Remus, it seems, literally had money to burn. He was 44 years old and “had spent the first half of his life gathering momentum for the second,” first as a licensed pharmacist and then as a criminal-defense attorney. His training and professional experience left him uniquely well-positioned to exploit a loophole in the Volstead Act, ratified in January 1920, which prohibited the manufacture, sale or transportation of alcohol to, from or within the United States. As Prohibition took hold, Remus found himself defending a number of small-time bootleggers, who appeared to be making a killing with very little effort.
“A plan took shape in his mind,” Abbott explains. With a physician’s prescription, Remus discovered, it was legal to buy liquor for “medicinal purposes.” Accordingly, he set up shop in Cincinnati, within easy reach of the warehouses where much of the country’s pre-Prohibition whiskey was stored. Next, he acquired thousands of gallons of this high-quality liquor through a network of distilleries and wholesale drug companies under his control. He even arranged to hijack his own trucks, “thereby diverting all of that technically legal, curative whiskey into the illicit market,” where it could be sold at an enormous profit. Prohibition officials were bribed accordingly, and soon Remus could boast that he had greased the palms of “everyone and his brother” in Washington. “He called this massive octopus of an enterprise ‘the Circle,’ ” Abbott writes. “Within the year, Remus would own 35 percent of all the liquor in the United States.”
At the center of this elaborate Circle, “the fulcrum that would allow him to pivot and rise” was Remus’s wife, Imogene. A few years earlier she was a “dust girl,” sweeping the floors of Remus’s downtown Chicago law office. She was the “kind of woman who made you think of Turkish harems,” a friend said of her. “Her every glance seemed a caress.” Having succumbed to her charms, Remus insisted that she become his partner in every sense. He dubbed her the “Prime Minister” of his operations and placed many of his assets, including the mansion, in her name. He came to regret the decision, as Abbott relates, especially after Imogene began a dalliance with Franklin Dodge, one of the Prohibition agents assigned to investigate Remus’s operations.
The affair sent Remus into a paranoid spiral. “He rambled incessantly about love and betrayal and revenge,” and the manner in which Imogene “had razed his world to the ground.” Soon, as Imogene initiated divorce proceedings, the aggrieved Remus decided to settle the matter with a pearl-handled revolver, shooting his errant wife in Cincinnati’s Eden Park while his 19-year-old stepdaughter looked on in horror. This done, he calmly made his way to the central police station to turn himself in. “This is the first peace I have had in two years and a half,” he announced.
Abbott, whose previous books include “Sin in the Second City” and “Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy,” crafts a gripping narrative from this previously obscure chapter in the “noble experiment” of Prohibition. Her research is exemplary, and she lays out the details with a novelist’s deft touch. She makes particularly good use of trial transcripts during a riveting courtroom sequence. Remus, serving as his own counsel, finds a strange purchase on legal history as “the first person to act as his own attorney after pleading insanity.”
Understandably, Abbott puts most of her focus on Remus and his star-crossed marriage, but she also gives a bracing portrait of Mabel Walker Willebrandt, “the most powerful woman in the country” at the time. As the assistant attorney general of the United States, Willebrandt had the unenviable job of attempting to enforce the Volstead Act, a task made nearly impossible by widespread corruption and political machinations. “The dominant reality,” Willebrandt wrote, “is that the whole problem is one of getting the right men in places of power in enforcement — men of creative thought, of courage, those not slaves to political ambition. And by men I also mean women — lots of them.” Abbott makes canny use of Willebrandt’s quiet, steady resolve as a counterpoint to the wild extremes of Remus and his chaotic empire. “If Mabel had worn trousers,” one admirer remarked, “she could have been president.”
During the Prohibition era, wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald, “America was going on the greatest, gaudiest spree in history and there was going to be plenty to tell about it.” He would undoubtedly have appreciated this heady cocktail of murder, intrigue and Jazz Age excess.
The Ghosts of Eden Park
The Bootleg King, the Women Who Pursued Him, and the Murder That Shocked Jazz-Age America
By Karen Abbott
Crown. 405 pp. $28