Monday, October 27, 2014

SPECIAL: "Ashes Under Water"

The scene is the Chicago office of Clarence Darrow, a lawyer who was well-known for taking the side of the underdog, the under-privileged, the labor union against the bosses.  He would shortly become nationally famous for his work on defense in the Leopold and Loeb case, and later for his defense in the Scopes Monkey Trial.  But at this point, the summer of 1915, he was at a low ebb in his career, having just escaped charges of bribery and jury tampering in Los Angeles. Darrow had many clients from the humble worker up to the architect Frank Lloyd Wright. He never knew who would come to his door.

"One day, the figure in Darrow's doorway was slight, gaunt.  The short man looked frightening.  He wasn't world-weary, like Darrow's other supplicants; he was traumatized. His cheeks were sunken. His eyes, dark sockets.  He was sickly, skeletal. He introduced himself as Joseph Erickson.  He was the chief engineer of the "Eastland", and he was in trouble."

The above excerpt is taken from the recently published book "Ashes Under Water: the S.S. Eastland and the Shipwreck that Shook America" by Michael McCarthy, historian and a former Feature Editor of the Wall Street Journal.  Mr. McCarthy's book is about the fate of the S.S. Eastland when she capsized literally feet from her dock on the Chicago River on July 24, 1915, resulting in the death of 855 passengers.  I would like to fully recommend this book to my readers, not only as a good read.  But it is history written the way I love to read it: not just a dry collection of names and dates, but a living, breathing story of people with aspirations and motivations, some of them good and some of them bad, but all of them fascinating. And McCarthy has given us the full range of such characters.  In his pages we find heroes, villains, and everything in between: lawyers, bystanders, and first responders.  Most poignantly of all we find victims, including 22 whole families, who boarded the Eastland that morning expecting a day of pleasure at a company picnic, but who instead met their deaths.

The Eastland, the Lawyer, and the Engineer

The S.S.  Eastland  (right) began her life in 1903 as a steamer built to take advantage of the rapidly expanding economic base of the Great Lakes region. In the first part of his book, McCarthy details the need for a ship to carry the tons of fruit being produced to the many summer resorts in the area along with passengers to these places. But as she was being constructed, her owners wanted her designed for speed and large passenger capacity. Hence she was designed with a length of 275 feet and a beam of 38 feet. "Fast ship, or no ship," versus the fact that the rivers she would be traveling were just too small for such a leviathan sized craft. "In other words, too much ship, too little water." We then see the accidents that followed the Eastland from one set of owners to the next each one overlooking the difficulties in handling a ship that was clearly top heavy and which acquired a reputation as a "cranky" sailor.  Along side of this we see the rise of young Joseph Erickson from a young Norwegian immigrant into an excellent engineer, the downturns in the career of Clarence Darrow, and the blossoming of the families who would all be brought together by a terrible tragedy.

July 24, 1915: 855 People Drown

In Part Two, McCarthy takes us through the story of the disaster itself.  We see how the Captain Harry Pederson a man with little experience and his chief engineer, Joseph Erickson, an honest, hard working man, each go through their paces on the morning of July 24, 1915 taking on over 2500 passengers of the Western Electric Company bound for a company holiday picnic. These were hard working people who were dressed in their best holiday attire: "Most of the women, in their twenties and their thirties, crowded near the dock with long-
sleeve embroidered linen dresses.  Their hats brimmed with apples, sprays of lilac. shirrings of striped taffeta silk, poppies wound in wreathes, and black velvet bows." And we see how the ship slowly lists to port, taking all of these and hundreds of others to their doom. Most of the passengers had gone below decks to avoid the cold drizzle and thus were smashed beneath tons of furniture as it came crashing down on them while the ship rolled on its side in a mere 20 feet of water, just a few feet from the dock and as water rushed in though doors and hatches.  In vivid detail McCarthy tells the story of families wiped out, and first responders driven to despair by the horrors they encountered (above).    

"Owners knew"

"At the bottom of page 14, the police chief asked Erickson precisely who within the company knew what would stop any stability issues on the Eastland. He replied, 'Why the general manager and the secretary, they all knew.' Next to that passage, in the pitiful penmanship that was signature-Darrow, were two words: Owners knew."

With those two words McCarthy, with the skill of a master story-teller, takes us into Part Three: the twisted world of the courtroom. With richly detailed portraits of the men involved, McCarthy shows us a veritable rogues gallery of characters: Darrow, the sloppy and unkempt man who was a brilliant lawyer, who agreed to take on the case of the gaunt man who appeared in his doorway. We are  shown the owners
of the ship who lied and dissembled repeatedly all throughout the trial. We see how the judge, Clarence Sessions slowly began to favor the defense against the prosecutors who called a dizzying array of marine experts.  Darrow realized that he would have to save all of these men from the charge of conspiracy in order to keep his client, Joseph Erickson from being made into a scapegoat.  So he attempts all kinds of fancy legal footwork to discredit the experts until he can bring the focus around to the simple honesty of his client. The six pages wherein
McCarthy takes the reader through Joseph Erickson's account of his experience in the Eastland disaster are frankly riveting.

