George Remus (November 14, 1874 – January 20, 1952) was a Cincinnati lawyer and bootlegger during the Prohibition era. It has been claimed that he was the inspiration for the title character Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Remus was born in Germany in 1874 to Frank and Maria Remus. Remus' family moved to Chicago by the time Remus was 5. At age 14 George supported the family by working at his uncle's pharmacy because Remus' father was unable to work. Remus was certified as a pharmacist at 19 after graduating from the Chicago College of Pharmacy and bought the pharmacy at age 21.
Within 5 years, Remus expanded, buying another drugstore. Remus soon tired of the pharmacy business and by 24, Remus became a lawyer.
On July 20, 1899, Remus married Lillian Klauff. Their daughter, born in 1900, was Romola Remus, who became a child actress in silent films, playing cinema's first Dorothy Gale in the 1910 version of The Wizard of Oz when she was just 8.
Legal and bootlegging careers
Remus attended the Illinois College of Law, and was admitted to the Illinois Bar in 1904. Remus specialized in criminal defense, especially murder, and became rather famous. By 1920 he was earning $50,000 a year, a vast sum at the time. Remus divorced his first wife Lillian after an affair with his legal secretary, Augusta Imogene (Brown) Holmes, whom he subsequently married.
Alcohol Prohibition began on January 17, 1920 with ratification of the 18th Amendment, and within a few months Remus saw that his criminal clients were becoming very wealthy very quickly.
Remus memorized the Volstead Act and found loopholes whereby he could buy distilleries and pharmacies to sell "bonded" liquor to himself under government licenses for medicinal purposes. Remus's employees would then hijack his own liquor so he could sell it illegally. Remus moved to Cincinnati, in the region of the country where 80 percent of America's bonded whiskey was located, and bought up most of the whiskey manufacturers. In less than three years Remus made $40 million with the help of his trusted number two man George Conners. He owned many of America's most famous distilleries, including the Fleischmann Distillery, which he bought for $197,000, a price which included 3,100 gallons of whiskey.
In addition to serving the Cincinnati community, many other small towns, such as Newport, Kentucky, began serving as drinking towns where gamblers opened small casinos to entertain their drunken patrons.
One of Remus' fortified distilleries was the Death Valley Farm, which he purchased from George Gehrum. The outside world thought it was only accessible by dirt road. The actual distillery was located at 2656 Queen City Ave. The alcohol was distilled in the attic of the home then dumb-waitered below. The basement was where a trap door was located and a tunnel approximately fifty to 100 feet long and six feet under the earth. The "bootleggers" would push the products along the tunnel out to a waiting car, usually making it safely away. It is believed to be one of the only locations never busted in the Cincinnati area. In 1920, a raid by hijackers took place, but Remus' armed guards, led by John Gehrum, fired heavy volleys at the hijackers and, after a short fight, the wounded attackers left.
In addition to becoming the "King of the Bootleggers" as he would be known as for a long time, Remus was known as a gracious host. He held many parties, including a 1923 birthday party for Imogene in which she appeared in a daring bathing suit along with other aquatic dancers, serenaded by a fifteen-piece orchestra. Children in the area also saw Remus as a fatherly figure. Jack Doll recalls an episode in which Remus playfully tossed a boy into his Olympic-sized swimming pool and then gave him $10 to buy a new suit. Doll states that a full boy's suit could be purchased for one dollar in 1920.
George and Imogene held a New Year's Eve party at their new mansion, nicknamed the Marble Palace, in 1922. The guests included 100 couples from the most prestigious families in the area. As parting gifts, Remus presented all the men with diamond stickpins, and gave each guest's wife a brand new car. Remus held a similar party in June 1923, during his problems with the government, when he gave each female guest (of the fifty present) a brand new Pontiac.
In 1925, Remus was indicted for thousands of violations of the Volstead Act, convicted by a jury that made its decision in under two hours, and given a two-year federal prison sentence. He spent two years in Atlanta Federal Penitentiary for bootlegging. While he was in prison, Remus befriended another inmate and told him his wife had control over his money. The inmate was an undercover prohibition agent Franklin Dodge. Dodge resigned his job and started an affair with Imogene. Dodge and Imogene liquidated Remus' assets and hid as much of the money as possible, in addition to attempting to deport Remus, and even hiring a hit man to murder Remus for $15,000. In addition, Remus's huge Fleischmann distillery was sold by Imogene, who gave her imprisoned husband only $100 of the multimillion-dollar empire he created.
Imogene divorced Remus in late 1927. On the way to court, on October 6, 1927, for the finalization of the divorce, Remus had his driver chase the cab carrying Imogene and her daughter through Eden Park in Cincinnati, finally forcing it off the road. Remus jumped out and fatally shot Imogene in the abdomen in front of the Spring House Gazebo to the horror of park onlookers.
The prosecutor in the case was 30-year-old Charles Phelps Taft II, son of Chief Justice of the United States and former President William Howard Taft and brother of the future Senator Robert A. Taft. Although he had lost his last big case, against another bootlegger, Charlie was seen as a man with a bright political future. The trial made national headlines for a month, as Remus defended himself on the murder charge. Remus pleaded temporary insanity, and the jury deliberated only 19 minutes before acquitting him. The State of Ohio then tried to commit Remus to an insane asylum since the jury found him insane, but prosecutors were thwarted by their previous claim (backed up by the prosecution's three well-known psychiatrists) that he could be tried for murder because he was not insane.
Remus tried to get back into bootlegging after his eight-month insanity sentence, but soon retired when he found that the market had been taken over by gangsters.
George Remus later moved to Covington, Kentucky (across the Ohio River from Cincinnati) where he lived out the next twenty years of his life modestly without incident. He died at his home in Covington in 1952 at age 77 of natural causes. He was buried in Falmouth, Kentucky.
In popular culture
Remus was featured in the 2011 Ken Burns documentary, Prohibition; texts written by Remus were read by Paul Giamatti. Remus has also been portrayed by Glenn Fleshler as a supporting character on HBO's Prohibition-era series Boardwalk Empire beginning in its second season. In 2014, Queen City Whiskey started producing small batch bourbon and rye whiskeys named after George Remus. The whiskey was distilled locally and was being introduced in liquor stores and select bars throughout the Cincinnati region.