NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • The epic true crime story of the most successful bootlegger in American history and the murder that shocked the nation, from the New York Times bestselling author of Sin in the Second City and Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy
“Gatsby-era noir at its best.”—Erik Larson
An ID Book Club Selection • NAMED ONE OF THE TEN BEST HISTORY BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY SMITHSONIAN
In the early days of Prohibition, long before Al Capone became a household name, a German immigrant named George Remus quits practicing law and starts trafficking whiskey. Within two years he''s a multi-millionaire. The press calls him "King of the Bootleggers," writing breathless stories about the Gatsby-esque events he and his glamorous second wife, Imogene, host at their Cincinnati mansion, with party favors ranging from diamond jewelry for the men to brand-new cars for the women. By the summer of 1921, Remus owns 35 percent of all the liquor in the United States.
Pioneering prosecutor Mabel Walker Willebrandt is determined to bring him down. Willebrandt''s bosses at the Justice Department hired her right out of law school, assuming she''d pose no real threat to the cozy relationship they maintain with Remus. Eager to prove them wrong, she dispatches her best investigator, Franklin Dodge, to look into his empire. It''s a decision with deadly consequences. With the fledgling FBI on the case, Remus is quickly imprisoned for violating the Volstead Act. Her husband behind bars, Imogene begins an affair with Dodge. Together, they plot to ruin Remus, sparking a bitter feud that soon reaches the highest levels of government--and that can only end in murder.
Combining deep historical research with novelistic flair,
The Ghosts of Eden Park is the unforgettable, stranger-than-fiction story of a rags-to-riches entrepreneur and a long-forgotten heroine, of the excesses and absurdities of the Jazz Age, and of the infinite human capacity to deceive.
Praise for The Ghosts of Eden Park
“An exhaustively researched, hugely entertaining work of popular history that . . . exhumes a colorful crew of once-celebrated characters and restores them to full-blooded life. . . . [Abbott’s] métier is narrative nonfiction and—as this vibrant, enormously readable book makes clear—she is one of the masters of the art.”
—The Wall Street Journal
“Satisfyingly sensational and thoroughly researched.”
—The Columbus Dispatch
“Absorbing . . . a Prohibition-era page-turner.”
One of the most deliciously disturbing things about BBC America’s hit TV dramedy
Killing Eve is that you just can’t help but like psychopathic serial killer, Villanelle. Sure, she’s ruthless, but charismatically so, and she’s a snappy dresser to boot. The same could be said for real-life “King of the Bootleggers,” George Remus. Karen Abbott’s compulsively readable
The Ghosts of Eden Park provides a riveting portrait of this eccentric and teetotaling whiskey trafficker who, shamelessly flouting Prohibition laws, once amassed an alcohol arsenal that was 35 percent of the U.S.’s total supply. The unlawful sale of that booze brought Remus enormous wealth, and he, along with his wife, Imogen, enjoyed a lifestyle that would make Jay Gatsby jealous. But a pioneering female prosecutor—only the second woman appointed to Assistant Attorney General—would put a cork in the fun, landing Remus in prison (where he whiled away his sentence in private quarters and secured the services of a maid and cook). During this time his beloved Imogen, in cahoots with a crooked Department of Justice agent, absconded with his spoils, causing the already tightly wound trafficker to snap.
The Ghosts of Eden Park is a rollicking read, and a different kind of guilty pleasure: you might find yourself rooting for Remus at times, until you remember his very real brutality and the different set of rules that benefited him (and others) as a person of means, and stature, and a certain celebrity. It’s also what makes this almost century-old true crime tale seem quite current.
—Erin Kodicek, Amazon Book Review
“Few authors write as colorfully and compellingly about the past as Karen Abbott, particularly when bad behavior is involved. In
The Ghosts of Eden Park, we meet the audacious, larger-than-life ‘King of the Bootleggers,’ George Remus, and the equally fascinating women who will seal his fate. Sex and greed, corruption and revenge, oceans of illegal booze—Abbott’s action-packed, riveting tale has it all.”
—Paula McLain, New York Times bestselling author of The Paris Wife and Love and Ruin
“Karen Abbott has long shown a formidable talent for rescuing Gothic stories from the noirish margins of American history. In
The Ghosts of Eden Park, she''s done it once again. Here is a high-proof narrative from the Age of Excess, populated with real-life gangsters and flapper girls, but also with plenty of surprising characters who cut against type. This Prohibition-era tale of trapdoors and false bottoms, of wicked pleasures and brilliant deceptions, springs to life on the page—and has Hollywood written all over it.”
