principles of right and wrong, justice would win.”[7] Remus actually believed that he might be able to create an illegal enterprise that could be publicly traded on the stock market. Ironically, Remus himself did not drink. He simply felt that the Prohibition laws were sanctimonious and would never be enforceable.     

At the time the Eighteenth Amendment became law, 1,217 breweries in the United States were producing hundreds of millions of gallons of beer for domestic consumption; 507 distilleries were producing 286,000,000 gallons of distilled spirits (whiskey, bourbon, scotch, gin, vodka, and also wine) annually; and 503 warehouses contained 200,000,000 gallons of pre-prohibition liquor. When Congress passed the Volstead Act, it acknowledged that the existing inventory of liquor, wine, and beer that had been previously manufactured was private property and should remain in the warehouses.

As an attorney, Remus studied the Volstead Act closely for loopholes. He began to concentrate on Title II, Section 3, which read: “That nothing in this act shall prohibit the purchase and sale of warehouse receipts covering distilled spirits on deposit in government bonded warehouses, and no special tax liability shall attach to the business of purchasing and selling such warehouse receipts.”[8] Remus reasoned that this section of the law meant that there was no provision for the destruction of pre-war liquor sitting in existing warehouses. Thus, if he could acquire such inventories and properly register them, the government could not confiscate them because they were negotiable receipts and in essence his private property.

Once Remus had determined that he had found a loophole in the law permitting him to purchase unlimited quantities of pre-Volstead Act bonded liquor, the next step in his business plan was to find a way to get it released from the warehouses and into the hands of millions of thirsty consumers.    

Remus noted another potential loophole in Title II, Section 6. While the provision stated that it was illegal to manufacture, sell, purchase, transport, or prescribe any liquor without first obtaining a permit from the Commissioner of Internal Revenue, it also stated that if a person had a prescription from a physician, then it was legal for them to purchase liquor for “medicinal purposes.”

By exploiting these loopholes, Remus could obtain and sell liquor legally, but he still needed to develop a supply and distribution network. As a licensed pharmacist Remus knew that if physicians were going to write prescriptions for liquor for medicinal purposes, then the patients would need a retail outlet from which to purchase it. Remus figured that he could distribute the pre-Prohibition liquor to local pharmacies by purchasing existing wholesale drug companies or starting new ones. This would permit him to legally distribute and sell liquor in wholesale quantities. With this subterfuge operation in place, it would then be easy for him to divert large quantities of liquor into the illegal bootleg trade.

Remus also realized that he could do more than simply distribute pre-war bonded whisky to retailers and bootleggers. He determined that in order to protect his trade, both legal and illegal, he had to find a way to buy wholesale withdrawal permits from the government (permits issued by the government under Section 6 for the purpose of manufacturing, selling, purchasing, or transporting liquor). Not only would this allow him to legally buy defunct distilleries, but it would also allow him to control both the supply and price of liquor within a large regional market.  

Remus began to set up his booze operations in the vast and lucrative market of Chicago, but organized crime figures in Chicago had already seized the moment and divided the city into established territories for the distribution and sale of illegal liquor. On the South Side, mobster Johnny Torrio had inherited a huge territory for illegal booze trade from his slain uncle “Big Jim” Colosimo.[9] On the North Side, the illegal booze trade belonged to Dion O’Banion.

Although George Remus had been practicing law for nearly two decades and had represented innumerable nefarious individuals, engaging in criminal behavior required a learning curve. Undaunted by the inroads already made by organized crime in Chicago, Remus entered the bootleg liquor business by buying small quantities of whisky inventories at rock bottom prices with the intent to make a big profit in their resale.

However, without political protection his modest, boutique-like illegal enterprise proved vulnerable to the scrutiny of liquor law enforcement officials. On May 12, 1920, federal agents raided the Remus operations office after they discovered that fifteen barrels of whisky valued at $35,000 ($381,000 in 2010$) had been withdrawn from the Sibley Warehouse and Storage Company (located at 167 North Clark Street) on what they alleged were false permits. The address just happened to be the location of George Remus’ law office. Agents alleged that the address that the whisky was to be delivered to (6542 North Clark Street) was a vacant lot with a garage in one corner. According to the charges filed by the federal agents, the garage was being used as a clearing house for the distribution of illegal liquor. When the agents entered the garage they found 40 permit blanks in a strongbox. It was alleged that Remus’ name and seal as a notary public appeared on several forged permits for the withdrawal of liquor.

According to Remus, the permits were legal in every way. He stated that his clients “Provenzano & Co., obtained the permits and authorized [him] as their attorney to have the whisky moved to the warehouse at 6542 North Clark Street where it could be sold to druggists.”[10] A warrant was issued for Remus’ arrest and he was freed after posting a $10,000 bond.

The whole affair left him bewildered. He determined that it was impossible for him to succeed in the illegal liquor trade in Chicago and decided to move his operations to Cincinnati and enter the illegal liquor trade in Chicago through the back door. Later Remus was to remark: “After surveying the entire country, I picked Cincinnati as my headquarters because 80 percent of the bonded whisky in the country was within 300 miles of that city.”[11]  With a hearing in federal court scheduled for July 31, 1920, Remus quickly closed his Chicago law practice and began liquidating his assets in preparation for his move to Cincinnati.

Home to a very large German-American population, Cincinnati proved to be a perfect location for Remus’ illegal booze enterprise. In fact, prior to World War I both German and English had been taught in Cincinnati public schools. Cincinnati was also a beer brewing center and the Volstead Act was very unpopular in the city.

