Who Was George Remus? Prohibition’s Infamous Bootlegger

Last Updated: October 25th, 2023 by Kerry Wisby (Teacher-BA English Literature, 1920s & Great Gatsby Expert)

If you’ve never heard of George Remus, grab your beverage of choice and sit down. The story I am about to tell you is as juicy as any Hollywood blockbuster!

King of the Bootleggers, The Biography of George Remus
King of the Bootleggers, The Biography of George Remus by elycefeliz

Some call Remus the King of the Bootleggers and with good reason. Not only did Remus amass a fortune while owning pharmacies, but he may also have been the creator of the “insanity” defense.

I know, you’re shaking your head asking how can this be, but I am a firm believer in truth being stranger than fiction.

If you thought Al Capone was a larger-than-life figure, you’re about to be shocked right out of your seat.

Who Was George Remus?

Born in Germany in 1876, Remus came to the US with his family when he was only 3 years old. The family settled down in Chicago, along with several other family members, including an uncle who owned a pharmacy.

old black and white photo of George Remus
George Remus by jp_stl_mo

Remus was only 14 when his father became incapable of working due to his alcoholism. Remus had to drop out of school and go to work for his uncle’s pharmacy.

Remus realized that he needed more education if he wanted to be successful, so he began attending pharmacy school at night. George obtained his pharmacist’s license at only 19 years of age.

He was successful alright. After a couple of years, he bought his uncle’s pharmacy. Then he bought a couple more. He earned his optometry degree and began selling eyeglasses.

As if this weren’t enough, Remus returned to night school, but this time he studied law. He completed the 3-year program in only 18 months. In 1900, at the ripe age of 24, Remus also earned his law degree.

In 1900, Remus began working as a criminal defense attorney, raking in an almost unbelievable half million dollars a year in today’s money.

When Prohibition began in 1920, Remus quickly found himself defending bootleggers. Remus watched as these gangsters would pull out huge amounts of cash and pay both him and their fine without a second thought.

Remus decided that he had to get in on this action but how?

Did Remus Find a Loophole in the Prohibition Law?

You bet he did.

When prohibition went into effect, untold hundreds of thousands of gallons of liquor sat in warehouses.

The Volstead Act also allowed for the manufacture of “medicinal” alcohol. Cough syrup, for example, was often sold containing alcohol and other ingredients.

The “King of the Bootleggers” and a Loophole in the Volstead Act

Because of his pharmacy business, Remus obtained a license to buy and sell large quantities of medicinal alcohol. Not only did Remus buy alcohol from warehouses, but he also began to manufacture alcohol in his pharmacies. He would leave some in the pharmacies for legitimate medical purposes, but the remainder he turned into gin and sold to speakeasies.

Since Chicago was already controlled by gangsters such as Al Capone, Remus sought out other locations and settled in Cincinnati, Ohio. Remus left Chicago, his wife Lillian, and their daughter behind.

George built his own distillery and began his own trucking company. With his connections in Washington D.C., George could buy and sell huge quantities of alcohol without arousing any suspicion.

How Did George Remus Get Caught?

George Remus quickly became enormously rich. During the first quarter of 1921, Remus deposited the equivalent of $33 million in today’s money in a single bank.

Remus also found love again with a young woman named Augusta Imogene Brown Holmes, known simply as Imogene Holmes.

The Prohibition Bureau became very suspicious. I suppose they asked themselves why the pharmacy business was suddenly selling so much alcohol.

handcuffed man behind bars

The Bureau bugged his hotel suite and heard a conversation Remus had with 44 of his associates. All of the associates were on his payroll, and the Bureau was shocked to find that there were politicians, federal marshals, and even Prohibition agents at this meeting!

Remus believed that he had bought protection from federal prosecution since he had bribed a high official within the Department of Justice.

It didn’t work. Remus was arrested in late 1921. By then he had complete control of all liquor sales in 9 states and employed more than 3,000 people.

He was indicted on 3,000 counts of violating the Volstead Act. Although he fought his conviction for two years, Remus was sentenced to 2 years in prison.

It’s interesting to note that, because of his father’s alcoholism, Remus wouldn’t touch alcohol.

Did Remus Get to Enjoy His Money?

Oh, you bet he did!