—Hampton Sides, New York Times bestselling author of In the Kingdom of Ice
“A gripping true-crime narrative . . . [Abbott’s] research is exemplary, and she lays out the details with a novelist’s deft touch. [F. Scott Fitzgerald] would undoubtedly have appreciated this heady cocktail of murder, intrigue and Jazz Age excess.”
—The Washington Post
“Karen Abbott tells the story of Remus’ rise and fall with a novelist’s eye. . . . I was transfixed, not only by the incredible research that informed this compulsively readable book but also by what the story reveals about human nature, the interplay of brilliant and unpredictable individuals and the societies in which they live, and the way that greed, fame and lust can [corrupt]—and have [corrupted—] the motives of both lovers and enemies. If you are a fan of true crime, historical nonfiction and the Jazz Age, this is not a book to miss.”
—BookPage (starred review)
“Karen Abbott''s newest is a page-turner, teasing readers with its central mystery, and reaching its climactic final trial with a satisfying bang.”
“Engrossing . . . This real-life page-turner will appeal to fans of Erik Larson.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Abbott continues her inquiry into sensational yet forgotten women’s lives in this riveting combination of social history and true crime. . . . Smart and delectable [and] generating lots of buzz.”
“A spirited history . . . Abbott recounts in tense, vivid detail Remus’s entanglement in intrigue, betrayal, madness, and violence. An entertaining tale ripped from the headlines of Jazz Age America.”
All the Rope He Wants
The house seemed out of a Bavarian fairy tale, rambling and turreted, laced with gingerbread cornicing and columns arched like sharp, imperious brows. It was the finest house in Price Hill, the finest neighborhood in Cincinnati, perched high above the Ohio River and its basin of residents and commerce: the downtown business district, the black families in the West End, and the German immigrants in Over-the-Rhine, where Prohibition forced breweries to sell root beer in the hope of surviving the law. Already he envisioned what his “dream palace” would become. A Roman garden, a baseball field, a heated pool, a library stocked with books—presidential biographies, the epic poems of Homer and Milton, tomes of mythology and obscure science that would suggest the surprising depths of his mind. In this house he would once again become someone new, an updated and superior version of himself. In this house the world would come to know his name.
George Remus would be forty-four years old that November of 1920, and had spent the first half of his life gathering momentum for the second. He was the embodiment of the new decade, a harbinger of its grandest excesses and darkest illusions. He endeavored to become the best in the country at his chosen profession—a profession that could not have flourished so dramatically in any other era, nor become so swiftly obsolete. As America reinvented itself Remus would do the same, living in rabid service to his own creation, protecting it at all costs.
The primary facet of this creation, the fulcrum that would allow him to pivot and rise, was Augusta Imogene Remus, formerly Augusta Imogene Holmes. Imogene, as she preferred, was thirty-five, with dark hair and eyes and a voluptuous figure better suited to the bustles and billowing sleeves of decades past. They’d met five years earlier at his office in downtown Chicago, where Remus had been one of the city’s preeminent defense attorneys and Imogene a “dust girl,” sweeping the floors and tidying his desk.
She’d confided in him about her divorce, which plodded along painfully for years, as she and her husband separated ten times before finally going to court. Remus could commiserate. He, too, had suffered marital strife. Lillian—his wife and the mother of his teenaged daughter, Romola—once filed for divorce charging “cruelty,” “pure malice,” and a habit of “coming home early in the morning.” Lillian subsequently wished to reconcile, but their union remained tenuous.
Imogene saw her chance.
Remus accepted her as a client and promptly fell in love. Hoping to spark reciprocal feelings he told Imogene everything, sharing long-buried tales of his past, the quirks and compulsions that shaped him now. He recounted his first memory: the journey from Germany to Ellis Island in 1883, when he was six years old, traveling with two sisters and a mother so beleaguered she forgot the names of four other children who’d died. In America they reunited with Remus’s father, Franz (Anglicized to Frank) and settled in Chicago. Remus remembered his father coming home drunk from the corner saloon and evolving, week by week, into a “mean” and “abusive” alcoholic, and vowed that he himself would never drink a drop of alcohol.
When Frank developed rheumatism and could no longer work, Remus quit the eighth grade to take a job at his uncle’s pharmacy on the city’s West Side, earning $5 per week. As his father’s rages worsened Remus moved into the pharmacy, sleeping on a cot in the stock room, going for months at a time without seeing his parents and siblings. He called himself a “druggist’s devil boy,” and in this role experienced a shrewd and useful revelation: He could sell anything to anyone under any circumstance, no matter how outrageous his claims or unorthodox his delivery.
