The Bourbon King
The Life and Crimes of George Remus, Prohibition's Evil Genius
On the 100th anniversary of The Volstead Act comes the epic, definitive story of the man who cracked the Prohibition system, became one of the world’s richest criminal masterminds, and helped inspire The Great Gatsby.
In October 1919, Congress gave teeth to Prohibition. But the law didn’t stop George Remus from amassing a fortune that would be worth billions of dollars today. As one Jazz Age journalist put it, “Remus was to bootlegging what Rockefeller was to oil.”
Author Bob Batchelor breathes life into the largest illegal booze operation in America—greater than that of Al Capone—and a man considered the best criminal defense lawyer of his era. Remus bought an empire of distilleries on Kentucky’s “Bourbon Trail” and used his other profession, as a pharmacist, to profit off legal loopholes. He spent millions bribing officials in the Harding Administration, and he created a roaring lifestyle that epitomized the Jazz Age over which he ruled.
That is, before he came crashing down in one of the most sensational murder cases in American history: a cheating wife, the G-man who seduced her and put Remus in jail, and the plunder of a Bourbon Empire. Remus murdered his wife in cold-blood and then shocked a nation, winning his freedom based on a condition he invented—temporary maniacal insanity.
Love, murder, political intrigue, mountains of cash, and rivers of bourbon…the tale of George Remus is a grand spectacle and a lens into the dark heart of Prohibition.
A Talk with Bob Batchelor, Author of The Bourbon King
How did you discover the story of George Remus, and why did you decide to write a book about him?
I stumbled across George Remus about fifteen years ago when an esteemed historian asked me to write about bootlegging for the Dictionary of American History. Remus’s story was so epic that I couldn’t get it out of my mind. Later, I wrote a biography of The Great Gatsby and continued thinking about this crazy bootleg king, particularly since so many people began writing that he was the inspiration for Jay Gatsby, rather than just one of several. It seemed that no one had really fully captured Remus or put him within the context of early twentieth century American history, so he neatly fit into my wheelhouse: big topic, historically significant, and interesting links from that era to what we’re experiencing today. I found that there were still many undiscovered aspects to Remus’s story and there were untapped archives, so I barreled ahead.
Remus’s first career was as a pharmacist. In what ways did that job impact his later life?
Remus’s life as a pharmacist demonstrated his wide-ranging intellect and dedication, because pharmacists in George’s era were more like doctors, dispensing medical advice and treating minor ailments. He even got an optometry certification so he could be called “Dr. Remus.” The career, however, also turned him off to medicine. He thought much of it was quackery. Yet, at the same time, he embraced his ability to fleece the public by introducing a line of “Remus” brand pills, like others in that age that were all the rage. He sold these treatments to large drug wholesalers across the Midwest. The money he made in this line of business and then opening his own drug companies enabled him to see how easily he could make money based on his smarts. As a pharmacist, Remus also learned a great deal about the legal ramifications, which would serve him well as an attorney and, later, bootlegger. He put this study of drug regulations and setting up pharmacies to work as a bootlegger, always searching for legal loopholes to the Volstead Act, once Prohibition became law.
Later, he became a criminal defense attorney. What was he like in the courtroom?
If a legal eagle were Remus’s friend, he would refer to George as the “Napoleon of the Bar” as a way of acknowledging his legal acumen and skill with juries. Others, however, called George “weeping pleading Remus,” because his theatrics were viewed as outside the bounds of decorum. What set George apart was his willingness to do anything to win, particularly if he could get a death row sentence reduced to jail time. The escapades were legendary—from starting fistfights with opposing counsel to drinking down poison in front of the jury to proved his client not guilty (luckily, George had mixed up the antidote and taken it beforehand). Although he might wildly gesticulate and fly into near rages to defend a client, jurors also remarked about how mesmerizing Remus was in the courtroom.
Remus’s third career, if you could call it that, was as a bootlegger. How did he end up in that line of work, and what drove him to it—Hubris? Greed? A love of alcohol?
Remus began defending small-time Windy City bootleggers and was astonished when they would pay their fines by pulling large rolls of cash out of their pockets and quickly counting out huge sums of money. Legend has it that he realized if the two-bit thugs could make thousands, then he could use his intelligence to make millions. As a defense attorney, his annual salary was ten times the cost of the average home in America, but he wanted more…more fame, money, and the toys the good life made possible. Remus had no moral position on bootlegging or breaking the law. He didn’t think Prohibition was a just cause and he set out to exploit the loopholes in the Volstead Act to live the flashy life he dreamed of…and his young paramour Imogene wanted as well.
Was Remus a good businessman?
Remus cashed out in Chicago and took his fat stacks to Cincinnati, the epicenter of the bourbon and beer industries in the early twentieth century. He parlayed his life earnings into a fortune that some estimate reached $200 million, which would be many billions of dollars today, over the course of about two and a half years. Remus realized that he could control every aspect of the bootlegging business, from production to distribution, via other rumrunners and directly to consumers. He called this “the circle,” which was probably modeled on what J. D. Rockefeller had done in the oil business. Creating this national network took a lot of money and a lot of hubris. Remus had both in spades. He pulled it off, but in the end, faced some of the same challenges businesses have always faced: lack of talent to manage the organization and deals that fell through. Remus needed henchmen that were as smart as him and he had trouble finding them. Then, his “sugaring” network—the term for bribery in the 1920s—fell through. These challenges essentially put him out of business.
How does Remus compare to Al Capone?