For interim living quarters, Remus rented a suite in the Sinton Hotel that he could also use as a temporary business office. To establish a financial relationship in the city, Remus presented his letters of reference to Oscar Fender, the savings department manager at the Lincoln National Bank and deposited $100,000 ($1,090,000 in 2010$) in an account. Choosing a rather inconspicuous German name, he quickly organized a pharmaceutical company, the “Drobbatz Chemical Company,” which enabled him to obtain liquor permits to sell whisky for medicinal purposes.[12] With assistance from the bank and a $10,000 down payment, Remus bought his first distillery, the Edgewood Distillery in Cincinnati.

On August 1, 1920, while Remus and Imogene were having a belated honeymoon in New York City at the Pennsylvania Hotel, Remus used the occasion to meet with Elijah Zoline, a noted legal scholar and colleague who had often assisted him in the preparation of briefs for federal cases. Zoline had broad political connections and as Remus anticipated acquiring several defunct distilleries with government-controlled inventories of pre-war bonded whisky, he was going to need access to federal authorities in order to obtain a large supply of withdrawal permits. Remus immediately put Zoline on his payroll.

With financing arranged by the Lincoln National Bank in Cincinnati, Zoline assisted Remus in the acquisition of two additional wholesale drug companies in New York, the Central Drug Company and the Alps Drug Company. Remus now had a network of drug companies through which to obtain federal withdrawal permits for distilled spirits as well as grain alcohol from any distilleries he bought.

Fresh from his honeymoon and business trip to New York City, Remus returned to Cincinnati and began working diligently to organize one of the largest illegal enterprises ever established in the United States at that time.  Although he had acquired just one distillery and ownership of three wholesale drug companies, his Washington connections enabled Remus to obtain valuable government withdrawal permits.

Remus immediately began to divert significant portions of the whisky he withdrew legally from his distillery into the illegal bootleg market. To transport his liquor to the illegal distribution points, Remus created a trucking company, the American Transportation Company. The diverted whisky would be sent to a 50-acre farm tract Remus had acquired in the Lick Run district of the west side of Cincinnati owned by George Dater. Soon the area would be dubbed “Death Valley” because of the rough terrain leading to it and the armed guards that Remus employed to ensure security. From the Dater, or Death Valley, farm, Remus began shipping illegal whisky at high prices to eight nearby states. With the immense profits he earned from bootlegging Remus obtained additional distilleries. He termed his bootleg operation “his circle.”[13]

Federal officials became curious about his operations. In spite of an open indictment in Chicago, whereby federal officials could have arrested Remus at any time, officials decided not to pursue him for unknown reasons. Remus was able to operate with impunity.

In October 1920, William J. Mellin, a U.S. Treasury agent from New York, was sent to Cincinnati to gather covert information on George Remus. The Prohibition Bureau wanted Mellin to bug the telephone in the suite occupied by Remus in the Sinton Hotel in order to record his conversations. Mellin checked into the Sinton Hotel and was given a room next to Remus’ suite. He was also given a key to Remus’ suite. When he learned that Remus and his family had left for the day, Mellin entered their suite and obtained his telephone extension, #707. Mellin then went to the basement of the hotel, located the telephone terminals for extension #707, tapped it into his own room, and began listening in on Remus’ conversations. Later Mellin again entered Remus’ suite and planted a microphone in it. Now both Remus’ telephone and his room were bugged.

Mellin had two stenographers sent from Washington to record every word that Remus said. One day a meeting took place with Remus and forty-four men in his room. Some of the men were politicians, others were prohibition agents, and a few were even federal marshals. The purpose of the meeting was to arrange the logistics of shipping liquor from Remus’ warehouses into illegal distribution channels. The most astounding fact revealed was that all forty-four men in the meeting were on Remus’ payroll and were paid an average of $1,000 each ($12,200 in 2010$).

On another occasion Mellin’s bugs revealed that Remus was about to bring eighteen freight cars of illegal liquor across the Ohio River from Covington, KY, into Cincinnati. Mellin quickly took this information to the federal prohibition enforcement officials in Cincinnati where he was met with indifference. The agent in charge told Mellin, “Son, there’s times when a man has to be practical in this business. It’s only a few weeks to election, and the information you’ve dug up is political dynamite. The men you spied on – the agents and marshals – are political appointees. Go back to New York and forget it.”[14]

On Election Day, November 2, 1920, Republican presidential candidate Warren G. Harding and his vice presidential running mate Calvin Coolidge won by a landslide over Democrats James M. Cox and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Once Harding was elected, he appointed Harry M. Daugherty as U.S. Attorney General. Daugherty had been his presidential campaign manager and brought his close friend Jess Smith, a haberdasher also from Washington Court House, OH, with him to Washington to work as an unpaid assistant in the Justice Department, supposedly taking care of personal matters for the attorney general. However, Smith soon created a far more profitable role for himself by arranging for the sale of federal liquor withdrawal permits. He operated out of the unofficial Harding patronage office located in the notorious Little Green House on K Street (1625 K Street) in Washington, D.C. It did not take long for word to begin circulating among bootleggers that this is where federal liquor withdrawal permits could be obtained.

