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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.