George Remus: “King of the Bootleggers” During Prohibition

George Remus. A store clerk. Optometrist. Lawyer. Pharmacist. Entrepreneur. Bootlegger. Take your pick. George Remus was all of those and more.

And surprise, the King of Bootleggers was even an alcohol abstainer!


I.   Early Life

II.  Defense Attorney

III. Remus’ Scheme

IV.  Financial Success

V.   Power of Attorney

VI.  Irony

VII. Resources

I. Early Life

It’s an amazing story of a very bright and very hard-working man. Remus was born in Germany in 1876. As a pre-schooler, he came to the US with his family and settled in Chicago.

His father became incapacitated when young Remus was 14. The boy had to become the major breadwinner. He left school to work as a clerk in his uncle’s drugstore. He also went to pharmacy school and received a pharmacist’s license at age 19.

At age 21, Remus bought the drugstore. The ambitious pharmacist soon bought another. He also received an optometry license. He also studied law at night school. Within 18 months he completed the three-year program. In 1900, at age 24, he gained admission to the Illinois bar. As a trial lawyer, Remus pioneered in using the defense of guilt by reason of temporary insanity.

II. Defense Attorney

George Remus
George Remus

As a defense attorney, Remus was making well over one-half million per year in today’s dollars. National Prohibition went into effect in January of 1920. His practice soon largely involved defending bootleggers.

Most would simply pull large wads of cash from their pockets for enormous fines. They would peel off enough $1,000 bills to pay in full. These men “without any brains at all” could amass great wealth. Remus saw that Prohibition presented a golden chance to make an enormous fortune.

III. Remus’ Scheme

At the time Prohibition went into effect, millions of gallons of alcohol were in warehouses. It was legally-held private property. With proper authorization, people could legally buy it for medicinal, scientific, or industrial purposes. Remus hoped to buy the entire stockpile of pre-Prohibition alcohol. He had high ambitions.

Doctors could write prescriptions for medicinal alcohol. “Patients” could then buy it at pharmacies. By owning wholesale drug companies, Remus could legally buy and sell large quantities of alcohol. Then he could divert large quantities for illegal sale.

Organized criminals already heavily controlled Chicago. So in 1920 Remus moved to Cincinnati. It was a center of alcohol storage facilities and defunct distilleries. He bought his first distillery and began his own trucking company to transport the alcohol. With his connections in Washington, he obtained permits. That to legally withdrew as much of his highly prized alcohol as he wished.

IV. Financial Success

George Remus
George Remus House

Remus quickly became enormously rich. During one quarter in 1921, he deposited the equivalent in today’s dollars of over 33 million in the bank.

Agents arrested him in late 1921. At that time, he controlled the sale of bootleg liquor in nine states as well as parts of others. He had 3,000 well-paid employees working three shifts a day.

The Prohibition Bureau bugged his hotel suite when he had a meeting with 44 men. It was to work out some of the logistics of his illegal operation. They were all on his payroll. They included politicians, prohibition agents and federal marshals.

Remus had falsely thought that he had bought protection from federal prosecution. He had bribed a high official in the Department of Justice. But agents arrested him and charged him on 3,000 counts. A court found him guilty. For almost two years he appealed his conviction up to the Supreme Court. But he  lost.

V. Power of Attorney

George Remus
George Remus, convict.

When he left for prison, he gave power of attorney to his wife, Imogene. She now controlled his entire operation and all his assets. While in prison he told another inmate that his wife had his power of attorney.

The “inmate” was an undercover prohibition agent. He resigned his job and started an affair with Imogene. Together, they sold his assets and hid as much as possible. They then tried unsuccessfully to have him deported. They then hired a hit man to kill him. The entire time she was suing him for divorce.

George Remus
Imogene Remus

After Remus left prison, he had his driver run her car off the road. As she fled on foot, he chased and shot her to death. He acted as his own lawyer at his murder trial. He pled innocent by reason of insanity. After 19 minutes of deliberation, the jury found him not guilty on those grounds.

He went to the state hospital for the criminally insane. After appealing that he was no longer insane, he was able to leave after only two months.

Remus tried to re-enter bootlegging but found that violent gangsters had taken it over. He opened a real estate office, lived quietly. There he spent much time trying to reclaim his property. He died at home of natural causes in 1952 at age 77.

Some think Remus was the inspiration for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

VI. Irony

The corrupt prohibition agent who stole Remus’ wife, his money, tried to deport him, and then paid to have him killed? After Repeal, he worked as an official at the Michigan State Liquor Control Commission!

VII. Resources

Other Resources