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George Remus - a Prohibition Saga

Summarized by Bob Ramsey

The story of George Remus is fascinating in its own right, emcompassing love, jealousy, crime, enormous wealth, retribution, murder, and courtroom drama. It also shows very clearly how prohibition warps society with irresistible incentives.

This version of the story is excerpted from THE LONG THIRST- PROHIBITION IN AMERICA: 1920-1933 by Thomas M. Coffey WW Norton & Co, New York City 1975


George Remus was born in Germany in 1876 and migrated to Chicago at the age of 5.

His father was incapacitated when he was 14 and George supported the family by working at a pharmacy, which he bought at age 19. Within 5 more years, he bought another drugstore, married, and had a daughter. He became a lawyer in 1900, at age 24.

He specialized in criminal defense, especially murder, and became rather famous. By 1920 he was earning $50,000 a year (when gold was $20 per ounce). He divorced after developing an ongoing affair with his beautiful and ambitious secretary (Imogene), who had a 13 year-old daughter (Ruth). Alcohol Prohibition started in January 1920, and within a few months Remus saw that his clients, a generally crude and ignorant lot, were becoming very wealthy very quickly. He was sure he could do better than them with his intelligence and knowledge of the law.

He memorized the Volstead Act (that enforced prohibition) and found loopholes whereby he could buy distilleries and pharmacies so as to sell liquor to himself under government licenses for medicinal purposes. Most of the liquor would disappear on the way to market. He moved to Cincinnati because 80 percent of America's bonded whiskey was within 300 miles, and bought up most of America's best-known whiskey manufacturers.

In less than three years he made $40 million ($760M in 1995 dollars). He bribed hundreds of police, judges, and government officials including $500,000 to the U.S. Attorney General.

George and Imogene held a lavish party at their new mansion on New Year's Eve of 1922-23. The guests included 100 couples who were as well-connected as one could imagine. At dawn the Remus's presented all their male guests with diamond jewelry, and gave each guest's wife a brand new automobile for the drive home. This was the high point.

Prohibition enforcement stepped up shortly and Remus found himself sentenced to two years in Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, which was (for rich inmates) much like a luxury hotel.

While Remus was in prison, his wife Imogene took up with an extremely handsome prohibition agent named Franklin Dodge. Dodge soon resigned from the Bureau of Prohibition. Together, he and Imogene liquidated Remus' assets and hid as much of the money as possible. They did various unkind things to him such as:

Imogene proceeded to divorce him in late 1927. On the day the divorce was to be finalized, on the way to court Remus had his chauffeur chase the cab carrying Imogene and her daughter through Cincinnati, finally forcing it off the road. Remus jumped out screaming and shot her dead while her daughter tried to stop him.

Remus the expert criminal defender was now on trial for his life. The trial made national headlines for a month, sharing front pages with Lindbergh's flight to Paris. Remus pleaded temporary insanity, a novel approach at the time.

Having long been the most generous man in town, he was very popular in Cincinnati, and he so successfully vilified Imogene and her boyfriend Dodge that the jury deliberated only 19 minutes before acquitting him by reason of insanity. The courtroom erupted in shamefully exuberant jubilation.

The state of Ohio then tried to commit him 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 was not insane.

Remus tried to get back into bootlegging, but soon retired when he found that the market had been taken over by vicious, well-armed gangsters. He moved across the Ohio river to a (relatively) modest home in Covington, Kentucky, and lived out his life for another 20-odd years in relative obscurity.

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