George was making more money than he knew what to do with. He purchased a huge mansion he called The Marble Palace. He would host extravagant parties that offered gallons of free liquor for his guests.

gangster counting money

Like many bootleggers, George liked to dress sharp and wore the finest 1920s suits money could buy.

Perhaps his most infamous party was his New Year’s Eve party on December 31st, 1920/1921. George gave every man who attended a diamond stick pin and every woman was given a new car to drive home in!

Remus was very generous and would hand out $100 bills to children he saw in the streets as well as give thousands of dollars to various charities.

As you might imagine, many famous people came to see Mr. Remus and enjoy a few of his parties, including a famous writer by the name of F. Scott Fitzgerald. More on him later.

What Happened to Remus While He Was in Jail?

Are you ready for things to get really juicy? Keep reading!

Remus had a cellmate in prison named Franklin Dodge. Remus let his guard down and told Dodge everything about his life, including the fact that he was concerned about his financial empire while he was in prison.

Remus told Dodge that he had left his power of attorney with his wife Imogene and that he hoped she didn’t do anything rash with their fortune.

What Remus didn’t know was that Dodge was an undercover prohibition agent. Dodge realized that he had the opportunity of a lifetime. He quickly resigned from his job and went in search of Imogene Remus.

We don’t know what Dodge may have told Imogene, probably stories about how he was her husband’s friend in jail and that Remus had told him many things. Perhaps Dodge told Imogene that Remus had been cheating on her or that when he got out of jail, Remus intended to kill her.

Whatever Dodge told Imogene, it worked. The two not only began having an affair, but they also began moving money and assets around, hiding them from Remus. They sold some of his whiskey certificates, and they spent plenty living it up.

Imogene filed for divorce and tried to have Remus deported after he was released from the Scioto county jail. When immigration refused, Dodge and Imogene hired a hitman to kill Remus. The hitman was smarter than Imogene and Dodge, however. He took the money, then went right to Remus in prison and told him about the plan.

Handcuffed male criminal in a county jail

Remus was released from prison in 1927. He was due to be in court in October for his wife’s divorce suit. Remus had his driver chase Imogene’s taxi all through Cincinnati until the vehicle finally ran off the road. Imogene tried to run away, but Remus was faster. He shot her dead in Eden Park in front of dozens of onlookers.

After killing his wife, Remus had his driver take him right to the police headquarters where he turned himself in. “I am presenting myself to the police. I just shot and killed my wife“, he told the police.

Remus was an experienced lawyer and he used a new defense called Temporary Insanity. He claimed that after discovering what his wife had done while he was imprisoned, he temporarily lost his mind and killed her.

The jury took only 19 minutes to acquit him. Remus spent a mere 7 months in an insane asylum before being released.

While prosecutors tried to keep Remus in the asylum for a longer period of time, Remus told the appeals judges, “I want peace,” he said. “So far as Mr. Dodge or anyone else is concerned, bygones are bygones.” The appeals judges, convinced that Remus was now “sane”, released him.

What happened to Dodge? Dodge wound up spending three years in prison, after being convicted of perjury in a different bootlegging case. After the Prohibition Act was repealed, he went on to work for the Michigan State Liquor Control Commission!

Was The Great Gatsby Based on George Remus?

It’s a very good possibility.

At the time, F. Scott Fitzgerald was a successful author. He spent many years living on Long Island and met some of the wealthy bootleggers of the time, including George Remus.

F. Scott Fitzgerald's famous novel, The Great Gatsby, which is narrated by Nick Carraway

Whether Remus told Fitzgerald a great deal about his life or Fitzgerald was simply taking note of newspaper stories and seeing the wealth that this “pharmacist” had obtained, we’ll never really know.