In New York, George Remus’ chief counsel, Elijah Zoline, made the acquaintance of Jess Smith. In May 1921, Zoline arranged a meeting between Remus and Smith at the Commodore Hotel in New York. Smith told Remus that he could provide all the withdrawal permits he wanted. Some of them would even include the signatures of various federal state prohibition directors who reported to President Harding’s Prohibition director Roy Haynes. Remus offered Smith a sliding fee schedule for each permit of $1.50 to $2.50 per case of liquor ($18 to $30 in 2010$).[15] Each case containing three gallons of liquor would require a single permit. However, in shipping the liquor, some shipments would be larger than others, so a sliding scale was necessary. Smith not only agreed to the fee schedule, he told Remus that for $50,000 ($609,000 in 2010$) he could arrange protection from prosecution within the Justice Department. Remus was aware of the close relationship between Jess Smith and Harry Daugherty, so he gladly handed over fifty $1,000 bills to Smith. From that point on, Remus was convinced that he had protection for his illegal booze enterprise at every level, from the local police to the President’s cabinet. Ruth Remus later stated that Remus boasted that the government could not do anything to him. He would beat his chest and say, “What? George Remus!  They can never touch me.”[16] What Remus did not realize was that Harry Daugherty had, without knowing it, appointed a very determined U.S. Assistant Attorney General, Mabel Walker Willebrandt, to oversee the enforcement of the Volstead Act. Her appointment would hasten his downfall.

Believing that he had purchased immunity from federal prosecution, Remus let loose a flood of illegal liquor through his Kentucky distillery and his wholesale drug outlets into the bootleg markets of nine states: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania. He was so brazen as to use his permits to make large whisky withdrawals from the Fleischman distillery, which he did not officially purchase until October 17, 1921. He purchased it from Julius Fleischmann, a former Cincinnati mayor and former majority stock holder in the Cincinnati Reds, for $197,000 ($2,400,000 in 2010$). It amounted to little more than petty cash for Remus.

Remus began purchasing additional distilleries. He bought the Hammond Distillery and Squibb Distillery in Indiana, which began supplying huge shipments of whisky to Johnny Torrio in Chicago. He later purchased the Pogue Distillery in Maysville, the Birch Springs Distillery in Loretto, the Old Lexington Club in Nicholasville, the Rugby Distillery in Louisville (all in Kentucky), and the Edgewood Distillery in Cincinnati, OH. He also acquired half-ownership of the Clifton Springs Distillery in Cincinnati. For each of these distilleries Remus paid between $50,000 ($650,000 in 2010$) and $325,000 ($3,960,000 in 2010$).

By mid-1921 most people drinking bootleg whisky in the Midwest and East were getting their liquor from George Remus. During one quarter in 1921, Remus deposited $2,700,000 ($32,900,000 in 2010) in the Lincoln Savings Bank in Cincinnati. Acting on his agreement with Jess Smith, Remus sold an additional 250,000 cases of whisky over the new few months. Under his payment agreement with Smith, Remus would cash checks to his own account noting them with JS. Later at their meetings in New York, Columbus, or Indianapolis, Remus would pay Smith in large denominations of currency (typically $1,000 and $500 bills). Remus never knew how the cash was further distributed in the Little Green House on K Street in Washington.

Remus ran his huge bootleg business from a downtown Cincinnati office building that he had purchased and renamed the Remus Building. His palatial office suite included consulting rooms, a library, and a kitchen with private chef. His illegal enterprise employed 3,000 well-paid workers. One Remus associate, Ernest “Buck” Brady, shepherded his liquor consignments safely across the Ohio River from Covington, KY, at the price of $2 per case. Remus paid him $208,000 ($2,530,000 in 2010$) in commissions in just eleven months. Moreover, Captain Robert E. Flora, chief federal prohibition agent for Cincinnati, was also on the Remus payroll.[17]

After just two years in the bootleg business, George Remus had created one of the largest illegal liquor enterprises in the United States. At the time of his arrest in late 1921, he controlled or owned nine distilleries. His operations controlled the sale of bootleg liquor in nine states and extended into several others. Gross revenues from his illicit liquor trade exceeded $50,000,000, ($644,000,000 in 2010$). When he was arrested, Remus signed a sworn statement for a bonding company that his personal wealth was $3,000,000 ($38,500,000$). Independent sources were of the opinion that Remus’ personal fortune was actually closer to $6,000,000, ($77,000,000 in 2010$).

Social Status

George Remus, Imogene, and his adopted daughter Ruth lived in palatial splendor. Remus paid $90,000 ($979,000 in 2010$) for a large mansion at 825 Hermosa Avenue, located in the western Cincinnati neighborhood of Price Hill. The property had formerly been owned by the Lackman family, who had operated a brewery in Cincinnati for several decades prior to prohibition. Remus furnished the home with expensive furniture, rare books, beautiful art work, and sculpture. Soon after moving in he added a Grecian swimming pool that he dedicated as the “Imogene Baths” in honor of his wife. The exquisite pool was lined with Rookwood tile and around it hung southern palms and shaded lights of different colors.       

Many extravagant parties were held in the Remus home. One that took place on New Year’s Eve in 1921 was the stuff of legends. More than one hundred guests were invited from as far away as Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, Kansas City, New York, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. There was also a large contingent of local guests. In fact, the society editors of Cincinnati’s newspapers were invited but declined. Remus and his guests “enjoyed the hours before midnight dancing on the tiled floor surrounding the swimming tank. A special orchestra furnished the music. Dinner was served at the tables which bordered the edge of the water and faced the tank” by young women dressed in white with turban head-dress.[18] Champagnes and rare wines were served in quantities that equaled the water in the pool. To provide party favors for his guests Remus “paid $25,000 [$325,000 in 2010$] for the stock of a jewelry store” and had the materials fashioned into diamond earrings and stick pins.[19] At the stroke of midnight, Remus’ young adopted daughter Ruth, impersonating the spirit of the New Year, leaped from the diving board into the pool while shouting gleefully “Happy New Year!” On an impulse Remus joined her in the pool still wearing his tuxedo. The whole event was a virtual fairyland. However, eventually Remus had enough of the frolicking. Placing the responsibility for hosting the event in the very capable hands of Imogene, he politely bid his guests a good night and headed for the sanctuary of his library, where he was served a dish of ice cream and proceeded to read a biography of Abraham Lincoln until nearly dawn.

