George Remus – The Real Jay Gatsby
Updated: May 22
A lot is documented about the era of Prohibition, beer barrels being smashed in the street, Al Capone gunning his way to fame and fortune and a beautiful novel published in the midst of it all, The Great Gatsby.
F. Scott Fitzgerald had a chance meeting in a Louisiana bar with a man named, George Remus. The story that would unravel before him would become a classic piece of American literature, with a lot of its basis being on the life of man who gained everything and lost it all in the most in the most spectacular way possible. The American way.
Born in 1876 in Berlin, Germany, George Remus was the son of a local Pharmacist would find himself moving from the heart of Europe into a city that would become infamous for its blackened underbelly.
Moving to the windy city when he was five, Germany was a time in his life that he would barely remember. He was assisting his father with the Pharmacy by the time he was fourteen, unfortunately, his ageing father would be unable to work in his later years and before he turned nineteen, George had bought the Pharmacy and became it’s legal owner. Being a man of natural intrigue, the life of a pharmacy worker began to bore him and he began taking night classes, studying law. At the turn of the century, George was twenty-four and was a specialist in Criminal Defence, more specifically, murder. He was earning $50,000 a year by 1920 and was now into his early forties, however more and more he seemed to be defending young thugs with links to mobsters who were gambling in illegal alcohol distribution. Remus deemed them all as intellectually dense and was shocked to see them pull hundreds of dollars from their pockets and spending it with no care in the world. As a direct result of this, he thought he could do a much better job of things.
Taking up residence in his office for the next few days, he memorised the Volstead Act (Enforced Prohibition) and discovered a glitch in this seemingly welcome act that had come into power in January 1920. One small loophole in the act allowed him, a fully licensed Pharmacist to sell alcohol for “medical purpose”. With all of the accurate Government licences in his back pocket, he set about setting up his future empire which would see him turn into an overnight millionaire.
He setup his HQ in Cincinnati which at the time was the location of 80% of Americas bonded whisky stock. Now all of America's legally produced whiskey was sat in around ten protected locations in the country, it couldn’t be destroyed as it was still the private property of the distilleries that produced it, and a few distilleries that were still allowed to produce whisky during prohibition were buying up the ageing stocks. Remus gathered together around $100,000 and bought his first distillery and all of its stock for the minimal sum of, $10,000. He took the other $90,000 to the bank which allowed him to then buy ten distilleries in total, which included; The Pogue Distillery, The Fleischman Company and Jack Daniel's, which had been relocated to St. Louis for a few years after Tennessee voted to keep the state dry. However, when he naturally ran over the amount of whiskey that his permits allowed, he simply stole it. Beyond having his own men hijack their own shipments, at one point at the Jack Daniels Distillery, he siphoned the whisky underground and directly into delivery trucks, replacing the whisky with water. In order to distribute this large amount of whisky that he had gathered, he bought up more drug stores, building them all into the small conglomerate of; The Kentucky Drug Company.
The drugstore industry itself had boomed throughout the next decade. A lot of people put this down to the introduction of milkshakes to their menu, but we can all probably guess that it wasn’t just milk in those milkshakes. One such example of growth was the Chicago based drug company, Walgreens. In 1920 they had 20 stores around the country, a decade later they had 525.
In the space of three years he had amassed, $40,000,000 in pure, tax free profit. Naturally, running this type of business meant that he had to keep a lot of palms and pockets greased, keeping the local as well as the entire American Government from making him sweat. During one day in 1920, he bribed forty separate individuals from local Government and police forces with $1,000 each. Feeling that this wasn’t enough protection in the long run, Remus aimed for bigger fish to oil up. Rumours had it at the time that behind the walls of the White House, there was a secret stash of the finest bourbon around for travelling dignitaries, as well as for his own personal use. Taking slight advantage of this, Remus met with Attorney General Smith and an intense yet very brief conversation took place between them. George asked for full protection from the Judicial system and Smith said no. George then produced a suitcase with $50,000 in it, Smith agreed to keep him protected for as long as he could. Some arrests would have to take place in order to make everything look legal on the surface, Remus agreed and he and Smith would have a fruitful yet brief monetary relationship.
Now here comes the very Gatsby-esque part of the story. George had left his previous wife and had now married his secretary, Imogene. Together, they bought a beautiful mansion and decided to renovate it and throw the most impressive parties that that generation had ever seen. New Year’s Eve, 1922, he and his wife through the most lavish shin-dig that could be imagined. One hundred guests, all extremely well connected arrived through the gates of his sprawling mansion. Upon entering the doors, they were greeted with synchronised swimming teams in all of the swimming pools, live brass bands in all of the rooms, diamond jewellery for all of the male guests and brand new automobile for all of the female guests, the cost of the flowers alone was around the $100,000 mark. Unnaturally, Remus himself didn’t drink, he was a teetotaller and a rather smart business man to boot. He winded down after the guests had left and sat by one of his many swimming pools with his beautiful wife and simply welcomed in the year of 1923 in true style.
