The story of George Remus intrigued people during his lifetime—some say F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby was based on Remus’s life—and it continues to captivate audiences decades later. Remus is a character in the HBO series Boardwalk Empire, and at least two films about his life are planned. A recent advertisement for American Legacy Tours, which offers both Gangster Tours and Ghost Tours, invoked the story of Remus and his wife Imogene, whom he shot to death in Cincinnati’s Eden Park 85 years ago this Saturday, Oct. 6, 1927.
George Remus came to America from Germany as a young child, had a hardscrabble upbringing in Chicago, and went to work early because of his father’s illness. He saw advantages and took them; working for an uncle who owned a pharmacy, he studied and became a licensed pharmacist, then bought his uncle’s business—possibly against his uncle’s own preferences. He made a success of the drug store and studied law at night. Within a few years, he was one of Chicago’s most accomplished criminal lawyers.
For twenty years, he practiced law, pushing the legal system’s dodges and loopholes to the extreme. He married and had a daughter, Romola, who among other claims to fame played Dorothy in the first film version of The Wizard of Oz and toured in a stage show with the book’s author, L. Frank Baum.
Then Prohibition became the law of the land. Remus made good money defending bootleggers in court but soon realized that it was a pittance compared to the income of the bootleggers themselves. He studied the Volstead Act and came up with a clever way around it, using the drug company that he still owned. He bought alcohol legally for medicinal purposes, and then his shipments were “hijacked” by his own men so that the alcohol could be sold (illegally) for general consumption.
Remus moved to Cincinnati in 1920 because it was more centrally located for production and distribution of his product. He bought a mansion in Price Hill, and having divorced his first wife, married Imogene Brown, who had been his secretary. Things went well for a few years, but when Remus was arrested and sent to prison in Atlanta, Imogene turned against him. She took up with a federal agent named Franklin Dodge, and they liquidated Remus’s assets and even tried to have him deported.
When Remus returned to Cincinnati, he was devastated to see that his once glorious mansion had been stripped of its furnishings, his distilleries and fleets of trucks had been sold, and his money was gone. Imogene had also filed for divorce and was living in a hotel in Walnut Hills. On the day that the divorce was to be declared final, she called a taxi and set off for the courthouse from her hotel.
But Remus was waiting for her and had his chauffeur follow the taxi. A chase through rush-hour traffic ensued, coming to a halt near the gazebo in Eden Park. Remus jumped out of his Buick and shot Imogene, then threw away the gun and took off. Imogene was transported to a nearby hospital where she died. Meanwhile, Remus hitched a ride to the downtown police station and turned himself in.
The murder trial that followed was billed as the “Trial of the Century.” Remus defended himself, using an insanity plea. The Cincinnati prosecuting attorney was Charles Phelps Taft—son of former president and current Supreme Court Chief Justice William Howard Taft. Remus had not lost a bit of his legal skills, and he quickly won over the jury. Just before Christmas, he was found not guilty by reason of insanity.
Though he was sent to a hospital for mental patients in Lima, Ohio, he used the prosecution’s own case to win his release within a few months. He lived a quieter life as a real estate developer in his later years, maintaining an office downtown and living in Covington, Kentucky, with his third wife, Blanche Watson.
Some say on moonless nights Imogene Remus, wearing the black dress and veil she had donned for her divorce proceedings, still walks in Eden Park near the gazebo where she was killed by her husband. Though the Cincinnati Ghost Tour does not stop at Eden Park, they do tell the riveting tale of George Remus, King of the Bootleggers, as part of the Gangster Tour. It’s a larger than life story, with or without a ghost, that has survived more than eight decades.
For more information about George Remus, visit the Price Hill Historical Society’s online bookstore; for more information about Gangster Tours and Ghost Tours in the tristate area, visit the website of American Legacy Tours.