Remus became very popular in Cincinnati due to his free spending and his open disregard for the probation laws. He was considered very generous as he contributed to many local charities. Later it would be said that while George Remus never made it onto anyone’s social register, he had made a valiant attempt at it. As a German immigrant he just did not have the pedigree necessary to establish himself among Cincinnati’s nationally known and respected high society that included such notable families as the Tafts, Emerys, Longworths, and others with strong ties to the eastern white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant establishment.

Nonetheless, adding to the Remus legend is an undocumented assertion that writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, prior to the publication of his 1924 epic The Great Gatsby, met George Remus during numerous visits to the Seelbach Hotel in Louisville, KY, and his “meetings with gangster George Remus became the inspiration for the Jay Gatsby character.”[20] Since no hotel register has ever been produced documenting that Remus and Fitzgerald were guests in the Seelbach at the same time, most likely the legend is an urban myth perpetuated as a marketing campaign by none other than the Seelbach Hotel itself. While the Remus/Gatsby connection is a romantic notion, there is a striking similarity in the quests by Remus and Gatsby in pursuit of the American dream of wealth and love.

Downfall

Using forged liquor withdrawal permits obtained from Jess Smith, George Remus shipped 3,200 barrels and 18,000 gallons of liquor for “medical purposes” from one of his distilleries to his wholesale drug companies between June and August 1921. Most of the liquor was diverted to Remus’ Death Valley farm for distribution into the bootleg trade. These massive medicinal liquor shipments attracted the attention of U.S. Attorney James Clark in Cincinnati. The amount of liquor in these shipments was sufficient to meet the prescription requirements for every physician in America for a year. Clark contacted U.S. Attorney General Harry Daugherty, who in turn passed the information to U.S. Assistant Attorney General Mabel Walker Willebrandt for her consideration. By late 1921 federal prohibition agents from Indiana and Chicago had become increasingly concerned about the huge shipments of liquor flowing into Chicago to stock the enormous speakeasy empire run by Johnny Torrio, much of it supplied by Remus’ Hammond Distillery.

A routine traffic stop would be the beginning of the end for George Remus. One night in early October 1921 in Hammond, IN, police stopped a car being driven by Harold Hughes for a routine traffic violation. The police found a case of whisky in Hughes’ car and arrested him. Hughes informed them that he had bought the whisky at a place called Death Valley and drew a map of the area. A few nights later, the Hammond police stopped the car of Thomas Gallagher. His car was packed with cases of whisky. Federal prohibition agents were called in to interrogate Gallagher. He told them that he had been on his honeymoon and for recreation was transporting a carload of liquor to Chicago. Gallagher also stated he had knowledge of liquor deliveries being made to sixty cities and towns throughout the Midwest by a group of nine wealthy men in Cincinnati.

On October 23, 1921, federal prohibition agents from Chicago and Indianapolis raided the Death Valley Farm. Cincinnati’s chief prohibition agent, James Flora, on Remus’ payroll, reluctantly joined the raid. Agents seized thirteen barrels of whisky, five hundred gallons of gin and twelve quarts of champagne valued between $35,000 ($426,000 in 2010$) and $40,000 ($487,000 in 2010$). George Remus was arrested and indicted on 3,000 charges. At that time, it was one of the most sweeping indictments in the history of American jurisprudence. U.S. Assistant Attorney General Mabel Walker Willebrandt charged Remus with violations of five counts of Prohibition laws. She also indicted 13 co-defendants who worked for Remus.

Remus met with Jess Smith in Washington and was told that the attorney general would see that he would never go to jail. George Remus established a million dollar defense fund, hiring six high-priced lawyers including Elijah Zoline of New York and Michael Igoe of Chicago. Nonetheless he was found guilty by a jury of his peers for conspiring to violate the Prohibition laws. On May 16, 1922, Judge John Peck of the U.S. Circuit Court sentenced Remus as ringleader of the operation to the maximum of two years imprisonment in the federal penitentiary at Atlanta, a $10,000 ($130,000 in 2010$) fine, and payment of court costs. The thirteen co-defendants were sentenced at the same time. On October 7, 1922 Remus was disbarred by the Illinois Supreme Court. Jess Smith continued to assure Remus that he would not go to jail because the attorney general would obtain a pardon for him. On May 30, 1923, however, Jess Smith committed suicide by shooting himself in the temple with a revolver. Remus fought his conviction for most of the next two years, taking his case to the U.S. Supreme Court where he lost.

As Remus prepared to leave his Price Hill mansion for prison on the morning of January 24, 1924, he gave power of attorney to his wife Imogene. She gained possession of their lavish home, over $1,000,000 ($12,800,000 in 2010$) in whisky withdrawal certificates, and the stock of the Fleischmann distillery valued at $300,000 ($3,650,000 in 2010$).  Remus also signed two checks, one for $115,000 ($1,470,000 in 2010$) to pay his bills and the other for $100,000 ($1,280,000 in 2010$) for any other debts that might occur during his imprisonment. The power of attorney provided to Imogene made her the de facto head of Remus’ $50,000,000 booze empire ($638,000,000 in 2010$). Imogene told him: “Never mind when it is all over we will go away somewhere and forget the disgrace.”[21] Remus’ decision to give his wife power of attorney would prove to be a costly mistake.

