By Dean Jobb
The Roaring Twenties and Dirty Thirties produced a rogues’ gallery of legendary crooks and fearsome public enemies. Chicago mobster Al Capone. Bank-robbing duo Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. Outlaws Pretty Boy Floyd and John Dillinger. But few have heard of husband-and-wife bandits Tom White and Burmah Adams. Or of George Remus, for that matter, even though he was one of the most successful bootleggers of the era. Four new books introduce these and other little-known Jazz Age characters who wound up on the wrong side of the law.
Remus should be as infamous as Capone. His Cincinnati-based empire of distilleries and breweries, a vast distribution network, and the army of law-enforcement officials he paid to look the other way made him one of the richest and most powerful crooks in 1920s America. “Remus was to bootlegging,” one journalist noted at the time, “what in earlier years Rockefeller had been to oil.” He was likely the inspiration for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s most iconic character, the wealthy and mysterious Jay Gatsby who, like Remus, used drug companies as fronts to distribute booze.
This mastermind behind the illegal booze trade finally emerges from Capone’s shadow in two new books that chronicle his meteoric rise and a reckoning worthy of one of Fitzgerald’s cautionary tales about the perils of wealth and excess. Karen Abbott’s The Ghosts of Eden Park: The Bootleg King, the Women Who Pursued Him, and the Murder That Shocked Jazz-Age America (Crown) became a New York Times bestseller soon after its release in August. The Bourbon King: The Life and Crimes of George Remus, Prohibition’s Evil Genius (Diversion Books), by Bob Batchelor, was released a month later.
Remus trained as a pharmacist before earning a law degree and a reputation as a brash, flamboyant trial lawyer in Chicago. During one summation, he dramatically gulped the poison used as a murder weapon and the jury, unaware he had taken an antidote in advance, concluded the substance must be harmless; his client was acquitted. When Prohibition became law in 1920, his pharmacy background alerted him to loopholes that allowed alcohol to be produced for medicinal purposes and, thanks to his legal training, he knew how to exploit them. The legislation, as he put it, was “as fragile as tissue paper.”
Remus was ruthless, quick-tempered, and violent (the walking stick he often carried was a potential weapon, not a fashion accessory). He was a Jekyll-and-Hyde, a “respected, sage attorney,” Batchelor writes, turned “coldblooded criminal mastermind.” He had an odd habit of speaking about himself in the third person, as if he were a spectator to someone else’s life. “Remus was the biggest man in the business,” he once explained to an interviewer. “Cincinnati was the American mecca for good liquor, and America had to come to Remus to get it.” The affectation, notes Abbott, served “to underscore his importance.” It also foreshadowed how unhinged, devious, and dangerous he would become.
It’s rare for two books to appear on the same subject almost simultaneously, especially when the subject is almost a century old. Batchelor, a professor at Ohio’s Miami University who has published biographies of Bob Dylan and Stan Lee, discovered Remus fifteen years ago and instantly recognized the story’s potential. Abbott, the author of accounts of Chicago madams, burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee, and female Civil War spies, is a more recent convert. She spotted Remus when he popped up as a minor character in HBO’s mobster series Boardwalk Empire, and was soon convinced the real-life Remus embodied the “grandest excesses and darkest illusions” of the 1920s.
Both books are impressively researched and begin with vivid recreations of a murder in Cincinnati’s Eden Park, a crime central to the story. A love triangle straight out of a Hollywood script lies at the heart of both accounts. While Remus is behind bars for liquor violations, his wife and business partner, Imogene, embarks on a torrid affair with an undercover federal agent, Franklin Dodge. As the pair plunder his fortune and plot his murder, Remus dreams of exacting revenge. And that’s when an outrageous saga turns truly bizarre.
Batchelor charts the growth of Remus’s liquor empire and his spectacular downfall in astounding detail, and brings plenty of local knowledge to his version of the story. While he recreates many memorable scenes, this is where Abbott excels. Her cinematic approach makes long-ago events appear to unfold in real time, and her eye for character quirks and telling images immerses readers in the decadence and corruption of the Roaring Twenties. She reproduces fragments of courtroom testimony between most chapters, a clever device that heightens the drama.