All of this is drawn against the background of a nation dealing with the unsettling changes brought about by the industrial revolution to American society. This was a new and strange world brought about by telephones, automobiles, and the changing roles of women and men and who would be he source of income within these new family structures.  And this is all brought tragically to life in McCarthy's pages with the Red Cross Tolls, wherein we see the bulletins of the Red Cross giving details of the unidentified among the dead pulled from the hull of the Eastland.  And this went on while a shocked nation hung on every detail of the trial in the newspapers from all over the country (above). Drawing on court documents, and previously unpublished letters, Mike McCarthy has written for the first time the complete story of a tragedy which would shortly be forgotten as our country was swallowed up into the even greater tragedy of the Great War.  More than that, it is a fascinating character study of a slice of our country and our people just at our entrance onto the world stage.


 "Ashes Under Water: the S.S. Eastland and the Shipwreck that Shook America" by Michael McCarthy, Lyons Press, Helena Montana, 2014

Monday, October 6, 2014

OCTOBER 6 = Bootlegger George Remus Kills His Wife

"About one hundred feet north of the reservoir in the center of the vast park, now bright with autumn foliage, Remus' powerful limousine gradually moved ahead of the taxi and began crowding it to the curb.  To avoid a collision, the cab driver pulled to a stop,  When Ruth began opening the cab door on the right side as if to get out, her mother pushed her back into the seat and opened the door on the left side.  Her husband, directing a stream of epithets against her, reached the door just as Imogene opened it.  Grabbing her by the wrist and shouting 'I'll fix you! I'll fix you!' he pulled her down from the running board.  As he drew her close to him, she noticed that he held in his left hand a small, pearl handled revolver which he had once given her for protection .
'Oh, Daddy, you know I love you!' she cried. 'You know I love you! Daddy, don't do it! Don't do it!'
Pressing the revolver against her belly, Remus pointed it upward and fired one bullet. His screaming wife fell to the pavement.  His stepdaughter, Ruth, having emerged from the car, ran up to him, grabbed him by the coat lapels, and cried, 'Do you realize what you're doing?'  Looking at Ruth but speaking almost to himself, he said of his wife, 'She can't get away with that.'" 1.

So it went in Cincinnati's Eden Park right near the Gazebo that autumn day on today's date, October 6 in 1927, when the Bootlegger George Remus (above) killed his wife in the presence of her daughter, Ruth. Some accounts have Remus calling Imogene a "Decomposed mass of clay", but the basic fact of his having murdered his wife was never disputed by anyone. What was in dispute in court was Remus' state of mind at the time of the killing.  Was this man, dubbed "the King of the Bootleggers" by some, who was nevertheless a lifelong teetotaler, a sane man at the moment he committed murder or not? This was the central question at his trial which lasted for just over a month, and held the whole country in thrall, as the son of the former President of the United States, and this paunchy bald little man battled over what was then a new idea in American courtrooms: the insanity defense.  

The Rise of George Remus

One could hardly conjure up a more quintessentially American "rags to riches" story than that of George Remus. Born on November 14, 1874 in Berlin, Germany, his family immigrated to America in 1879, settling in Chicago.  George did well in school, but he had to drop out at the age of 14 to support his family when his father became disabled. He worked at his Uncle's drug store and soon
learned the pharmacy business.  He got a Pharmacology degree at age 19 by lying that he was 21. He soon owned the store, and did well enough that he was able to buy another store.  But the drug business bored him so he took night classes in law, finished a three year course in eighteen months, and became a lawyer in 1900.  In that same year, he married his first wife Lillian with whom he had his only child, a daughter, Ramola (right, circa 1927). Remus had a flourishing practice in criminal law, becoming quite well-known for his flamboyant style in the courtroom. This earned him about $50,000 a year, a tidy sum, but nothing compared to what his clients were making by their violations of the Volstead Act: the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution - the national prohibition law which went into effect in January, 1920.

George Remus Turns to Bootlegging

He had his sights on something bigger in life than merely security. "Remus liked being a lawyer;  he enjoyed the prestige and the public notoriety.  But deep inside himself, George Remus was a material man, and he saw that a few of his clients were getting very rich from bootlegging... (and) they were of marginal intelligence. It led him to consider what the monetary possibilities in the liquor trade were for someone with a high degree of demonstrated intellect, someone such as himself.  Later in his life Remus would say about his bootlegging clients, 'I was impressed by the rapidity with which these men without any brains at all, piled up fortunes in the liquor business.  I saw a chance to clean up.'" 2.