As Remus, under guard, boarded the special railroad car that would take him to the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, he gave his diamonds to Imogene, “gave his silk shirt to a porter, and rode to prison reading Dante’s Inferno.”[22] While serving his term in federal prison, Remus testified in Washington in front of the Brookhart Committee, a U.S. Senate committee investigating Attorney General Harry Daugherty. On May 17, 1924, Remus told the committee about his relationship with Jess Smith and the incredible story of how he built his booze empire as newsmen in attendance sat in stunned silence. Remarking on what he perceived to be the folly of the provision for release of liquor for medicinal purposes in the Volstead Act, Remus stated, “I don’t think there is one scruple of liquor ever prescribed by physicians that is used absolutely for medicinal purposes. It is the greatest comedy, the greatest perversion of justice that I have ever known of in any civilized country in the world.”[23] 

While serving his sentence in Atlanta, Remus faced yet another indictment. In mid-1923 Remus had paid $125,000 ($1,555,000 in 2010$) to become part owner of the huge Jack Daniels distillery in St. Louis. The distillery contained 30,000 gallons of pre-war whisky. Remus wanted to remove the whisky from the distillery in small quantities. His partners used electric pumps to drain the whisky from the barrels in the warehouse into barrels in trucks outside the distillery. The whisky was then moved to a farm on the outskirts of St. Louis and diverted into the bootleg market. Federal prohibition agents discovered the theft when they stopped a truck being driven from St. Louis to Indianapolis containing four barrels of whisky that were connected to the Jack Daniels distillery. As a result, thirty-five persons, including George Remus, were indicted.

On November 2, 1925, George Remus was released from prison in Atlanta after serving his full sentence. Speaking with reporters in Chicago, he stated that penitentiary life was not so bad. “I could send out for most anything I wanted, and really, my bill for eighteen months I put in the amount of $17,000 [$211,000 in 2010$]. I gave many parties there.”[24]  However, this cavalier description of Remus’ prison experience contradicted  his testimony before the Brookhart Committee in 1924, where he stated that he had no special privileges of any kind in the prison and had lost 23 pounds in three and half months of incarceration. Furthermore Remus testified that the most desperate criminals in the country were sleeping six to eight feet away from him and he used the same shower as African-American prisoners.

Liberty should have been sweet for Remus, but a deputy marshal was waiting at the prison door. He served Remus with a warrant for his indictment in the forthcoming Jack Daniels trial in Indianapolis. Remus wasted no time meeting with U.S. Assistant Attorney General Willebrandt in Washington, D.C. and told her all he knew about the Jack Daniels distillery theft. As a result he was granted immunity and became the government’s star witness. With the assistance of Remus’ testimony, twenty-three convictions were handed down in the trial in December 1925, including some convictions of prominent St. Louis politicians.

Unfortunately for Remus, a second officer was waiting at the door of the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary on the day he was released and Remus was served with divorce papers. Remus had been suspicious for some time that Imogene was involved in an affair. “It was not long until her visits to me became less and less frequent.”[25]  While incarcerated, Imogene had become involved in a romantic affair with Franklin Dodge, a federal prohibition agent who worked on the Death Valley case. Dodge was also assigned to the case to investigate the Jack Daniels distillery theft that led to Remus’ arrest.

Even worse, Franklin Dodge had come into possession of $200,000 ($2,490,000 in 2010$) worth of liquor withdrawal certificates that had been owned by Remus. Dodge attempted to sell them in New York before selling them to Matt Hinkle, a former prize fight manager from Cleveland. Despite the fact that Dodge was caught and forced to resign as a prohibition agent, the assistant attorney general declined to prosecute him. Anti-Prohibition Congressman (and future mayor of New York City) Fiorello LaGuardia railed against Dodge’s actions in a speech before the U.S. House of Representatives and expressed his shock that a prominent prohibition agent had left the service of the government in order to traffic in the same goods for which others were convicted and sent to jail.

Remus blamed Imogene for her emotional and financial infidelity. “I trusted her so much I gave her power of attorney to dispose of all my property as she saw fit. She saw fit to cheat me and divide it up with Franklin Dodge.”[26] “They [Dodge and Imogene] sold the Fleischmann distillery for $80,000 ($1,030,000 in 2010$) while I was in the Atlanta Penitentiary and sent me $100. I had $36 ($1,280 in 2010$) when I left Atlanta.”[27]

Moreover, Remus still had to serve yet another sentence in Dayton, OH, resulting from a conviction in his 1922 trial for operating a nuisance at the Death Valley Farm. Remus appealed the sentence by questioning whether the courts had the power to impose two or more sentences to be served separately for the same violation. Once again, his case went before the U.S. Supreme Court, which refused to review the decision of the Circuit Court of Appeals. Consequently, on July 7, 1926, George Remus found himself once again behind bars in a jail in Troy, OH.

At midnight on April 26, 1927, he was released. George Connors, one of Remus’ old bootlegging associates, drove him home to Cincinnati. When he finally arrived at his Price Hill mansion at about 4 a.m., he found the doors and windows locked and spiked with nails. Crawling through a kitchen window he discovered the home completely stripped of all its furnishings. The furniture was gone, chandeliers had been removed from the ceilings, stacks of books were piled up where the bookcases had been, even the Rookwood pottery lining of the swimming pool had been stripped. In his bedroom Remus found only an old cot and a pair of men’s shoes that did not fit. When Remus went around to the back of the house he found all his clothes piled up on the back porch.

Emotionally distraught, Remus fell on his knees and wept like a baby. According to George Connors, “several days later Remus had a breakdown.”[28]  Commons took Remus to his home where he was ill for three days. They played cards all night as Remus hallucinated and often cried out that he saw his wife and Dodge together. Remus subsequently learned that Imogene intended to marry Franklin Dodge, had removed the “R” from her silver and substituted a “D” in its place, and had bought seven automobiles while Remus was in prison.

