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Aug 30, 2019

(August 24, 2019) In the early years of Prohibition, nearly 35 percent of all of the illegal liquor in the country was controlled by a teetotaler, a lawyer-turned-entrepreneur who owned a chain of distilleries and pharmacies across nine states.

Known as the "Bootleg King" during the early 1920s, George Remus was based in Cincinnati but had several connections to Indiana, including one of his top revenue sources, the Squibb distillery in Lawrenceburg on the Ohio River.

Many of his rum-runners came from Indiana and stayed at "Death Valley," his heavily-guarded farm just west of Cincinnati that served as a storage area for his vast quantities of alcohol.

The posh Claypool Hotel in downtown Indianapolis was one of the favorite lodging spots for Remus and his glamorous wife, Imogene.

The Claypool also was where, in the middle of the night, Remus tracked down Imogene when she was staying at the hotel with a car salesman. Remus, in a jealous rage, nearly beat the salesman to death in the elegant hotel.

The social history, national impact and Indiana connections of the colorful "Bootleg King" is the focus of our show, with New York-based author Karen Abbott joining Nelson by phone. Abbott (as she prefers to be called), is the author of The Ghosts of Eden Park (Crown Publishing), a new book about Remus, his lavish lifestyle and his crimes.

Abbott shared insights about Remus and the era of Prohibition during a presentation at the Indiana History Center.

Abbott noted that a courthouse in Indianapolis was the setting for one of his federal trials; in 1925, he was accused of crimes associated with a Jack Daniels distillery.

During the trial, Remus stayed at the lavish Claypool, which, with its rival, the Hotel Lincoln, was the focus of a Hoosier History Live show in March

According to Abbott, Remus probably was the inspiration for the fictional character of Jay Gatsby, the central figure in The Great Gatsby, the classic novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald published in 1925. Like Gatsby, Remus owned a string of pharmacies, lived in an opulent mansion and, as Abbott puts it, "was obsessed with an enigmatic woman."

Karen AbbottRemus, the son of impoverished German immigrants, came to the United States as a child in the 1870s. Because his father was an alcoholic, Remus vowed as a boy that he would never "drink a drop" of liquor, according to The Ghosts of Eden Park.

Although he stuck to that vow on a personal level, he oversaw a bootleg operation based in Cincinnati that was so massive he had 3,000 people on his payroll and a fleet of 147 trucks.

His chief adversary was Mabel Walker Willebrandt, the assistant attorney general for the U.S. Department of Justice based in Washington DC. According to our guest Karen Abbott, Willebrandt was "the most powerful woman in the country" during the early 1920s and was in charge of thousands of alcohol-related cases during Prohibition. 

Her challenges in bringing Remus to justice included his bribes to federal agents and what Abbott describes as his "cozy relationships" with top federal administrators, including Willebrandt's coworkers and supervisors.