The Bourbon King, The Inside Story: George Remus and Al Capone

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How does George Remus compare to Al Capone?

Without George Remus, there is no Al Capone.

Every city in America had underworld operatives long before Prohibition. Bootlegging existed, whether it was running the product of home stills to avoid government taxes or bringing cheap liquor into the United States from Mexico.

When the dry laws kicked in, rumrunning became big business. In America’s largest cities, like Chicago, bosses like Johnny Torrio quickly realized that America’s thirst needed quenched and by smuggling liquor, they could make untold millions.

Rather quickly, criminal kingpins realized that they needed booze to thrive. Remus provided that liquor and enabled men like Torrio, and his successor Al Capone to create empires. Other liquor masterminds existed, so Remus was not alone in getting booze to mob bosses, but his network was extensive and centered on selling the highest quality Kentucky bourbon.

Selling “the good stuff” led to connections between Torrio’s Windy City operation and Remus’s headquarters at Death Valley. George Conners, Remus’s top lieutenant, spoke at length about his salesman trips to Chicago to funnel bourbon into the large market there. Torrio also had ties to the Cincinnati metro area, marrying a woman from Northern Kentucky and having family in the area.

While George and Al had similar interests in selling booze and making as much money as possible, 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, the friends who operated at the feet of criminal mastermind Arnold “the Big Brain” Rothstein in New York City. After Rothstein’s murder, Luciano and Lansky became kingpins themselves. Men like these were career criminals. When bootlegging turned vicious, they were more willing to kill or incite violence and murder to achieve their end goals.

Remus, although no stranger to gunfights or ordering his men to protect his product with gun play, was a product of the Gilded Age. George’s first instinct was to respond to a threat with his fists or the gold-tipped, weighted cane that he carried as both a style statement and weapon. As Prohibition went on, it became a shoot-first world.

People often ask why Remus didn’t get back into bootlegging in June 1928 after his stints behind bars and at the Lima State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. There are many potential answers, but most directly: without money or henchmen, Remus could not reestablish his bourbon empire after winning his freedom. George would have needed an army to reclaim even a portion of his empire, but after Imogene and Franklin Dodge decimated his fortune, he could not afford to rebuild.

This is only a small tidbit of the complexity of Remus’s interactions with his mafioso colleagues. The full story will make more sense after reading The Bourbon King.

The famous Rathskeller bar in the Seelbach Hilton Hotel in downtown Louisville. Allegedly, Remus and Capone drank together at the Rookwood Pottery tile-encrusted grotto, one of the most stunning displays of Rookwood from the early twentieth century.

The famous Rathskeller bar in the Seelbach Hilton Hotel in downtown Louisville. Allegedly, Remus and Capone drank together at the Rookwood Pottery tile-encrusted grotto, one of the most stunning displays of Rookwood from the early twentieth century.


The Bourbon King, The Inside Story: Why Write about George Remus

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How did you discover the story of George Remus, and why did you decide to write a book about him?

Imagine having a topic in your head for 17 years!

I stumbled across George Remus about 17 years ago when Stanley Cutler, an esteemed American historian and scholar, 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. The “Bootlegging” entry had to be concise, so I didn’t get much of an opportunity to expand on the Remus story, but I snuck him in, as well as mentions of Cleveland and Pittsburgh.

Here’s that bit from the essay:

Given the pervasive lawlessness during Prohibition, bootlegging was omnipresent. The operations varied in size, from an intricate network of bootlegging middlemen and local suppliers, right up to America's bootlegging king, George Remus, who operated from Cincinnati, lived a lavish lifestyle, and amassed a $5 million fortune. To escape prosecution, men like Remus used bribery, heavily armed guards, and medicinal licenses to circumvent the law. More ruthless gangsters, such as Capone, did not stop at crime, intimidation, and murder.

— “Bootlegging” Dictionary of American History, 2003

Although researched and written so long ago, I still see bits of my personal writing style that persists. “Pervasive lawlessness” is a stylistic point, as well as the pacing of the sentence.

Later, in 2013, I published a biography of The Great Gatsby, which I had been researching and writing for years. Obviously, the work on the book forced me to continue 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.

[Spoiler alert: the link between Jay Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and George Remus is an important discussion in The Bourbon King and the beginning of one of America’s great literary mysteries that readers will really enjoy.]

The more I thought about the bootleg king, the more it seemed that no one had really fully captured Remus or put him within the context of American history. His epic tale illuminates and interrogates the early twentieth century, Prohibition, Constitutionality, and many other topics that continue to confound people today.

George Remus also fit neatly into my cultural historian and biographer wheelhouse: big topic, historically significant, and interesting links from that era to what we are experiencing today. I found that there were still many undiscovered aspects to Remus’s story and there were untapped archives, so I barreled ahead.