George Remus was determined to seek revenge for Imogene’s infidelity. Though she had filed for divorce on August 31, 1925, the divorce case was delayed several times by suits, countersuits, and continuances. During one deposition taken in the Chicago law office of Imogene’s attorney, Remus suddenly became enraged and attempted to throw him out of a window. Furthermore, both Remus and Imogene accused each other of plots to kill each other. When they appeared in court, they usually had bodyguards.

On October 6, 1927, the day the divorce suit was finally scheduled to be heard in domestic court in Cincinnati, Remus found out that Imogene and her daughter were staying at the Alms Hotel. Remus had his driver take him over to the hotel that morning and waited until Imogene and Ruth emerged and got into a taxi. Remus then pursued them at high speed into Eden Park where his driver cut off the taxi forcing it to the curb. Imogene jumped out of the cab and began to run up a hill with Remus in pursuit. According to Ruth, Remus “was cursing and swearing and acted like he was crazy. He grabbed my mother saying, I’ll fix you, I’ll fix you.”[29]   When he caught up with her, Remus put a revolver to Imogene’s abdomen and pulled the trigger. He then calmly walked out of the park. It was only the second time in his life that Remus had fired a gun. Two hours later, following emergency surgery at Bethesda Hospital, Imogene died.

Remus immediately turned himself in to the Cincinnati police. When a reporter later asked Remus why he did not take flight from justice, Remus responded, “Why should I go about the country as a fugitive from justice – a man with a price upon his head. If you have a clear conscience, you have nothing to fear. A man who feels that he has performed a duty to society and that he has committed no moral wrong, does not run away from the consequences of his act.” [30]

Upon learning from a police lieutenant that he had accomplished what he set out to do—kill Imogene—Remus replied, “She who dances down the primrose path must die on the primrose path. I’m happy. This is the first peace of mind I’ve had in two years.”[31] Later Remus stated, “I had hoped to get Franklin Dodge too.”[32]

Remus was indicted of first degree murder. A spectacular trial followed that lasted nearly six weeks, was covered by every major newspaper, and mesmerized the American public from coast to coast. During the trial, hundreds of people stood in line all day at the courthouse, hoping to be admitted as spectators. Acting as his own attorney, George Remus used the same strategy for his defense—transitory insanity—that he had used for William Cheney Ellis’s defense in 1914.

Charles P. Taft, the second-oldest son of the former president of the United States and chief justice of the Supreme Court at the time, William Howard Taft, headed the prosecution. Taft sought to prove that Remus’ murder of his wife was premeditated and that he was sane at the time the crime was committed. According to the Chicago Tribune, Taft planned to have Imogene Remus testify on the day of her divorce hearing that George Remus had killed Sheriff William Van Camp near Brookville, IN, four years earlier in 1923 while running whisky from St. Louis to Cincinnati. Remus, however, was never charged with the death of Van Camp.[33]

The prosecution called three alienists (a physician who has been accepted by the court as an expert on mental competence), each of whom testified that Remus was sane at the time he shot his wife. The alienists had compiled a 4,500-word report on the mental condition of Remus. However, in testimony the prosecution presented only 200 words of the report to the jury.  

As the trial progressed, famed Chicago lawyer Clarence Darrow appeared as a character witness for Remus. Darrow testified on December 8, 1927, that Remus was an emotional fellow and somewhat unstable, but from what he remembered about his reputation: “It was good. I never heard his reputation questioned.”[34]   

The prosecution’s star witness was Remus’ adopted daughter Ruth, who in tears on the witness stand told the jury in graphic detail the grisly events that occurred the day her mother was shot. A few feet away her stepfather sat at the defense table cold and indifferent to her testimony. Ruth testified that when she reached her mother and Remus on the hill, “he held – the pistol – close to – close to mother – here (indicating with her hand on her own bosom). I heard her scream “Oh daddy, dear, you know I love you; daddy, you know I love you.” “I asked him what he was doing. He shot her then. He was swearing violently. He hit her on the head afterwards with his fist.”[35]

Remus’ co-counsel Charles Elston called several witnesses to the stand who testified to watching the deterioration of George Remus’ mental state as he became totally obsessed and delusional over the affair between Imogene and Franklin Dodge.

In his final argument, George Remus was at his best. He arrived in court in his finest suit with his daughter Romola by his side. Outside in the corridor deputy sheriffs had to use their maces to hold back the large crowd that was threatening to crush the courtroom doors in order to hear Remus plea for his life.

Remus began his final argument by thanking the jury and the prosecutors. Referring to the dual role he assumed in the trial, he began by pointing his finger toward his empty chair at the defense table. “Here stands before you Remus the lawyer – in that chair sits Remus the defendant, charged with murder.”[36] In a thundering voice, Remus launched into a fabulous oratory in an attempt to avoid the electric chair. He spoke for an hour and a half. Four times he began to explain transitory insanity to the jury, then wandered into a harangue against prohibition. He used scathing rhetoric to lambaste the Volstead Act and Franklin Dodge. Referring to himself in the third person, as was his custom, he assured the jury that Remus always sold good liquor. In regard to the Volstead Act, Remus stated: “This atrocious bit of legislation is making hypocrites of our judges, our prosecutors – of us all.”[37] When the presiding judge, Chester R. Shook, warned him that the trial was not about Prohibition, Remus took exception. He argued that if it had not been for Prohibition and “this deuce of society (Franklin Dodge) that Volsteadism made,”[38] then he would not be there on trial for murdering his wife. In his closing remarks Remus decided to appeal to the large first and second generation German-American demographics of the jury by referring to his humble beginnings in America. “This defendant,” he declared, “started in life at $5 a month, and he may have contaminated his neighbors, but ladies and men of the jury, we could not all be born with a golden spoon in our mouths like Charles P. Taft 2nd.”[39]

Becoming hoarse, and with a few jurors wiping tears from their eyes, Remus concluded by stating that he wanted “justice, not compassion.”  He said that he was standing in front of the jury in defense of the honor and sanctity of his home and if that was a crime, they should punish him. He wished the jurors a Merry Christmas, and then he bowed elegantly to them, to the left and to the right.