So George Remus read the Volstead Act very carefully - from a lawyer's perspective. And he found that it did not touch any of the millions of gallons of liquor already produced before the Act went into effect. Further, this liquor could legally be used for "medicinal purposes".  And he found that 80% of such liquor was located within a 300 mile radius of Cincinnati.  The key was to buy up as many of these
distilleries as he could. So in 1920, Remus set up shop in Cincin- nati. He had by this time divorced his first wife and married a pretty young secretary named Imogene Holmes, who had a daughter, Ruth from a previous marriage.  He set up a distilling operation on the west side of town on the Dater farm which covered about 100 acres to Queen City and La Feuille Ave. This became known as "Death Valley Farm" because there were hired guns covering every foot of the road into it (above). It was used to distill liquor and also to gather in the liquor which Remus had bought from other distilleries using government permits and phony authorizations from his own drug companies. He would buy the booze, have his convoys hijacked by his own men, who would then bring it to Death Valley for "redistribution".  He was in effect both the buyer and the seller.

Remus Finds Success, Fortune... and Jail

"Remus was to bootlegging what Rockefeller was to oil." - St Louis Post-Dispatch 3.

Of course all of this required help from above. Remus began paying huge bribes to Federal officials for access to the necessary permits to buy his liquor. And he even went to Washington D.C. to buy the cooperation of the U.S. Justice Department in the form of bribes totaling over $250,000 to one Jess Smith who was a special assistant to the U.S. Attorney General. Smith assured Remus that no matter what happened neither he nor his men would ever go to jail.  With millions in cash pouring into his coffers Remus became "The Man".  He began to speak of himself in the third person; "Remus was in the whiskey 
business, and Remus was the biggest man in the business." 4.

And he began living large. He bought a home in the Price Hill section of the city on Hermosa Ave. (above) and filled it with the finest furniture, carpets, paintings, and books that he could find. Gold door knobs, a huge swimming pool with Rookwood Pottery linings, and the finest plants and landscaping. At that time, it was the largest private home in the U.S. that was not located on either the East or the West Coast. And he and his wife had only the finest clothes. Remus had always longed to be in a higher social bracket, so he had many a lavish party at his Price Hill Mansion. One such soiree' was the legendary New Years Eve gathering on Dec. 31, 1921 in which every guest was given diamond stickpins and (allegedly) crisp new thousand dollar bills for party favors.  And for the ladies: a brand new Pontiac automobile for each one of them. Such was his repute for ostentatious living, that he is said to have been the inspiration for the title character in F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 novel, "The Great Gatsby".  But Remus also made himself very popular with the common folks by hiring the men for his trucks, allowing the neighborhood boys to swim in his grand pool, and handing out lavish tips for any service done him.

"... he was a teetotaler, his perspective on liquor unaffected by personal tastes or unclouded by personal habit.  He cared only about the money, and his care was rewarded. In one year Remus deposited $2.8 million into one of his many bank accounts -- the equivalent, in 2009, of more than $32 million." - Daniel Okrent 5.

But this could only go on for so long. Remus had bought out distilleries throughout the Midwest, and also had bought off cooperation from federal officials.  Eventually he ran into a couple of solid, staid officials who were not available at any price. A shipment coming from the Squibb Distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana brought him under the eyes of Burt G. Morgan.  Morgan found so much of the booze going to
Remus' Death Valley Farm that he raided the place, and found thousands of gallons of liquor, as well as business records and lots of Remus employees.  With this evidence and with the vigorous prosecution brought by Assistant Attorney General Mabel Walker Willebrandt, Remus and his confederates were convicted of 3,000 violations of the Volstead Act. And Remus found that his ace in the hole, Jess Smith was useless.  Smith, who was facing corruption charges himself committed suicide on May 30, 1923.  So on January 24, 1924 George Remus went into the Federal Prison in for 2 years in Atlanta Georgia after giving his beloved wife, Imogene power of attorney over all of his business and legal affairs.  This proved to be a huge mistake.

Imogene Remus and Franklin Dodge

As his days in prison wore on, Remus got antsy.  His conditions there had gone from Hotel-like from bribes he paid to prison officials to regular prison conditions after the corrupt warden was sacked by Mrs. Willebrandt.  Remus put Imogene in touch with a man whom he had heard could be dealt with: Franklin Dodge, the Justice Department's "Ace of Investigators".  But instead of helping Imogene (below) clear
the way for her husband's release, this "Ace" began having a torrid romance with her.  And the two of them managed to liquidate all of Remus' empire, selling off the distilleries, the Government permits, everything.  They used the cash for themselves, and sent Remus divorce papers shortly before his release, sending him into a huge spiral downward of anger and depression. When he was finally released on April 26, 1927, and he returned to his Price Hill Estate, he found that it had been stripped of everything... every stick of furniture, every painting, every plant.  Only the books were left piled on the floor, and a cot, a table and chair. He was of course, stunned.  He became obsessive about stopping Imogene and Dodge. And this of course led to the scene in broad daylight wherein as detailed above, he shot her dead. She was 38 years old.

