The King of the Bootleggers and Kentucky

In 1927 Courier-Journal prohibition reporter Mary Chenoweth exposed two corrupt officials in northern Kentucky.  This clash between the Courier-Journal and the local government is documented in the Robert Worth Bingham Additional Papers through correspondence and legal depositions on bootlegging in northern Kentucky. In a nine page letter dated 18 April 1927, Bingham summarized the history of corruption in the area starting with George Remus (1878-1952), “The King of the Bootleggers”.

Prohibition shuts down legal liquor sales in Kentucky.

Prohibition shuts down legal liquor sales in Kentucky.

Remus was the son of German immigrants; he started his career in Chicago as the owner of a pharmacy and a lawyer, but saw a great opportunity to make money during prohibition. The political corruption of the administration of U.S. President Warren G. Harding made it easy to get permits to transfer alcohol to a pharmacy, and Remus saw an opportunity to make a fortune. He moved to Cincinnati, Ohio in order to be closer to a source of whiskey and started the Drobbatz Chemical Company, obtaining a permit to sell alcohol as a pharmaceutical company. His plan called for the hijacking of shipments of alcohol to his company that could be sold on the black market for greater profits. Drobbatz Chemical Company lost its license in 1921 after being caught illegally selling seven hundred cases of whiskey from the Old 76 Distillery in Newport, Kentucky. Remus lost his permit with Drobbatz Chemical Company, but it did not put him out of business. He simply moved his business to Covington, Kentucky and organized the Kentucky Drug Company with his attorney Maurice Galvin.  They then received permits to transfer the whiskey at the Edgewood Distillery in Ohio and in four days diverted 16,900 gallons of whiskey into the black market. Six months later, Remus was arrested. Court records show he also owned the “S & N Weil Company,” which owned one third of the Pogue Distillery in Maysville, Kentucky. (The Pogue whiskey was also sold on the black market.) Also through the S & N Weil Company, Remus purchased the Burke Spring Distillery at Loretto, Kentucky under his chauffeur’s name, as he was already under a $50,000 bond for his trial in Covington.  With the help of a guard that Remus bribed for $1,200, the entire contents of the warehouses at the Burke Springs Distillery was stolen and the company simply abandoned the buildings. By the end of 1924, Remus was in legal trouble, but he had amassed a huge fortune of $40 million.

Remus was sent to prison in 1925 with a sentence of two years time for violating the prohibition laws. Remus enjoyed many of the “perks” that his $40 million business could acquire for him, but he was not happy as a prisoner. He asked his wife, Imogene, to work on the prohibition agent in charge of his case to see about getting a pardon; instead, she ran off with the agent.  Imogene’s new boyfriend quit his job and worked with Imogene to sell off all of her husband’s assets while Remus was still in prison. She filed for divorce and tried to have Remus deported to Germany. Remus got out of prison in 1927 and found the extent of the damage his wife had done to his “business” - he was almost broke. On the day their divorce was to be finalized, Remus shot and killed his wife. In a murder case that captured the attention of the nation, Remus was set free because of a successful insanity plea. He tried to get back into bootlegging, but never succeeded in doing so. He lived the rest of his life in northern Kentucky and died there in 1952. He is buried in Falmouth Cemetery in Pendleton County, Kentucky.

Remus changed the way the whiskey industry did business during prohibition. His early actions forced the government to adopt a system of “consolidation warehouses” to better keep track of aging whiskey. While the press very early on gave him the title of “The King of the Bootleggers”, he was only a minor player after his conviction in 1925. Even so, his legend lives on in the prohibition lore of northern Kentucky.

Mike Veach

4 comments on “The King of the Bootleggers and Kentucky

  1. Special Collections, Northern Kentucky University

    Researchers may also find the Charles H. Elston Legal Collection in Eva G. Farris Special Collections, Steely Library, Northern Kentucky University useful for information on George Remus and his 1927 murder trial. Charles H. Elston served as a defense attorney for Remus in this case. The Elston Legal Collection contains correspondence, legal documents, court records, news clippings, and photographic materials pertaining to the legal work of Charles H. Elston.

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