He bought the drug store from his uncle, and during his years in the business he peddled all manner of dubious concoctions: Remus’s Cathartic Compound, Remus’s Cathartic Pills, a Remus “complexion remedy” containing mercury, Remus’s Lydia Pinkham Compound (presumably Lydia’s own legendary cocktail, for the relief of menstrual pain, wasn’t sufficiently potent), and his specialty, Remus’s Nerve Tonic, consisting of fluid extract of celery, sodium bromide, rhubarb and a dash of a poisonous, hallucinogenic plant called henbane. Although he’d never finished his courses at the Chicago College of Pharmacy, he convinced his customers to call him “Doctor Remus.”
When he switched careers to law he brought this salesmanship to his practice, employing theatrics that became a vital component of his success. Poignant episodes from history dramatized Remus’s closing arguments; one judge was moved to tears by his description of Abraham Lincoln’s stint as a bartender. He used the courtroom as an arena, leaping and pacing and prowling the length of the jury box. During the cross-examination of his clients he tore at his remaining rim of hair, sobbing and howling with abandon. Detractors derided him with a nickname, “The Weeping, Crying Remus,” but admirers coined one of their own: “The Napoleon of the Chicago Bar.”
In one famous case, Remus defended a husband accused of poisoning his wife. Throughout the trial he kept the poison in question on his table, in full view of the jury. During his closing argument Remus raised the bottle aloft and swiped it slowly across the air, so that the jury got a clear look of the skull and crossbones on its label.
“There has been a lot of talk of poison in this case,” he said. “But it is a lot of piffle. Look!”
As the jury gasped, he swallowed the poison and continued with his closing argument, aware that they all expected him to drop dead. When he didn’t, the jury returned with an acquittal. Only later did Remus reveal his trick: drawing on his pharmaceutical background, he first drank an elixir that neutralized the poison.
In this same way he sold himself to Imogene Holmes. Only he could provide the level of care and attention she so obviously deserved. He would handle her divorce and she needn’t worry about his fee; in fact, she could quit her job as a dust girl and money would be no concern. He would pay the rent on her apartment in Evanston, north of Chicago, and spend more time there than he did at home with his wife. He would give Imogene allowance money, $100 checks to spend as she wished. He would rescue her from “the gutter” and “make a lady out of her.” He would adore her and be true to her. He would protect her and her 11-year-old daughter, Ruth, from all unsavory people and circumstances, a promise that was tested in the spring of 1919.
One evening, a local plumber knocked on Imogene’s door claiming he had found the girl’s watch, and wanted a $15 reward for its return. Imogene thought $5 sufficed. An argument ensued.
Remus had always enjoyed confrontation, physical or mental. His stout stature— five foot six and 205 pounds—belied his agility and strength. He boasted of his history as a competitive swimmer, and how he set an endurance record by spending nearly six hours in frigid Lake Michigan. During his stint as a pharmacist he once argued with a customer who complained that a liniment had scalded his chest; Remus dragged the man outside and settled the matter by slapping him in the face. When a group of women gathered at his drug store to protest his “poisonous potions,” Remus ran at them with a bottle of amonia and tossed its contents. As a lawyer he had a history of attacking opposing counsel, throwing punches over witness testimony and ending up in a tangle of limbs on the courtroom floor. His hubris was equaled only by a concern that someone, someday, might get the best of him.
Standing in Imogene’s doorway, Remus, wearing slippers, launched himself at the plumber, punched him in the eye, revamped his nose, knocked out a tooth and chased him onto the lawn.
The plumber pressed charges, and Remus represented himself.
“I acted in self-defense as any red-blooded man with a spark of chivalry would have acted,” he argued. “This ruffian of a plumber was disturbing a lady. He was rough housing, loud mouthed, irrelevant, and immaterial about the premises, and I only forcibly applied a perfectly good and legal writ of ejectment.”
After five minutes’ deliberation, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty.
His wife Lillian filed for divorce a second and final time. In her petition she once again accused Remus of cruelty, claiming that on several occasions he beat, punched, struck, choked, and kicked her. Remus agreed to a settlement reflective of his success: a lump sum of $50,000, $25 per week in alimony, and $30,000 in a trust for their daughter, Romola. He moved out of their home for good, allowing Imogene to defend him in the press.