Assistant Prosecutor Carl E. Basler, aware that the majority of the jurors were first and second generation German-Americans, felt compelled to introduce ethnicity into his closing remarks. He told the jury that Remus had rung the Christmas bells for them and did everything but sing “Jingle Bells.” “They appealed to those among you who are of German descent. I know Germans well enough to know that they cannot be swayed by such appeals. He appealed to Catholicism; he made speeches on the Volstead law.”[40]  Basler reminded the jury that there was only one issue in the trial: a cold-blooded murder. Remus used insanity as a defense because he had no other excuse for killing his wife, Basler stated, and for that act he must die.

While the trial lasted five weeks and two days, it took the jury only nineteen minutes to deliver the verdict of not guilty on the sole ground of insanity. Juror Robert Hosford told the press, “There was never a question about acquittal. When we retired, I said, ‘Let’s go out and give him a Christmas present. Let’s make him happy this Christmas. He says he wasn’t happy last Christmas.’”[41] In short, the jury thought that Imogene had betrayed Remus and that he had suffered long enough. Following the verdict, George Remus called his mother Maria on the telephone from the county jail. He asked her how she felt. Speaking in German, she replied: “Come home and be a good boy.”[42]

On December 30, 1927, the Hamilton County Probate Court in Cincinnati found Remus insane and committed him to Lima State Hospital for the Criminal Insane. On February 1, 1928, Remus filed a writ of habeas corpus in the Allen County Court of Appeals “alleging that he was being unlawfully restrained of his liberty by detention in the Lima State Hospital.”[43]  Two months later the Court of Appeals agreed, declared Remus sane, and released him from Lima State Hospital. After his release from the hospital, George Remus never pursued his nemesis Franklin Dodge. In May 1931, Dodge was sentenced to thirty months in Atlanta Federal Penitentiary for giving false testimony to a grand jury in the case of a Georgia bootlegger in 1930.  

Remus spent the majority of his remaining years filing lawsuits attempting to reclaim his personal property and fragments of his illegal booze empire such as the distilleries. He maintained a real estate office in downtown Cincinnati and slowly faded from the public light. George Remus died at the age of 76 on December 20, 1952, at his home at 1810 Greenup Street, Covington, KY. He was laid to rest without fanfare in a cemetery in Falmouth, KY.

Conclusion

Although his rise was as rapid as his fall, George Remus truly deserves the title “King of the Bootleggers.”  According to his adopted daughter Ruth Holmes Remus, her father was the self-appointed monarch of the illegal booze trade. According to her, his coronation took place when Imogene, Remus and she were visiting the grave site of President Theodore Roosevelt. Ruth stated that Remus put his hat on his shoulder and said, “Now how will my headstone read?  I suppose it will be “King of the Bootleggers.”[44]  After coining the phrase Remus later gave it to a reporter and from that point on the title stuck.      

George Remus possessed the same enthusiasm, ambition, and goals as the overwhelming majority of German immigrants who sought to improve their lives in America. While the fallout over World War I caused a shocking reversal of attitude towards German-Americans, George Remus retained his status as a brilliant lawyer. When Prohibition followed the war, it caused many in the German-American community who worked in brewing, yeast products, and other associated industries to fall on hard times. The ever-enterprising George Remus, however, saw Prohibition as a window of economic opportunity. All that he had to do to open that window was to exploit the absurdities of the Volstead Act. Despite his great success as an illicit entrepreneur, Remus was quickly confronted with another truth. He discovered that his ambition and intellect were not above and beyond the reach of the law.

Notes

[1] Christiane Harzig, “Germans” in The Encyclopedia of Chicago (accessed January 27, 2012).

[2] “Imogene Baths,” Cincinnati Post, January 2, 1922, 2.

[3] All 2010 dollar figures based on Samuel H. Williamson, “Seven Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a U.S. Dollar Amount, 1774 to present,” MeasuringWorth, 2011, using the Consumer Price Index, unless otherwise noted.

[4] According to Remus, his father, Frank Remus, had been naturalized in 1882 in Chicago. Furthermore Remus asserted that his father had voted from 1885 until 1902. Remus’ daughter Romola stated that neighbors in the vicinity of Cortland and Fairfield Avenues in Chicago, where Frank Remus had lived from 1880 to 1890, asserted that they saw him take out naturalization papers in 1882. As far as George Remus was concerned, he never became naturalized according to his adopted daughter Ruth. He was very pro-German during the war and bitter at the U.S. government ever after. In mid-1926 the U.S. Department of Labor announced plans to launch an intensive campaign to rid the country of unwanted aliens. While the Labor Department issued a warrant for a deportation hearing against George Remus, he was never taken into custody or formally brought before any adjudicating tribunal in the matter.

[5] Following the scandal surrounding the 1919 World Series, where it was alleged that eight Chicago White Sox players accepted bribes from gamblers to fix the series in favor of the Cincinnati Reds, Landis was appointed as the first commissioner of major league baseball.

[6] “Remus Bought Gem Store For Favors At Lush Party But Couldn’t Crash Society,” Cincinnati Enquirer, January 21, 1952, 29.

