Karen Abbott Introduces George Remus
Though we might be nearing its 100th birthday, the Prohibition in the United States is still a subject of great fascination, both for historians and creators of fiction. The short little period in time affected the country in unprecedented ways and, in large part, shaped its very future.
Al Capone is without a doubt the biggest name associated with the time period, but needless to say, he was far from being the only noteworthy figure worth investigating, as Karen Abbott clearly shows in her book titled The Ghosts of Eden Park.
Though Capone may have been the biggest bootlegger of his time, he wasn’t the first one: this honour goes to German immigrant George Remus. When the prohibition just came into effect he was practising law, only to abandon in entirely to traffic whiskey instead.
In a period of approximately two years he becomes a multi-millionaire, and the parties he throws at his Cincinnati mansion with his wife Imogene are the stuff of legends, complete with brand new cars and diamond jewellery being offered as gifts. By the summer of 1921, Remus was the sole owner of roughly 35 percent of all the liquor circulating in the country.
Needless to say, the gravy train wasn’t going to keep on rolling forever, and ultimately Remus is put under arrest for violating the Volstead Act. With her husband in prison, Imogene starts an affair… with Franklin Dodge, the detective hired by pioneering prosecutor at the Justice Department, Mabel Walker Willebrandt, to look into Remus’ empire.
Together, they start concocting a plan to completely ruin Remus into dust, but as is always the case, things don’t end up going entirely according to plan. A feud is sparked, reaching the highest levels of government, putting them all on the path of a story which could only end with murder.
An Entrepreneur of his Time
As you might imagine, George Remus has for some reason never really made it into the public eye of today as one of the prominent criminal figures during the prohibition, and the more I read into his story the more I was puzzled as to why it was the case. Abbott has without the shadow of a doubt conducted a completely exhaustive research of the man’s life, as well as everything and everyone surrounding him.
Even if you do have a preconception about whether he’s a good or bad guy, it becomes very difficult to see him in terms of black and white from the very start of the book.
Instead of meeting him at the height of his power and ambitions, we journey through life with him as he did, learning about an inspiring young man who dropped out of school in 8th grade to work at his uncle’s pharmacy, only to buy it himself by the age of 19.
Though he was successful, he decided to pursue law instead, and saw good fortune in this practice as well. When the new Volstead Act came to pass and he saw everyone being arrested for it left and right, rather than diving into the niche as a lawyer he began to explore ways of circumventing the Act. In other words, he was a very unusual and interesting character, going far beyond the scope of the simple mental image we tend to have of bootleggers.
As someone who is interested in this time period, it was pretty riveting to read about how a man managed to grow and expand his empire in an incredibly short amount of time, exceeding pretty much everyone’s expectations. His life almost reads like an entrepreneurial fantasy tale, coloured by the vast excesses of his parties and his ultimate downfall before Imogene and the Justice Department. The fact the author gives a novelized flair to the narration only heightens this effect.
The more I read into his life, the more it became apparent Remus had unseen layers upon layers of complexity to his existence, and he was about as far as you could come from a traditional hero or villain.
The King’s Surroundings
While The Ghosts of Eden Park certainly revolves around the life of George Remus, Abbott goes above and beyond in her account of the prohibition, exploring other major figures which would end up playing a role in the bootlegger’s life.
Mabel Walker Willebrandt is probably the most prominent one, the great adversary form the Justice Department to Remus’ empire. As we progress through Remus’s life, Willebrandt takes on an increasingly large role his story, and very unexpectedly, I also ended up learning about a very unusual a powerful woman who made big strides in her own right.
Through these main subjects we end up expanding our sphere of connections to various other people of the prohibition era, and we learn how in the end, all of them ended up being tied to Remus in one way or another. I truly appreciate the effort the author put into unearthing every bit of information available about these people and their relationships with each other, largely contributing to making them feel meaningful and about as real as they can be on the pages of a book.
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Additionally, as we journey through the lives of these people, Abbott also takes the time to reflect on the concept of the prohibition, how it shaped and perhaps damaged the country, what it killed, what it gave rise to, and what might have been without it.
She explores how the tendrils of its corruption found their way into the highest levels of the country, and how they eventually lead to numerous restructurings at the highest level. In other words, a whole lot of history to think about.
The Final Verdict
The Ghosts of Eden Park by Karen Abbott is an incredible entry into the genre of historical non-fiction relating to the prohibition era. The depth in which we learn about George Remus and every actor/actress in his life is unprecedented as far as I know, and the narrative structure resembling a novel ensures it remains a pleasant read without ever becoming too heavy.
If you are even remotely interested in the prohibition era and its vastly overlooked figures, then I highly recommend you give this book a read.
Karen Abbott is an American author specializing in historical non-fiction. She began her career by writing Sin in the Second City, telling the story behind the Everleigh Club, a famous American brothel. After this she wrote American Rose, an account from Gypsy Rose Lee, a strip-teaser. Her third book, titled Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy follows four women-turned-spies during the Civil War. Her fourth book, The Ghosts of Eden Park, tells the story of George Remus, the first bootlegger king of America.