Without George Remus, there is no Al Capone. Every city in America had underworld operatives long before Prohibition. But, when the dry laws kicked in, they needed booze to thrive. Remus provided that liquor and enabled men like Capone to create empires. On a personal level, Remus was a generation older than Capone and some of the other “name” mafia bosses, like Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky. They were career criminals and when bootlegging turned vicious, they were more willing to kill. Remus was a product of the Gilded Age. He was more likely to respond to a threat with his fists or gold-tipped, weighted cane than a gun. As Prohibition went on, it became a shoot-first world. Without money or henchmen, Remus could not reestablish his bourbon empire after winning his freedom from the Lima State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in June 1928, which will make complete sense after reading The Bourbon King.
Is there anything we can learn from prohibition that’s useful today regarding the legalization of marijuana?
We are still learning the lessons of Prohibition a century later. The most destructive aspect of the dry era was that it took a major human toll on America. Many lives were wasted, from people poisoned by tainted alcohol to those killed in enforcing the Volstead Act or attempting to circumvent the law. We have seen similar scenarios play out over the last several decades with marijuana legislation and enforcement. During Prohibition and with weed, a significant air of lawlessness became commonplace, which we are still dealing with now, for instance, when people travel between states that have legalized recreational marijuana and those that still criminalize it.
This book offers a window into government corruption at the highest levels. Any lessons we can learn there?
Shortly after President Harding died in office, many scandals came to light that revealed the full extent of his administration’s corruption. However, Harding was given a kind of free pass. Today, with President Trump, the accusations regarding corruption are much more vocal and public. Events that transpired in Harding’s era demonstrated how bad actors could really line their own pockets by using their power in various schemes. Modern presidents are not given the same benefit of the doubt. The amplification of outrage based on social media and a more pervasive news cycle means that cries of government corruption are going to be louder and shriller. The challenge for us today is attempting to determine how much of the dishonesty is real and what would be condensed down to partisanship. President Calvin Coolidge sat through many Congressional investigations into corruption by Harding Cabinet members and worried constantly about how those spectacles would influence voters’ minds in the 1928 election.
What can you tell us about Remus’s mistress who later became his second wife, Imogene? Was she a bad influence on him, or was it the other way around?
Imogene Remus grew up in Milwaukee and dreamed of a life bigger and more glamorous than her working class roots. What I found in researching her life is that she was constantly playing with her identity by using different names, from “Gussie” and “Gene” to “Susan” and others. Trying these names on like masks, Imogene hoped to become wildly famous and rich, living out an aristocratic life that she saw around her. I also uncovered a number of crazy attempts Imogene made to get her name in the newspapers, which was one of the best ways to increase notoriety in the early twentieth century. She would send “news” to reporters, and for someone with no formal training, had several pieces picked up. For example, around the time the story broke about her breaking up George’s first marriage, using the name “Gene Holmes,” she had a list of tips for a wife to follow to keep her husband from “becoming a wild man.” Reporters who ran the story did not miss the irony of the highly-publicized “love triangle” that had been in the papers for months. Even more overtly, Imogene told a friend shortly after Remus moved in with her that she planned to “roll him for his roll” and that she “would marry him if I have to” to get his money. George was already famous, flashy, and probably looked like a great catch for Imogene. She won him over and eventually got all the riches in the world. However, she couldn’t have had any idea at that time what a depraved person he would become.
What surprised you the most about writing The Bourbon King?
When it comes to the 1920s, what I discovered is that people love the glitz and glamour of the Jazz Age and The Great Gatsby, but they hate Prohibition with a passion. As a result, a lot of materials regarding bootlegging and Volstead Act enforcement were destroyed or went missing over the years. Even on a personal level, many descendants of bootleggers have a hard time rectifying what their ancestors did during that time. Some families swear that they were never involved, even when proof clearly exists. The second most surprising aspect was Franklin L. Dodge, Jr., the federal Prohibition Bureau secret agent who stole Imogene away and ran off with George’s riches. I had vague ideas about who he was and what he stood for. Then I visited the Turner-Dodge House in Lansing, Michigan, where Dodge grew up and lived later after Remus killed Imogene, and got a whole new perspective. I stood in his boyhood bedroom and walked the upstairs ballroom where he and his family held celebrations and his mother—a classically-trained pianist—played for friends and family members. Dodge became more human as a result and that humanity—with all the frailties that being human encompasses—went into my portrayal of him in The Bourbon King.
Any truth to the idea that Remus inspired the main character in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby?
Fitzgerald was right about so many things about America in the 1920s. It really was “the grandest, gaudiest spree in history” and Remus embodied that idea. He turned himself and Imogene into the King and Queen of the criminal underworld. Yet, like the nation, that opulent world would come crumbling down around them. Many features of The Great Gatsby sound as if they were ripped from the life of George Remus—the parties, the magnificent pool, string of pharmacies, real books, bootlegging—but, and it’s an important point, these same traits were encompassed in several other prominent bootleg barons from the age, most notably Arnold Rothstein, the biggest player in the New York City underworld. After sifting through thousands of pages of primary source material and seemingly endless scholarly analyses about Gatsby, I surmise that Remus was most likely one of a number of bootleg kings that Fitzgerald used to create the composite that later became Jay Gatsby. Fitzgerald’s movements in and around New York City and attending the grand parties on Long Island certainly provide evidence that Remus half a country away in Cincinnati would have been a lesser influence, though the Seelbach Hotel in Louisville makes its way into the novel. However, Remus was in the public eye and the nation followed his exploits in the papers. Fitzgerald was a voracious reader and interpreter of the news.
Over the years, though, the fable that George Remus was the model for Jay Gatsby has gained momentum. Many writers and scholars make the claim without clear evidence, because that evidence does not exist, or at least hasn’t been uncovered yet. Until we have definitive proof, I think the best we can say is that Remus was a model, but not the sole model, for The Great Gatsby.