George Remus (November 14, 1874 – January 20, 1952) was an American lawyer and bootlegger during the Prohibition era. Remus was known to have referred to himself in the third person after his rise to power during the early days of Prohibition, which he reportedly continued to do until his death. It has been claimed that he was the inspiration for the title character Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Remus was born in Berlin, Germany in 1874 to Frank and Maria Remus. Remus' family moved to Chicago by the time he was 5. At age 14, George supported the family by working at his uncle's pharmacy because Remus' father was unable to work. Remus became a certified pharmacist at 19 years old after graduating from the Chicago College of Pharmacy and bought the pharmacy at age 21.
Within five years, Remus expanded, buying another drugstore. Remus soon tired of the pharmacy business and by 24, he had become a lawyer.
Remus attended the Illinois College of Law (later merged with DePaul University College of Law) and was admitted to the Illinois Bar in 1904. Remus specialized in criminal defense, especially murder, and became rather famous. By 1920, Remus was earning $50,000 a year (approximately $611,000 today), a vast sum at the time.
Alcohol Prohibition began on January 17, 1920 with ratification of the 18th Amendment, and within a few months Remus saw that his criminal clients were becoming very wealthy very quickly. He decided to become a criminal himself, using his knowledge of the law to escape punishment.
Remus memorized the Volstead Act and found loopholes whereby he could buy distilleries and pharmacies to sell "bonded" liquor to himself under government licenses for medicinal purposes. Remus's employees would then hijack his own liquor so that he could sell it illegally. Remus moved to Cincinnati, in the region of the country where 80 percent of America's bonded whiskey was located, and bought up most of the whiskey manufacturers. In less than three years Remus made $40 million with the help of his trusted number two man George Conners. Remus owned many of America's most famous distilleries, including the Fleischmann Distillery, which Remus bought for $197,000, a price which included 3,100 gallons of whiskey.
In addition to serving the Cincinnati community, many other small towns, such as Newport, Kentucky, began serving as drinking towns where gamblers opened small casinos to entertain their drunken patrons.
One of Remus' fortified distilleries was the Death Valley Farm, which he purchased from George Gehrum. The outside world thought it was only accessible by dirt road. The actual distillery was located at 2656 Queen City Ave. The alcohol was distilled in the attic of the home then dumb-waitered below. The basement was where a trap door was located and a tunnel approximately fifty to 100 feet long and six feet under the earth. The bootleggers would push the products along the tunnel out to a waiting car, usually making it safely away. It is believed to be one of the only locations never busted in the Cincinnati area. In 1920, a raid by hijackers took place, but Remus' armed guards, led by John Gehrum, fired heavy volleys at the hijackers and, after a short fight, the wounded attackers left.
In addition to becoming the "King of the Bootleggers", Remus was known as a gracious host. He held many parties, including a 1923 birthday party for his wife Imogene in which she appeared in a daring bathing suit along with other aquatic dancers, serenaded by a fifteen-piece orchestra. Children in the area also saw Remus as a fatherly figure. Jack Doll recalls an episode in which Remus playfully tossed a boy into his Olympic-sized swimming pool and then gave him $10 to buy a new suit. Doll states that a full boy's suit could be purchased for one dollar in 1920.
Remus and his wife held a New Year's Eve party at their new mansion, nicknamed the Marble Palace, in 1922. The guests included one hundred couples from the most prestigious families in the area. As parting gifts, Remus presented all the men with diamond stickpins, and gave each guest's wife a brand new car. Remus held a similar party in June 1923, during his problems with the government, when he gave each female guest (of the fifty present) a brand new Pontiac.
On July 20, 1899, Remus married Lillian Klauff. Their daughter, born in 1900, was Romola Remus, who became a child actress in silent films, playing cinema's first Dorothy Gale in the 1910 version of The Wizard of Oz when she was eight years old. The marriage ended in divorce in 1920 after Remus began an affair with his legal secretary, Augusta Imogene Holmes (née Brown). Holmes was a young divorcée with a young daughter, Ruth. Remus and Holmes were married in Newport, Kentucky in June 1920.
In 1925, Remus' plan to use his legal knowledge to evade the law went awry. He was indicted for thousands of violations of the Volstead Act, convicted by a jury that made its decision in under two hours, and given a two-year federal prison sentence. He spent two years in Atlanta Federal Penitentiary for bootlegging. While he was in prison, Remus befriended another inmate and eventually confided in him that his wife, Imogene Holmes, had control over his money. The inmate was an undercover prohibition agent Franklin Dodge, who was there to gather information of that sort. Instead of reporting the information, Dodge resigned his job and began an affair with Remus' wife. Dodge and Holmes liquidated Remus' assets and hid as much of the money as possible, in addition to attempting to deport Remus, and even hiring a hit man to murder Remus for $15,000. In addition, Remus's Fleischmann Distillery was sold by Holmes. Remus' wife gave her imprisoned husband only $100 of the multimillion-dollar empire he created.
In late 1927, Imogene Holmes filed for divorce from Remus. On the way to court, on October 6, 1927, for the finalization of the divorce, Remus had his driver chase the cab carrying Holmes and her daughter through Eden Park in Cincinnati, finally forcing it off the road. Remus jumped out and fatally shot Imogene in the abdomen in front of the Spring House Gazebo to the horror of park onlookers.
The prosecutor in the case was 30-year-old Charles Phelps Taft II, son of Chief Justice of the United States and former President William Howard Taft and brother of the future Senator Robert A. Taft. Although he had lost his last big case against another bootlegger, Taft was seen as a man with a bright political future. The trial made national headlines for a month, as Remus defended himself on the murder charge. Remus pleaded temporary insanity, and the jury deliberated only nineteen minutes before acquitting him. The State of Ohio then tried to commit Remus to an insane asylum since the jury found him insane, but prosecutors were thwarted by their previous claim (backed up by the prosecution's three well-known psychiatrists) that he could be tried for murder because he was not insane.
George Remus later moved to Covington, Kentucky (across the Ohio River from Cincinnati) where he lived out the next twenty years of his life modestly without incident. He married for a third and final time to his long time secretary Blanche Watson. Remus ran a small contracting firm, Washington Contracting, until he suffered a stroke in August 1950. For the next two years, he lived in boarding house in Covington under the care of a nurse. Remus died on January 20, 1952 at the age of 77. He is buried beside his third wife at Riverside Cemetery in Falmouth, Kentucky.
Remus is the subject of Craig Holden’s, The Jazz Bird A Novel, Simon & Schuster, June 2008
Remus was featured in the 2011 Ken Burns documentary, Prohibition; texts written by Remus were read by Paul Giamatti. Remus has also been portrayed by Glenn Fleshler as a supporting character on HBO's Prohibition-era series Boardwalk Empire beginning in its second season. In this series, he is portrayed as having the quirk of referring to himself in the third person.
In 2014, Queen City Whiskey started producing small batch bourbon and rye whiskeys named after George Remus. The whiskey was distilled locally and was being introduced in liquor stores and select bars throughout the Cincinnati region.