Remus Goes on Trial for Murder

"She who dances down the primrose path must die on the primrose path.  I'm happy.  This is the first peace of mind I've had in two years." - George Remus on killing his wife, Oct. 6, 1927. 6.

This hardly sounds like a man who was insane. But in the trial that began on November 14, 1927, that was exactly what Remus sought to do: prove that he was insane at the time he shot his wife, and might possibly still be insane. Remus, conducted his own defense with assistance from the former D.A. Charles Elston. Opposite them were prosecutors led by Charles P. Taft II, scion of political royalty in the U.S.; his father was former U.S. President, and sitting Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, William Howard Taft.  "Remus," he said, "has committed a cold blooded murder, and I have no doubt that he will be executed for it." 7.  But no amount of maneuvering, or witness
badgering could keep the trial from a parade of witnesses who either did not remember anything useful towards Taft's contention of an organized conspiracy, and thus sanity, or did recall only helpful details for the defense.  Remus' driver that morning, George Klug could remember nothing useful. Nor could the waiter who served Remus the night before. And Harry Truesdale even reported that Imogene had tried to  hire him to kill Remus for $15,000. The defense presented character witnesses among whom one was the legendary Clarence Darrow who knew Remus from his days as a lawyer in Chicago. Darrow testified that while Remus was an emotional fellow - somewhat unstable - his reputation had been good. Pressing him further, Taft got an unequivocal endorsement of Remus' reputation from Darrow: "In my opinion it was good. I never heard it questioned so I'll say it was good."8.  And Remus himself several times went into convulsions and had to be removed from the courtroom.  As newspapers from all over the country, and a packed courtroom looked on the jury on Dec. 20 took less than 30 minutes to acquit Remus on the grounds of temporary insanity, the first successful use of that defense in American courtrooms. "He had such a rotten Christmas last year, lets make him happy this year." 9. said one of the jurors.  Clearly, Remus' popularity with the common folk of Cincinnati had payed off.


This writer believes that given his obsessive-compulsive behavior from the very moment that he first heard rumors that his wife was having an affair with Franklin Dodge, a very creditable case could be made that George Remus was in the grip of what would today be called an irresistible impulse to kill his wife and end his mental torture. But clearly, the forgetful witnesses, and Remus' own histrionics in the courtroom helped him in being acquitted by a jury that was obviously very sympathetic to him to begin with.  Whatever the case, Remus kept the loyalty of his own daughter Ramola who stood by him throughout the trial and of the average citizen who viewed him as a generous (if not totally law-abiding) man who had been done wrong by a greedy wife and her lover. George Remus tried to get back into bootlegging but found that the Al Capone-type violence of the business had long passed him by.  He went into Real Estate, before re-marrying and dying in relative obscurity in a Covington, Kentucky home on January 20, 1952.  His fabulous estate in Price Hill was demolished in 1934.  The one portion of it which survives is  the wrought iron gates to the Mansion property which now serve as the back gates to nearby Elder High School on Panther Court. 10. Below is pictured his grave in Falmouth, Kentucky, minus the wings on the angelic figures which somebody knocked off a long time ago....


1. - Coffey, pp. 216-217.
2. - Cook, pp. 24-25
3. - Burns
4. - Ibid
5. - Okrent p. 198
6. - Cook, p. 120
7. - Rosenberg, cover
8. - Cook, p. 155
9. - Ibid, p. 168
10. - Hotchkiss, pp. 10-11


"King of the Bootleggers - A Biography of George Remus" by William A Cook, McFarland and Co. Inc., North Carolina, 2008

"The Long Thirst - Prohibition in America: 1920-1933" by Thomas A. Coffey, W.W. Norton and Co. Inc., New york, 1975

"The Cincinnati Crime Book" by George Stimson,  the Peasonhall Press, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1998

"Remembering Remus in Price Hill" by Julie Hotchkiss, and Joyce Meyer, Edgecliff Press with the Price Hill Historical Society and Museum, Cincinnati, Ohio, 2011

"The American Gladiators: Taft -vs- Remus" by Albert Rosenberg and Cindy Armstrong, Aimwell Press, Hemet, California, 1995.

"Prohibition" a film by Ken Burns an Lynn Novak, Episode Two, PBS, 2011

"Last Call - The Rise and Fall of Prohibition" by Daniel Okrent, Scribner, New York, 2010