During the dawn of 1923, Remus’s ride to the top was soon about to drop all the way to the floor. He was arrested and sentenced to two years in Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, but due to his wealth this was more of a stay in a country club then the hard pressed and cold image you may have of a jail cell in the 1920’s. Being the smart man that he was, when the Police did raid his house for evidence of illegal alcohol distribution, he was more than happy to provide accurate paper work and permits showing that what he was doing was legal and for the benefit of some ill Americans. A long with this, he also signed over all of his assets to Imogene, who proved herself to be quite the business women while he was behind bars. Whilst looking for a way out of jail, Remus asked Imogene to approach a man called, Franklin Dodge. He was new to the legal game and as the grapevine had heard it, could be easily bought. Imogene did just this, but the total opposite effect occurred. Imogene began a relationship with Dodge which wasn’t out of Remus’s ear shot, but nonetheless he just asked that she did right by the company while he was incarcerated. Imogene and Dodge were madly in love, or so they claimed, to show Remus of this love, Imogene began to liquidate all of his assets so they could elope together.
She sold his company of distilleries and gave him only $100 from the sale
Tried to have him deported as a result of his German heritage
Reportedly offered a gang, $15,000 to have him killed whilst still in jail.
Lovely lady, I’m sure you all agree.
In the midst of all of this, Remus was questioning where all of his money that he had given to the General Attorney had gone. Sadly, General Attorney Smith and all of Remus’s money was in the trash, along with Smith’s head. He sadly shot himself after a few years of mental health problems. Remus was now all alone with no true financial backing, no wife, no protection and now a long wait for this jail sentence to end. Additional charges were brought against Remus during his stay in Atlanta and by the time he actually got out, it was 1927 and he had nothing but revenge set on his mind.
Imogene was in the process of successfully divorcing George and on the way to court, Remus ordered his chauffeur to the hotel that Imogene was staying at. He saw her jump into a taxi with her daughter, Ruth (from a previous relationship) and Remus ordered the driver to give chase. Forcing the cab off the road in an attack of force and speed that we could only really compare with great car chases from Hollywood Cinema, the cab stopped and Remus exited his car. Approaching the rear doors, swinging it open almost off the hinges, he began a verbal assault on Imogene which in itself wasn’t enough to justify his lust of revenge. He pulled a revolver from his rear pocket, drove it into her stomach and pulled the trigger. Car horns and general traffic silenced the brutality of the gun shot and Remus calmly walked away, leaving Ruth to attempt to try and revive her mother. Remus, now calming himself down, walked into the nearest Police station and handed himself in. The great American Sci-fi writer, Charles Rothfuss, sums up my feelings towards Remus’s actions quite well. “There are three things all wise men fear: the sea in storm, a night with no moon, and the anger of a gentle man.”
He would now be tried for Murder and possibly receive a life sentence for it, lord knows that handing himself in and killing Imogene in broad daylight wouldn’t provide much of a defence for his case. On the other hand, he was a specialised lawyer in the field of murder and in turn decided to run his own defence, pure brilliance from Remus.
His case was based around two things, 1; Pleading insanity & 2; proving how much of a nice guy he really was on a day to day and stress free basis. Because he really was so generous and kind, he called upon witness testimonies from his local community. Doing so he managed to vilify Imogene and Dodge for corrupting this seemingly altruistic man’s mind. This along with his plea of insanity allowed him to charm the jury and a decision was reached in only nineteen minutes, not guilty by reason of insanity. He was sentenced to eight months in a secure prison and whilst he was planning his future, a team of trained psychiatrists declared him not insane. But due to the insanity plea he was secure from any further prosecution. Upon leaving his cell and setting foot on free ground with no troubles in mind, he decided to get back into the alcohol game. Sadly, it was now overrun with Al Capone’s gangs and there were far too many bullets flying around for Remus. Instead, he went into relative obscurity until his death in 1952. A quiet end to a man with a loud life.
Unlike his fictional counter-part, Jay Gatsby. Remus wasn’t killed in a combination of misunderstanding and revenge; he was a man set apart by not only his intelligence but by his drive to become something more than everyone else. In essence he was the American dream. He claimed himself that the true victor of his whole life was the irony in the Volstead Act that allowed him to become at the time, the richest man in the country and possibly, the world. His life was a true expression of the cycle of American crime, showcased in Scarface, The Godfather, The Untouchables and most directly, The Great Gatsby. The criminal will always meet his end and even though Remus was man who essentially took advantage of phrasing in a legal document, he hit his lowest point by murdering his ex-wife and seeing his own legendary status disappear with the ending of Prohibition. A genuine true American fairy tale with a bitter sweet ending for the man on top of the world.
Phil Dwyer is an independent Whisky Writer and blogger based in Manchester, UK.
His favourites are the Sazerac 18 , Glendronach, and Irn Bru WKD.