[7] Mary Chenoworth, “Inside Story of GEORGE REMUS – “Bootleg King,” True Detective Magazine, February, 1929, 18.

[8] The Volstead Act, 1920, Title II, Section 3, reproduced on History Central (accessed January 27, 2012).

[9] Torrio had imported a young and clumsy, but tough, petty thug named Al Capone from Brooklyn to be his chief enforcer.

[10] “Attorney Remus Faces Arrest As Liquor Agent,” Chicago Daily Tribune, May 14, 1920, 17.

[11] Cincinnati Enquirer, January 21, 1952, 29.

[12] Michael Veach, “The King of the Bootleggers and Kentucky,” The Filson Historical Society, (last modified July 19, 2011).

[13] Chenworth, “Inside Story of GEORGE REMUS – “Bootleg King,” 19.

[14] William J. Mellin as told to Meyer Berger, “I was a wire Tapper,” Saturday Evening Post, September 10, 1949, 57.

[15] Cf. “Investigation of Hon. Harry M. Daugherty, Formerly Attorney General of the United States,” (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1924) (accessed January 27, 2012) 2406.

[16] Ruth Remus as dictated to Russell McFarland,, “Remus, Bootleg King: A Character Study By His Stepdaughter,” New York World, December 11, 1927, 2.

[17] For further information see William A. Cook, King of the Bootleggers – A Biography of George Remus (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co, 2008). 

[18] “Splendor Marks Dinner Given By George Remus,” The Cincinnati Commercial Tribune, January 2, 1922, 3.

[19] “Remus Bought Gem Store For Favors At Lush Party But Couldn’t Crash Society,” Cincinnati Enquirer, January 21, 1952, 29.

[20] History of Louisville Timeline, (accessed January 27, 2012).

[21] Chenworth, “Inside Story of GEORGE REMUS – Bootleg King,” 101.

[22] The WPA Guide to Cincinnati, with a new introduction by Zane L. Miller and a new preface by Harry Graff (The Cincinnati Historical Society, 1987), 127.

[23] “$300,000 Protection Paid To Jess Smith, Says ‘Bootleg King,” New York Times, May 17, 1924, 2.

[24] “Remus A Glad Sight, But His Heart Is Sad,” Chicago Daily Tribune, March 25, 1926, 2.

[25] Chenworth, “Inside Story of GEORGE REMUS – Bootleg King,” 101.

[26] Chicago Daily Tribune, March 25, 1926, 2.

[27] “Remus Hunts Wife In Car And Kills Her,” New York Times, October 7, 1927, 17.

[28] “Connors Says Mrs. Remus Tried To Draw Pistol, Cincinnati Post, December 3, 1927, 9.

[29] “Tragedy Ends Divorce; Mrs. George Remus Slain By Husband, Cincinnati Enquirer, October 7, 1927. 

[30] “Tragedy Ends Divorce Case; Mrs. George Remus Is Slain; Bootleg King Again in Cell,” Cincinnati Enquirer, October 7, 1927, 5.

[31] “Remus Hunts Wife In Car And Kills Her,” New York Times, October 7, 1927, 1.

[32] Chenworth, “Inside Story of GEORGE REMUS – Bootleg King,” 102.

[33] Chicago Tribune, October 28, 1927.

[34] “At Remus Trial; Gunman Grilled,” New York World, December 9, 1927, 6.

[35] Dudley Nichols, “Ruth Remus Sobbingly Paints Picture of Dramatic Slaying Of Mother By Her Foster Father,“ New York World News Service, carried in the Cincinnati Commercial Tribune, November 26, 1927, 6, 8.

[36] “Remus Tells Jury He Defended Home,”New York Times, December 20, 1927, 13.

[37] Orville Dwyer, “Remus Paints Self to Jury as Home Defender,” Chicago Daily Tribune, December 20, 1927, 12.

[38] New York Times, December 20, 1927, 13.

[39] New York Times, December 20, 1927, 13.

[40] Alfred Segal, “Remus Must Die, Cry of State’s Attorneys,” Cincinnati Post, December 20, 1927, 4.

[41] Dudley Nichols, “Remus Wins Acquittal On Ground of Insanity,” New York World, December 21, 1927, 4.

[42] Eugene Segal, “Best Christmas Said Grandma Remus,” Cincinnati Post, December 21, 1927, 1.

[43] The Clarence Darrow Digital Collection: State and Federal Cases, University of Minnesota Law Library (accessed January 27, 2012).

[44] Ruth Remus as dictated to Russell McFarland,, “Remus, Bootleg King: A Character Study By His Stepdaughter,” New York World, December 11, 1927, 2.

 

Cite this Entry

APA Style

"George Remus." (2018) In Immigrant Entrepreneurship, Retrieved November 17, 2018, from Immigrant Entrepreneurship: http://www.immigrantentrepreneurship.org/entry.php?rec=98

Chicago Style

Cook, William A.. "George Remus." In Immigrant Entrepreneurship: German-American Business Biographies, 1720 to the Present, vol. 4, edited by Jeffrey Fear. German Historical Institute. Last modified July 15, 2015. http://www.immigrantentrepreneurship.org/entry.php?rec=98

MLA Style

"George Remus," Immigrant Entrepreneurship, 2018, Immigrant Entrepreneurship. 17 Nov 2018 <http://www.immigrantentrepreneurship.org/entry.php?rec=98>

George Remus Carrying Suitcase

  • George Remus being hugged by his wife, ca. 1907
  • George Remus with his ex-wife (center) and an unidentified woman, 1926
  • George Remus standing next to automobile, 1920
  • Charles P. Taft II, March 1946

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