George Remus came to America as an impoverished German immigrant who continually re-invented himself until he rose to the top, becoming the most successful bootlegger in this country’s history. At his peak, he owned 35 percent of all the liquor in the United States and earned the title “King of Bootleggers.”
But his story, as told by Karen Abbott in her new book, "The Ghosts of Eden Park: The Bootleg King, the Women Who Pursued Him, and the Murder that Shocked Jazz-Age America," isn’t about machine guns and Al Capone-style executions. Remus, a teetotaler who spoke of himself in the third person, didn’t believe in violence to enforce his business.
Instead, he was an oddball intellect and pharmacy school dropout who at 19 was peddling self-branded patent medicines, like Remus’s Nerve Tonic, which contained, among other less toxic ingredients, henbane, a hallucinogenic plant.
By age 24 he was a defense attorney practicing in Chicago. Married, he fell in love with Imogene Holmes, the woman who cleaned his office. He offered to handle her divorce, and set her up in an apartment in Evanston.
His wife didn’t like that one bit, and filed for divorce. Their settlement, in 1919, was a lump sum of $50,000, $25 a week in alimony and $30,000 in trust for their daughter — at a time when an average American worker made between $200 and $400 per year, an accountant about $2,000 per year, a dentist $2,500 per year and a veterinarian between $1,500 and $4,000.
Seeing all the money being made in selling bootlegged booze, Remus decided to go big time and, spotting a loophole in Title II, Section 6 of the Volstead Act that allowed the buying and using of liquor for medicinal purposes. He developed a master plan that included using his pharmacy license to acquire wholesale drug companies, purchasing distilleries and organizing a transportation company, as well as bribing officials to look the other way.
It worked fantastically until it didn’t. He was brought down by Mabel Walker Willebrandt, a pioneer prosecutor at a time when there were few women in the field, and his own wife, who fell in love with Franklin Dodge and divulged many of her husband’s secrets. Dodge, it turned out, was Willebrandt’s best investigator, assigned to dig up dirt on Remus. But that, in ways, was just the beginning of the story.
Abbott, the New York Times bestselling author of "Sin in The Second City," "American Rose" and "Liar Temptress Soldier Spy," says she typically gets her story ideas when researching. But she discovered Remus when watching the HBO series "Boardwalk Empire."
“Remus was a very minor figure on the show, and I wondered if he was a real person,” says Abbott, who also serves on the National Advisory Board for the Chicago Brewseum, the country’s first non-profit museum dedicated to telling the story of beer. “His real story was so much more fascinating and dramatic than the show, involving a love triangle, betrayal, murder and a sensational trial. He was a brilliant strategist and I loved the way he spoke in the third person.”
Abbott was also very intrigued by Imogene (“a classic villain”) and Mabel (“inhumanly tough”).
Abbott who spent four months in the Yale University Law Library, reading the 5,000 page transcript of the trial. She had 85,000 pages of notes when she was done, and describes her endeavor as “the most fun researching I’ve ever had.”
Among her many discoveries was that Imogene and George, who lived life very large, had a gold piano in their home.
“So did the Everleigh sisters,” she says about the two Chicago madams who she chronicled in her book Sin in the Second City. “Who have thought that I’d end up researching two books where people owned gold pianos?”