However, it seems to be fairly obvious that Jay Gatsby and George Remus have a lot in common, including:

  • They were both wealthy bootleggers who threw extravagant parties. Gatsby made his fortune through bootlegging and other illegal activities. He built a huge mansion in West Egg and threw lavish parties. Remus also made his fortune through bootlegging. He built a huge mansion in Cincinnati and threw lavish parties.
  • They were both obsessed with the past and with the idea of reinventing themselves. Gatsby was born James Gatz in North Dakota. He grew up poor and orphaned, but he always dreamed of becoming a wealthy man. He moved to New York City and changed his name to Jay Gatsby. He believed that if he could win back Daisy Buchanan, a woman he had met in Louisville years before, he could finally achieve the American Dream. Remus was born in Berlin, Germany. He immigrated to the United States with his family when he was 10 years old. He was poor until he started working as a clerk in his uncle’s pharmacy. He later attended pharmacy school and became a pharmacist. When Prohibition began in 1919, Remus saw an opportunity to make a fortune. He used his legal knowledge to exploit the loopholes in the Volstead Act, which was the law that enforced Prohibition. He became one of the largest suppliers of illegal alcohol in the United States. He built a huge mansion in Cincinnati and threw lavish parties. He was obsessed with his second wife, Imogene. While Gatsby doesn’t kill Daisy, and Remus does kill his wife, both men had problems with the women in their lives.
  • They were both ultimately undone by their obsession with the past. Gatsby was killed by George Wilson, who believed that Gatsby was sleeping with his wife Myrtle. Remus was convicted of murdering his wife Imogene after she had an affair with a former federal agent.

Fitzgerald would need to change his story so it didn’t mirror the life of Remus, but it seems to many that Fitzgerald modeled Jay Gatsby after George Remus.

What Happened to George Remus’ Money?

Closeup of hands holding cash

No one is sure where all the money went.

Dodge and Imogene obviously spent a good deal of it. Perhaps Imogene and Dodge had hidden some of the money away in bank accounts under fake names, or maybe they buried some of the cash.

No one knows for certain. Dodge might not have stolen very much since he worked for a living at a civil servant’s job.

If anything at all was left, Remus would have used it for himself, but there is no mention of him buying another mansion or anything else, such as extravagant parties or cars for partygoers.

More than likely, the money went here and there. Dodge and Imogene spent some, they hid some, they lost some through poor investment decisions, and they left Remus with next to nothing.

Remus himself spent the last 25 years of his life trying to find some of his hard-earned cash to no avail.

How Did George Remus Die?

After being released from the insane asylum, Remus found that organized crime had taken over the bootlegging business.

Remus tutored another famous Cincinnati lawyer, William Foster Hopkins, as he tried to retrieve his fortune. He married for a third time to his long-time secretary Blanche Watson. (Brave woman!)

Eventually, Remus and Blanche moved to Covington, Kentucky, where he spent 20 years living a quiet life and selling real estate. He created a contracting firm called Washington Contracting, which he ran until he suffered a stroke in 1950.

For the next two years, Remus lived in a nursing home under the care of a full-time nurse. He passed away on January 20th, 1952, at the age of 73. He is buried next to his third wife, Blanche.

Did George Remus Speak in the Third Person? Why?

gangster sitting with hat on

Yes, he did.

This probably started as an easier way to pick up English. Many people learning a new language find that it is easier to simply use the third person when speaking rather than try to remember all the verbiage or the correct form of verbs for nouns and stumble over words.

Using the third person when speaking makes you completely understandable and is less embarrassing than using the wrong verbs.

For example, everyone would understand if Remus told a jury “Remus lost his mind”, but he might have only gotten laughed at if he used the wrong verb and said something like “I mind was lost”.

While Remus became quite fluent in English, this use of the third person probably served him well and after a time, it simply became a habit.

Final Thoughts

As far as I know, there are no movies about the life of George Remus, and I can’t understand why! There are dozens of Al Capone movies, but with this bigger-than-life bootlegger who was so smart he got licenses to sell alcohol during Prohibition, the Bootleg King remains in the shadows.

I sometimes imagine who would play the part of George Remus and Imogene. I hope someone in the movie industry is reading this because I truly believe that a well-made movie about this man’s life would be every bit as big as The Godfather.

I hope you found this article interesting. If so, feel free to pass it on to friends and family.

George Remus – the pharmacist turned lawyer turned bootlegger turned murderer. Wow. Hollywood should grab this one by the bottle!

Who Was George Remus? Prohibition's Infamous Bootlegger
Who Was George Remus? Prohibition's Infamous Bootlegger
George Remus was a 1920s bootlegger whom you may not have heard about, and his life reads like a Hollywood movie. Did he really murder his wife? Find out here.
Gatsby Flapper Girl