There is a lot of interest in the Prohibition era bootlegger George Remus. A brand of whiskey has been named for him today and of course an HBO show, Boardwalk Empire, has based one of their main characters on his life. He is a fascinating person and should you wish to learn more of his life, this book is an excellent biography.
King of the Bootleggers: A Biography of George Remus by William A. Cook. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2008, Contents, Chapter Notes, Bibliography, Index, Illustrated, pp.217.
George Remus was crowned the “King of the Bootleggers” by the Prohibition agents that busted his operation and finally sent him to the penitentiary in 1924. Remus was a self-made man, the son of a German emigrant who went to work in a drug store at 16, earned a pharmaceutical license and bought the store – and then another. Not happy with that he earned his law degree and practiced law in Chicago until 1919. He then decided he could make more money selling booze and moved to Cincinnati. He created a couple of pharmaceutical companies and started purchasing interests in distilleries such as the Squibb distillery in Lawrenceburg, Ind., Burks Spring Distillery in Lorretto (Now Maker’s Mark), Fleischmann’s Distillery in Cincinnati, Hill and Hill in Owensboro and Jack Daniels in St. Louis, Mo. He had booze shipped to his pharmaceutical companies to get it across state lines and divert it to a warehouse to be sold bootleg. He had a multi-million dollar business and it is said that he was worth 8 million dollars when he went to prison.
This book tells of Remus’ bootlegging business, his arrest, trial, prison term, release and the murder of his second wife and the trial that followed. The book does a very good job of conveying the corrupt state of the government during the Harding Administration and how Prohibition was doomed to fail because of the corruption. The author paints a vivid picture of the corruption and places the key corrupt figures, Jess Smith and Harry Daugherty of the Justice Department, in the limelight with Remus.
Remus was given the title of the “King of the Bootleggers” by the Prohibition agents that busted him to make the press think they were really getting things done. Remus ran a large operation, but he was out of business almost as soon as he started. He was not a violent man in the manner of Capone and other leaders of organized crime and did not have any gang wars or other corrupt businesses like the mobs in Chicago or New York.
He did make some money but while in prison his wife started to have an affair with the Prohibition agent that helped bust him and they started to steal everything he owned. This eventually led to Remus killing Imogene Remus in front of witnesses and his trial for her murder. He claimed temporary insanity at the time of the murder and the prosecutor, Charles Taft II, son of the former President and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, William Howard Taft, worked to prove a conspiracy and premeditation. It makes for an interesting story and was covered by all of the tabloids of the time. In fact a fictional account of the trial was written a few years ago titled “The Jazz Bird“.
The book has many footnotes so the reader can trace the author’s sources. It includes many photographs of the key players and a bibliography of sources. The one problem for the book is that the author sometimes gets side-tracked by some other figures such as Al Capone, who really does not have a large part in this story. Still this is an easy read and it could be said that Remus showed the government the weakness of the system and led to reforms such as consolidation warehouses. The book is worth adding to a bourbon library because it helps the reader to really understand the corruption of the Prohibition era.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller