The Chase Leads to Murder!
From Cincinnati, Historian Bob Batchelor discusses how George Remus chased down his wife Imogene and murdered her in Eden Park while also retracing the route through the city!
Imogene Remus — Femme Fatale or Pawn in Remus’s Evil World?
Imogene Remus is one of the trickiest characters in The Bourbon King.
Imogene’s motivations and subsequent actions enabled her to easily transition to whatever a situation necessitated. Imogene could be browbeaten housewife or femme fatale at a moment’s notice. On one hand, her desires were base and gaudy, but she also masterminded a complex scheme to funnel much of her husband’s wealth to herself and family members.
Unlike other accounts of George and Imogene, my research revealed how devious she had been from the start of her relationship with her husband. Much of Imogene’s early life had never been uncovered, particularly the lengths she went to attract a modicum of fame.
Yet, at the same time, Imogene played a dangerous game, dancing on the edge of a cliff. She may have thought she understood George, but in the end, she had no clue to the depths of violence and anger Remus could unleash.
Imogene grew up in Milwaukee dreaming 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 and different identities 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.
The Bourbon King offers a window into government corruption at the highest levels. Any lessons we can learn for understanding today’s political scene?
Presidential corruption is a delicate matter. Incredibly partisan, one side sees something that the other does not. History helps sort out details and brings new evidence to light, but then how do we deal with scandal as it takes place?
George Remus built a far-reaching bribery network that stretched from the suburban Cincinnati police to the Harding White House. He virtually taught Newport, Kentucky, about graft, which enabled the city to become a model for corruption and vice. Decades later, the mafia would move into Newport and see the city as a model for Las Vegas.
Much of the corruption Remus took advantage of came directly from the Prohibition Bureau, particularly as enforcement began. At every level, “Prohis" (the nickname given to agents tasked with enforcing Prohibition) fell to corruption and payoffs.
For example, many leaders at the state level issued whiskey certificates—paper documents that gave the holder the ability to sell liquor legally to pharmacies, hospitals, doctors, and others for “medicinal usage”—for a hefty fee.
“They received considerations,” Remus explained. “Otherwise those withdrawals would never have come to the respective distilleries that I was owner of.”
As a result of the permutations, trust evaporated and criminality ruled, particularly as officials in the Harding administration learned that they could be so dishonest.
Much of the underhanded maneuvers originated in Attorney General Harry M. Daugherty’s office and ran through Jess Smith, his bon vivant friend and confidante. Jess ran interference for Daugherty and his Ohio cronies linked to Harding’s White House. The money changed hands, which fit with Remus’s worldview of how men acted when they had a deal, but he had no guarantee that Smith could do what he said.
Amidst this setting, and with his own loose lips, could Remus possibly keep his central bribe secret? A journalist reported that he heard a rumor around town about George, explaining, “He was once heard to boast that he was immune from prosecution because he had the ear of the private secretary of a cabinet officer.”
The bribery network soon crumbled…
On May 30, 1923, Jess startled awake in the middle of the night. He drew a pistol from a bedside drawer, stumbled to the bathroom, and lay down on the floor. Positing his head on the side of a wastebasket, Jess put the revolver to his temple and pulled the trigger.
Smith killed himself a little more than two months before the shocking death of Warren G. Harding, who declined quickly on a trip out West and ultimately passed away on August 2, 1923, only 57 years old.
The Ohioan was wildly popular at the time and mourners lined the train route that brought the dead president back to the nation’s capital. Only after his death would the full weight of his scandal-ridden administration become unraveled by a series of congressional investigatory committees and reporters hot on the trail of his Cabinet members and their cronies, many who seemed to specialize in corruption. For George, the deaths of Smith and Harding left him with little hope. Worse, the tragedies severed his ties to Daugherty.
“Misfortune came fast, suddenly,” Remus said. “Jess Smith was found dead in his bathroom. President Harding died. The Senate called for the impeachment of Harry Daugherty. The game was over. I had no place to turn.”
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 Donald 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 might be condensed down to partisanship. Calvin Coolidge — Harding’s successor — watched a series of Congressional investigations into corruption by Harding Cabinet members. He constantly worried about how those spectacles would influence voters’ minds in the 1928 election.
As long as the economy boomed, observers gave Harding and Coolidge a free pass. At the time, the scandals did not topple their administrations.
Today, however, the notion of a free pass is laughable as a president’s every move is scrutinized by a highly-partisan citizenship.
The media—crippled by the financial crisis that has left the industry in shambles over the last two decades—responds by chasing every sensational detail, forced to feed the bile back to consumers, hoping that their anger will result in advertising dollars and measured in online “impressions.”
The corruption of the Harding administration—with George Remus at its center—provides a case study in corruption by White House subordinates who realized how swiftly they could fleece the system. Today, are we too distracted by the daily shouting to scrutinize the details as they unfold just below the surface?
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.
George Remus became a top criminal defense attorney in Chicago. What made him so successful in the courtroom?
George Remus transitioned to attorney at a time when the Chicago economy boomed and new residents poured into the region. His early work centered on labor law, representing several large Windy City unions. The efforts put George in the circle of famed attorney and human rights activist Clarence Darrow.
Both men abhorred the death penalty and Remus gravitated to criminal defense work, just as Darrow had done earlier in his career. 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.
When Remus put his considerable intellectual and physical efforts toward a legal career, he ruffled the existing “old boy’s network,” which saw him and his second-rate legal training as an imposition on the establishment they had crafted (he most likely faced a great degree of anti-German discrimination as well). George charged ahead, though, engaging in local Republican politics and serving as a leader in a new legal society aimed to upend the status quo.
No one could deny Remus’s dedication, but his tactics upset many of his colleagues.
If a legal eagle were Remus’s friend, he might refer to George as the “Napoleon of the Bar” as a way of acknowledging his legal acumen. Others, however, called George “weeping pleading Remus,” because his theatrics were viewed as outside the bounds of decorum.
George’s 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). Many of Remus’s trials were covered by reporters regionally and nationally. Chicago Tribune journalists knew they could call on George for a hot soundbite.
Although Remus might wildly gesticulate and fly into near rages to defend a client, jurors also remarked about how mesmerizing Remus was in the courtroom. George seemed to have a sixth sense regarding when a well-time antic might persuade a jury or distract them from the prosecution’s case. He possessed a natural charisma and magnetism that defined his legal career.
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.
The Bourbon King: The Life and Crimes of George Remus, Prohibition’s Evil Genius received a starred review in Publishers Weekly, one of the essential publications in the publishing industry.
You can find the complete review at this link!