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Revisiting Cincinnati's Bootlegging King

By Steven Rosen · July 26th, 2011 · The Big Picture

Thanks to documentarian Ken Burns (The Civil War, Baseball, Jazz), the Delhi Historical Society’s Farmhouse Museum has a potentially very popular exhibit coming up. And it has nothing to do with farming — or with the fact that Delhi once was known as The Floral Paradise of Ohio because it had 55 greenhouses.

Instead, it’s about illegal booze and murder — the life story of George Remus. Burns’ latest series for the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) is on Prohibition, that calamitous period in American history, from 1920 to 1933, when the nation banned alcohol completely. The 18th Amendment created a thriving class of flamboyantly wealthy bootleggers in American big cities, who met a demand that could not be legislated away. And Cincinnati’s Remus, who lived and operated his empire out of the West Side, was one of the biggest.

Prohibition, by Burns and Lynn Novick, is a three-part, 5-hour series tentatively scheduled for Oct. 2-4. But Peg Schmidt, museum coordinator for Delhi’s historical society, knew about it early because Burns’ staff had asked to see her museum’s collection of Remus photographs since “The King of the Bootleggers” was to figure in the series. (Indeed, he is in the second episode, “A Nation of Scofflaws.”)

An active member of Delhi’s historical society, the late Jack Doll, had grown up near Remus’ luxurious Gatsby-like mansion and grounds in Price Hill.

Maintaining a lifelong interest in Remus, Doll sought out old photographs and built a fascinating collection.

While he was alive, Doll created a slide-show program out of his material, which also included old newspaper articles about Remus and maps. “After he died, so many people still wanted to see it that we put it on panels,” Schmidt explains. (It has not been on display at the museum in years.)

Remus was a successful Chicago lawyer who decided to move to Cincinnati and rule a Midwest network supplying illegal whiskey. He bought distilleries, ostensibly to use their supplies for still-legal medicinal purposes and then arranged for the booze to be “hijacked” and sent to the black market. He also bribed high members of President Warren Harding’s administration, and operated with impunity out of a well-guarded Westwood farm known as Death Valley Ranch.

But the federal government caught up with him and sent him to jail for two years. And his wife began an affair with the federal agent who helped convict him. After his release, on his way to finalize a divorce in 1927, he forced her cab to stop in Eden Park and shot her to death. Serving as his own attorney, he was found innocent by reason of temporary insanity by a sympathetic Cincinnati jury in a sensational, headline-making trial. After a brief stay in a mental institution, he lived a relatively quiet life out of the limelight. Both his mansion and ranch are gone.

The Delhi museum, at 468 Anderson Ferry Road, plans to tie into the broadcast by mounting the Remus exhibit that it made out of Doll’s slide show. It consists of 14 large, movable storyboard panels upon which scanned copies of original photographs have been laminated and accompanied by extensive text and graphics. The museum doesn’t have specific exhibition dates yet, but will post them at www.delhihistoricalsociety.org when set. (Or, call 513-451-4313.)

And another local history museum, Price Hill’s, also has Remus material in its archives, including newspaper clips and a table and chairs from his estate. While it doesn’t have a display like Delhi’s, it nevertheless steadily attracts visitors wanting to research his life. In fact, says volunteer Joyce Meyer, it has considered making Remus souvenirs as a way to raise needed money. George Remus bobbleheads, anyone?


CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: srosen@citybeat.com


 
 
 
 

 

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