Whiskey, Fraud & Murder: The Bootleg King of Prohibition
Karen Abbott writes about the rise and fall of bootlegger George Remus in her new book, “The Ghosts of Eden Park.”
Once settled in Cincinnati, George Remus hustled to establish himself. With financing from the Lincoln National Bank, where he kept an account under the name “John P. Alexander,” he purchased a retail drugstore downtown and converted it into a wholesale drug company, a transformation that required an additional investment and an intricate sleight of hand. After stocking the shelves with $50,000 worth of drugs and toiletries, he secured a basic permit to withdraw and sell whiskey. As soon as that company had withdrawn as much liquor as it could without attracting suspicion, he closed that drug company, organized another one, and shipped over the initial supply of drugs and toiletries.
He repeated this process and also bought existing wholesale drug companies: two in New York, a few more in Cincinnati, and the Kentucky Drug Company, just across the river in Covington. He also purchased his own distillery, H. E. Pogue in Maysville, Kentucky, and entered negotiations for several others. He observed that Cincinnati bootleggers conducted business brazenly, without interference from either city police or federal agents—even though Ohio was the headquarters of the Anti-Saloon League (the state conformed to the country-wide tendency for cities to be “wet” and rural counties “dry”). Discreet inquiries revealed the names and prices of local Prohibition officers willing to be “fixed,” an expenditure of ten dollars for every case of whiskey withdrawn.
He assembled a diverse group of associates to fulfill specific roles in his organization: “confidential men” to bait law enforcement into accepting bribes; a “traffic man” to assist with transportation; secretaries to falsify paperwork; a personal chauffeur; and a personal cook. George Conners, whom Remus called “the man, Friday,” would act as his fearless and savvy lieutenant. Remus met Conners, a lifelong resident of Cincinnati and a local real estate broker, while negotiating for distilleries, and the bootlegger liked him instantly. Finally, there were the “all-around man,” Harry Brown, who happened to be his wife Imogene’s brother, and Imogene herself, upon whom Remus bestowed the unofficial title of “Prime Minister.”
Remus promised she would be his “partner in everything.” She would oversee business records and plans that he could not share with anyone else. He would seek her input on potential deals. He would invite her to invest personal funds—meaning her allowance—in his enterprises. There was nobody in the world whom he trusted so fully, and he felt confident in placing both his livelihood and his heart in her lovely and clever hands.
The Circle began to spin. Within the year, Remus would own 35 percent of all the liquor in the United States.
Remus feared neither the police nor Prohibition officials but whiskey pirates, those bands of roving thieves who targeted bootleggers across the country, swooping down on warehouses, binding and gagging the watchmen, cutting telephone wires, and stealing every last barrel inside.
As word of the Circle spread, Remus knew that he would be a target. His fear was realized one night when he and his driver were returning to Cincinnati from Covington, Kentucky, with cases of whiskey piled high in the back of the truck. They were halfway across the bridge when a touring car veered from its lane to block their path. Remus’s driver abandoned the truck and fled frantically in the direction of Cincinnati, leaving Remus to fend for himself. Four men leapt onto the running board of Remus’s truck, brandishing automatics and shouting a single command: “Stick ’em up high!” Each of them aimed his gun directly at Remus’s head.
Remus’s driver carried a revolver, but he’d taken it with him when he ran. Remus himself was unarmed. His mind clicked into action, assessing the situation: The location of the holdup was to his advantage, since policemen were typically stationed at either end of the bridge. At the sound of gunfire, they would move to block the pirates’ escape.
“Pull your triggers!” Remus dared them. “Shoot, you cowards, and if you do you’ll never live to tell the tale!”
He knew he had just a fraction of a second to make a move. He catapulted himself forward with the force and form of a diver. He caught the men by surprise, windmilling his thick arms until he connected with a set of ribs, sending their owner tumbling backward. Then something crashed brutally against the top of his head, as if dropped from several stories above, an impact that folded his body in half and brought him to his knees. He righted himself and swung again, catching another pirate with his boulder of a fist. The butt of an automatic carved a second hole in his scalp, sending him back to the ground. Again he staggered to his feet, blood veiling his eyes. Whirling around, Remus trapped his assailant in his arms, hoisted him above his head, and stumbled to the side of the bridge, intending to heave the pirate into the water below. Instead he collided with the railing and crashed to the ground, stunned.
An uninjured pirate slid behind the wheel of Remus’s truck and exhorted his comrades to hurry and join him. One retrieved the dazed pirate, dragging him away from the bridge and into the touring car. Remus battled with the last, swinging his arms wildly, his target barely visible through a sheen of blood. The pirate disengaged and climbed into Remus’s truck. Both vehicles started their engines.
But Remus was not ready to yield the fight. He hauled himself up to the running board of his truck and tried to pry his rival from the driver’s seat. One last bash on the head hurled him back to the ground, and this time he knew he had lost.
The truck pulled away, the touring car following close behind. Remus swiped the blood from his eyes, crossed the bridge into Cincinnati, and hailed a taxicab to the hospital to get stitches for his wounds. Lesson learned: In the future, all liquor shipments would be accompanied by a convoy of armed guards.
The following week, Remus tracked down the pirates’ leader, who surprised him with a compliment: “You have more guts than twenty men and deserved to keep your liquor.” Remus laughed and hired a few of the leader’s men to drive his trucks, insurance against future attacks. As an extra precaution, he asked his main lieutenant, George Conners, to find him a safer, more secluded storage facility, one that could serve him for years to come.
Excerpted from The Ghosts of Eden Park. Copyright © 2019 by Karen Abbott. Published by Crown, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.