The Bourbon King, as the title suggests, focuses on Remus. Batchelor quotes the eminently quotable Remus at length—his boasts and rants, his ominous threats against his tormentors, Imogene and Dodge. In The Ghosts of Eden Park, Abbott forces him to share the stage with his nemesis, Mabel Walker Willebrandt, the assistant U.S. attorney general in charge of enforcing Prohibition laws. A brilliant, strong-willed, and incorruptible trailblazer who bucked the sexism of the times, she’s the perfect heroine for a tale filled with villains—and emerges as a full-blooded character battling her own demons.
Much of the illegal booze filling glasses in American speakeasies came from Canada, and so does another forgotten story of money, lies, and betrayal. Theater magnate Ambrose Small disappeared from Toronto in 1919, on the eve of the Prohibition era and on the day he reaped a fortune from the sale of his chain of vaudeville and movie houses. Was it the perfect vanishing act or the perfect crime? The hard-nosed Small had made plenty of enemies as he built his theatrical mini-empire, and someone may have had enough of his bullying. He also led a double-life—a gambling habit and mistresses often kept him away from his wife and posh mansion for days at a time. Perhaps he had skipped town to start a new life. Or was there a more sinister explanation? Had he been kidnapped and murdered?
In The Missing Millionaire: The True Story of Ambrose Small and the City Obsessed With Finding Him (McClelland & Stewart), first-time author Katie Daubs is determined to solve this century-old mystery. An award-winning journalist for the Toronto Star, she mines newspapers and archives to immerse readers in 1920s Toronto, a city with a straitlaced reputation—dubbed “Toronto the Good”—but no shortage of sinners and shady characters.
Ambrose Small was both, with an imperious management style Daubs describes as fit for “a powerful mafia don.” He was so secretive that a couple of weeks passed before anyone thought to report his disappearance to police. Daubs assembles a lineup of suspects who likely knew more about his whereabouts than they cared to divulge. His wife, Theresa, whose genteel manner and old-money background made the couple an awkward match. His private secretary, Jack Doughty, who bore the brunt of his wrath for years and was ultimately convicted of stealing from his missing boss. Clara Smith, a jilted mistress who seemed determined to win back Small at any cost.
Daubs follows a trail of tips, clues, and red herrings as she reviews past investigations into the disappearance and mounts a fresh one of her own. The result is a richly detailed, impossible-to-put-down work of true crime that’s as absorbing as any fictional murder mystery.
In 1933, the most desperate year of the Great Depression, as the Jazz Age waned and Bonnie and Clyde were terrorizing the Midwest, another young couple was staging a series of violent robberies in Los Angeles. Tom White accosted drivers stopped at intersections, store clerks, and just about anyone else he encountered. His new wife, Burmah Adams, drove the getaway car. The exploits of Adams and White may not be the stuff of legend or movies, but in Blonde Rattlesnake: Burmah Adams, Tom White, and the 1933 Crime Spree that Terrorized Los Angeles (Lyons Press) they become a case study of crime and celebrity in the Jazz Age.
At least Burmah Adams does. White makes an early exit from the story, leaving author and historian Julia Bricklin to take a deep dive into the tragic life of the teenager from sleepy Santa Ana, California who thought she was marrying a wealthy stockbroker. White, Adams soon discovered, was a convicted felon who conducted his business at gunpoint. And she almost became an accomplice to murder. One of White’s victims, a schoolteacher, was blinded and almost died when she was shot in the head during a botched stick-up.
This being LA and the golden age of Hollywood, Adams’s road-to-ruin story became a media sensation. She was demonized in the press. Radio programs and pulp magazines vied to recreate her ordeal and trial, and she wound up as an extra in scenes shot for a movie at her prison. Even the LAPD joined the free-for-all, using the couple’s crimes to attack the parole system for releasing White and endangering the public.
Bricklin reveals the outcome of this little-known crime spree within the first few pages, squandering an opportunity to keep readers guessing what will happen to Adams when she stands trial on a slew of robbery charges. The author also admits at the outset that, despite her extensive research, she’s unable to answer the question central to the story: Was Adams a willing partner-in-crime, or was she a battered wife who feared White’s wrath if she refused to help him?
Blonde Rattlesnake presents enough evidence—including extensive excerpts from Adams’s trial—to allow readers to reach a verdict for themselves. Read all four books and you may end up wondering how Bonnie and Clyde, Capone, and their infamous pals ever managed to hog all the headlines.
Dean Jobb’s book Empire of Deception (published by Algonquin Books and HarperCollins Canada) recreates the audacious Jazz Age swindle of Chicago con man Leo Koretz. He teaches nonfiction writing at the University of King’s College in Halifax. Follow him on Twitter: @DeanJobb