“He is a perfect gentleman,” she insisted, “and anything his wife says to the contrary is false. The trouble with modern wives is this: They don’t know how to treat their husbands. A husband should be given all the rope he wants… he will never hang himself.”
It would be Lillian, however, who had the final word. She claimed to the press that Remus, on several occasions, had ended his affair with Imogene, ordering her to stay away from his office and home. But Imogene persisted, following him down Clark Street during the day and lurking outside their windows at night, flashing a gun and insisting that they were meant to be together.
With a new fiancé, home and stepdaughter-to-be, Remus once again sought to update his life, discarding any piece of his past that seemed ill-fit for his future. He included his career in this evaluation, and noticed that his docket had filled with a new type of defendant: men charged with violating the Volstead Act, recently passed to enforce the 18th Amendment, which prohibited the manufacture, sale, or transportation of alcohol to, from, or within the United States. Remus considered the law to be unreasonable and nearly impossible to enforce, and his clients were proving him right, making astonishing profits from what he called “petty, hip-pocket bootlegging.” They paid retainers in cash right away, fanning the bills across his desk, and never complained about fines imposed by the court, no matter how steep. He noticed that their customers were the “so-called best people,” whose primary gripe in life was the difficulty in getting good whiskey. It occurred to him that this demand must be spreading across the country, and that if his clients—“men without any brains at all”—were succeeding, then he himself had “a chance to clean up.”
Seeking to launch a large-scale operation he scoured the Volstead Act, finding a loophole in Title II, Section 6: With a physician’s prescription, it was legal to buy and use liquor for “medicinal purposes”—a provision he deemed, in a customary flourish of language, “the greatest comedy, the greatest perversion of justice, that I have ever known of in any civilized country in the world.” A plan took shape in his mind. As a licensed pharmacist, he had the knowledge necessary to exploit the law on a national scale. As a criminal defense attorney, he understood well the mindset and machinations of the underworld. As a lifelong teetotaler, he could view the liquor business objectively. And as risk-taker, he craved the thrill and excitement of outwitting not only his competitors but also the federal government.
He devised his strategy, each step meticulously considered and potential hazards addressed:
• Close his Chicago law practice and move to Cincinnati, since 80 percent of the country’s pre-Prohibition bonded whiskey was stored within 300 miles of the city.
• Buy distilleries to gain possession of thousands of gallons of that whiskey.
• Acquire wholesale drug companies, always listing someone else as the owner.
• Under the guise of these drug companies, obtain withdrawal permits that would allow him to remove whiskey from his warehouses and, in theory, sell it on the medicinal market.
• Bribe state Prohibition directors to ignore abnormally large withdrawals.
• Organize a transportation company to provide for distribution, and arrange for his own employees to hijack his own trucks—thereby diverting all of that technically legal, curative whiskey into the illicit market at any price he named. He would, essentially, rob Remus to pay Remus.
He called this massive, unwieldy octopus of an enterprise “The Circle.”
Imogene had sold herself to Remus, too; she was malleable, receptive to his schemes, eager to mold herself into his ideal. She and her daughter Ruth would be his new family. She would keep his darkest secrets and uphold all of his lies. She would not tell anyone that Remus had always been terrified of ghosts. She would not divulge that his brother, Herman, had died in an insane asylum. She would not mention that Remus had never officially become an American citizen. She would never repeat the strange story behind his father’s death: Frank and Marie, Remus’s mother, had engaged in a barroom brawl, which culminated in a bash to his head with a blunt object; Frank died on the way to the hospital. To protect his mother, and to keep her from speaking indiscriminately to the coroner, Remus locked her in the attic for three days, until the inquest was over.
Remus chose to believe his past was safe with Imogene, and to entrust her with his future. En route to Cincinnati, on June 25, 1920, they stopped in Newport, Kentucky, to get married, with Ruth as their witness. Once in the Queen City he rented a suite at the Sinton Hotel, Cincinnati’s answer to New York’s Hotel Astor, featuring opera concerts, a Writing Room and a Louis XVI Candy Shop. They would live there until renovations were complete on the Price Hill mansion, which had once belonged to Henry Lackman, proprietor of a now-shuttered brewery. “We must buy the Lackman place,” Imogene had urged; it would be a monument to their new start and status, and a grandiose barrier to the past. Remus bought the home for $75,000, a record for a residential sale in Cincinnati, and a fraction of the amount he’d stashed in a local bank under an alias.
As a surprise for his new bride he put the deed in Imogene’s name, one of many decisions he’d come to regret.