Price Hill’s own George Remus, “another Gatsby,” as he was remembered in his obituary, was one of the subjects of the second part of Prohibition, the Ken Burns documentary airing on PBS this week. The episode, titled “A Nation of Scofflaws,” aired on Monday, October 3, 2011, and told the story of Remus’s rise to become the so-called King of the Bootleggers. Remus was a successful criminal lawyer in Chicago when he began to notice that the bootleggers he was defending as the Eighteenth Amendment put Prohibition into effect were making quite a lot more money than he was. Remus moved to Cincinnati to take advantage of the loopholes he found in the Volstead Act because Cincinnati was within 300 miles of enough distilleries to allow Remus to supply the entire eastern half of the country with illegal liquor.
In two separate parts of the episode, Remus’s career in bootlegging was outlined in the Ken Burns production. First, his methods were examined: unlike the Chicago gangsters who controlled the flow of bootleg whiskey, Remus used his brains and a great deal of money, rather brawn and guns, to make his operation run smoothly. He paid bribes to everyone from the neighborhood cop on the beat to Jesse Smith, the right-hand man of the Harding administration’s attorney general, Harry M. Daughterty. That method worked well until he came up against someone he couldn’t bribe, a woman named Mabel Walker Willebrandt.
Remus went to jail, and the Burns documentary moved on to other bootleggers, but then came back around to the story that made Remus even more famous. When he returned from prison, he found that his wife Imogene had, in collusion with a federal agent who worked for Willebrandt’s department, stripped his assets, sold all the furniture and fixtures in his mansion, and even sold the distilleries that were supplying his operation with whiskey “for medicinal purposes.” In a rage, Remus shot his wife in Cincinnati’s Eden Park, then turned himself in and eventually was successful in defending himself in his murder trial, in which he was found not guilty by reason of insanity—the first time an insanity defense was used successfully in an American murder trial.
The “Nation of Scofflaws” episode of Prohibition did a good job of condensing the story of George Remus and his place in the history of bootlegging—and jurisprudence—in American history. But there’s much more to the story that is known in Price Hill. For more on the life and legend of George Remus, take a look at the following articles.
Price Hill’s Gatsby—Jazz Age bootlegger George Remus
Local historical societies feature exhibit, book about bootlegger George Remus
Remus book signing at Price Hill Historical Society Wednesday, October 5