How did George Remus become “Bootleg King?” What drove him to criminality—Hubris? Greed? Love of alcohol?
George Remus moved decisively into bootlegging.
As Remus’s legal career flourished, he became celebrity in Chicago, then nationally. [I like to joke that he was kind of the Johnnie Cochran of early twentieth century Chicago.] The fame and money were not enough to satisfy his desires — he expected to become a larger than life figure. Remus thought of himself in almost presidential terms, as if he were anointed to greatness.
Remus began defending small-time Windy City bootleggers in his law practice. Like court employees, attorneys, and probably even the judges themselves, George looked on bemused when these hoodlums would pay fines by pulling large rolls of cash out of their pockets and quickly counting out huge sums of money. Rolls of hundreds…
Legend has it that Remus realized if the two-bit thugs could make thousands of dollars, then he could use his intelligence to make millions.
As a top defense attorney, George’s annual salary reached more than 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 often claimed to be a teetotaler, but many witnesses could have testified to that standing as yet another Remus “little white lie.” He liked to share a stiff drink and a fat, black cigar with friends, despite the public histrionics about not drinking liquor.
George needed to play intellectual games to justify his positions on various issues. For example, he believed that acting outside the bounds of decorum in court battles was okay, because doing so enabled him to spare his clients the death sentence. The end goal made the means of attaining it justified in his mind.
Similarly, Remus didn’t think Prohibition was a just cause. His early attempts at bootlegging in Chicago proved that enforcement was difficult and that people would continue to demand liquor, regardless of the law.
George also knew that the money would give him power and influence. He set out to exploit the loopholes in the Volstead Act as a way to fulfill the flashy life he dreamed of…and his young paramour Imogene Holmes yearned for her entire life.