Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Books: "The Bourbon King" On Prohibition's Evil Genius

The Bourbon King: The Life and Crimes of George Remus, Prohibition's Evil Genius
By Bob Batchelor
Diversion Books; hardcover, 400 pages; $27.99; available today, September 3

When people think of the 1920s and Prohibition, the name Al Capone comes to mind immediately, but there was a bigger player on the scene, a man many believe accumulated more wealth than the notorious gangster, and he did it with a lot more sophistication.

George Remus did it in Cincinnati, and the former pharmacist and criminal defense attorney, earning the nickname "the Napoleon of the bar" for his courtroom machinations. 

In the new book, The Bourbon King, Bob Batchelor wanted to build an empire on hooch because he had a "relentless addiction to success" and a younger, second-wife, Imogene, to keep happy.

While working as an attorney, Remus took on bootleggers as clients, but had an epiphany when he realized how much cash they had, as shown by the fact they paid their fines with $100 bills. He thought, if these low-level fools could make that kind of money, someone like him could make millions - and he was right.

"Throughout Cincinnati, Kentucky, and Indiana, brewery and distillery owners turned off the lights. Many Kentucky distillers - proud men whose families had been in the bourbon business for generations - panicked when Prohibition took hold. The Anti-Saloon League, headed by Wayne B. Wheeler, had used the strength of its organization as a voting bloc to strong-arm politicians into declaring alcohol illegal nationwide.
"For these proud owners and the many thousands of people who worked for them, producing unsellable beer, whiskey, or any other kind of distilled spirit was a total loss. Hundreds of millions of dollars of alcohol and infrastructure were basically useless.
"Americans, though, proved to have an insatiable thirst once Prohibition went into effect. As the economy ticked northward, people found the money for illegal booze, even if it meant that they paid a substantial markup. Remus knew that this was where the real profits could be had. Going directly to the owners and indirectly to through a team of attorneys, Remus began asking around to see which distilleries could be procured. He found plenty of sellers. The whiskey men were desperate. Prohibition was a part of the Constitution; they thought it would be the law of the land forever. America had just made them public enemy number one.
"The distillery owners might as well light their businesses on fire. A lightning strike or some other real or manufactured Act of God would at least bring in insurance money.
"Or, Remus and his gang would be their saving grace. The chaos that developed in the uncertainty regarding illegal liquor gave George the opening he needed.
"'In most instances I would pay cash,' he explained. 'I would pay down $25,000 or $50,000 and pay the balance in  30 or 60 days thereafter.'
"Remus purchased a hose of distilleries outright, estimating 'about eight, I owned as an individual, solely and entirely.'
"There were also some three to six more plants or warehouses that he bought up secretly, owning one-third to one-half interests in the operations. George acquired distilleries so quickly that he might not have known the actual figure. The Remus empire stretched into over eight states. He dropped the cash and put a team of attorneys to work to iron out the details. Like famed prospector George Hearst, one of America's first venture capitalists, Remus wanted the product. He yearned for the bourbon stored in those factories.
"Americans responded to the bootleg efforts, sucking down all the booze he could tender. Although probably not realizing its full extent, by mid-1921, Remus's network supplied most of the bootleg whiskey across the entire Midwest and East Coast. Millions of bottles were leaving his distilleries and making it into the glasses of thirsty Americans, who seemed to have an insatiable desire to drink as the decade began to roar."

The Remuses lived it up, as they spent $125,000 for an indoor pool in their Price Hill mansion, lined with ceramic tile from Rockwood Pottery, the studio that launched the art pottery movement in the United States in the 1880s. The public debut was New Year's Eve 1921, with hundreds of guests and tons of booze, which was illegal.

Imogene delighted the crowd with a diving exhibition, and George jumped in the pool at midnight in his tuxedo. If this sounds like something out of The Great Gatsby, it certainly is, as F. Scott Fitzgerald was aware of Remus' headline-grabbing extravagance. 

By some estimates, Remus' operation bought in $200 million, which equates to somewhere between $3 billion and $16 billion in today's dollars.

This story, like so many others from that time, did not have a happy ending, as Remus suspected Imogene of betraying him and shot her to death with a pearl-handled pistol in the ironically-named Eden Park.

The trial was covered by major press from coast to coast, and the verdict was: not guilty on the grounds of insanity, which was not a shock considering he was quite eccentric. 

The story, as told in the wonderfully researched and entertaining The Bourbon King, was one for the ages. 

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