Mulholland Books Popcorn Fiction Popcorn Fiction - Remus by Les Bohem
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A Midwestern man bootlegs liquor and loves a woman named Imogene in this crackling historical fiction from screenwriter Les Bohem.


Sometimes I'm sorry that I killed her. I'm living across the river from Cin now, in Covington. I can look across the river and see downtown, see the sunlight off the windows of the Remus Building, over on Race Street. My building once. Time was I would have swum the river, there and back, before breakfast. Time was. I like it here. I like taking a stroll along Mainstrasse. A lot of Germans here, even now, two wars after they first came, and I get some comfort out of that, although I really couldn't tell you why. My father was German; I was born there, but he moved us to Chicago when I was five, and that's the childhood I remember. Chicago, a cold, dark place that smelled like sausage. That's my childhood.

I'm not trying to tell you the story of my life here; I'm just looking across the river at Cincinnati and reminiscing, but here's one story for you, just to kind of paint the picture. It's somewhere in the 80s, 1886, 1887. My father had just lost his job at the lumberyard. Rheumatism they called it, but the ache and pain that crippled him up was soul-born and beer-fueled, and staying home to nurse it only made it worse. He'd never spoken more than four words at a time to me in my life up until then, and those in German, and I believe the first real sentence he ever said to me in English was, "Now, it's your turn." I left school and went to work two days later for my uncle, George, at his drugstore on the corner of Milwaukee and Chicago. I have felt like shedding tears several times in the course of my life, but the story here is about the one and only time that George Remus ever cried.

I was twelve. I had been working for my uncle for almost a year. One of my jobs was to carry the day's cash, in its satchel, to the bank for deposit. The bank was less than a block away, and my uncle lived above his store and didn't like to go out in the cold, and so, at the end of each day, I would carry the small, heavy satchel up the street to the Bank of Chicago and leave it in the after hours depository. In the mornings, I would stop and retrieve the satchel. It was an evening in February, a Thursday, I think. My sister, Frances, who had just turned ten, had come from school to walk home with me. My uncle handed me the satchel and we took off down Milwaukee Street. It was already dark at four in the afternoon. There was sleet and a vicious wind off the river.

There were five of them. Boys still, the oldest probably no more than sixteen. They came out of the alley next to the bank, where the wagons made their deliveries. They grabbed us. Two of them grabbed Frances and two grabbed me. The fifth one took the satchel. They dragged us back into the alley behind a parked wagon. To this day, I can see the wide eyes of the wagon horse. The one who'd taken the satchel looked inside, counted the money and then whistled. "That's a lotta clams," he said.

"What we gonna do with them two, Norris?" one of the guys holding Frances said.

"Well now we got to make sure they don't going telling the coppers about my name being Norris."

"We could beat them up some," one of the ones holding me said.

Norris walked over, looked at Frances. "Too young to bleed, to young to butcher," he said, and then he turned to me. "We'll do you instead. Pull down your knickers."

Now in my mind, and to my eternal shame, I will admit to you that I did think, 'No, please take her instead.' And the boy, the one who had taken my money, he had a killer's eyes, eyes I would see many times along the road of my life, and I could see that he had looked into my soul and that he knew that I would trade my sister to keep from being hurt. He smiled at me then, a smile of his awful understanding.

"Go on, get out of here," he said. "No one wants to touch your precious carcass." That is when I began to cry. I tell you this one story about my childhood because it was at that moment that I realized that what I never wanted to do was carry someone else's money to the bank.

I bought my uncle's pharmacy when I was nineteen. I obtained my pharmacist's license shortly after that. Five years later, I was able to buy a second drugstore. At a dance in West Ridge, I met Lillian and we were married a few months after that. Lillian was also the daughter of Germans and was, at least for a while, a congenial companion to me. A year after we were married, our daughter, Romola, was born. I had never intended to be in the pharmacy business and so I started to go to night school, and by the time that I was twenty-four, in the year 1900, I obtained my degree in law. I went into practice in the Ashland Block building. Clarence Darrow and Edgar Lee Masters had their offices in the building as well and I became acquainted with both of these gentlemen. In my first year in practice, I defended eighteen persons accused of murder. I saw several of them hanged and I have to say that I didn't think much of the idea of capital punishment after that.

Around this time, I joined the Illinois Athletic Club. I dearly loved to swim and, without sounding boastful, I want to tell you that George Remus' endurance record for swimming in Lake Michigan held for several decades after I set it in 1907, staying in the frigid winter water for five hours and forty minutes, as recorded by the Athletic Club stopwatch.

The room was covered in blood and John O'Rourke, the house detective, thought that it looked like the killing floor of the slaughterhouse where his father and brothers had worked. In the bathroom door, he saw William Chenney Ellis wearing a woman's kimono and smoking a cigar, and Ellis asked him if he was a doctor. O'Rourke saw a woman lying on the bed. Her throat had been slit from ear to ear and she had also been shot in the heart and in the head. O'Rourke noticed that Ellis's wrists were cut and that there was blood on the bathroom mirror. Ellis told him that they had agreed to die together; that it was a suicide pact. Then he asked O'Rourke for a light for his cigar. Ellis was arrested and a few days later, indicted for the murder of his wife, Eleanor.

When I took Ellis's case, I knew that if we were to plead "not guilty" Ellis would die by the hangman's hand. My only hope was to prove that at the time of the murder, William Ellis did not know right from wrong. I had recently read the Psycophathia Sexualis, and I believed that Kraft-Ebbing offered a clear argument for a plea of guilty by reason of transitory insanity. It was possible, Kraft-Ebbing argued, for a man to commit murder, go to sleep and wake up with no memory at all of what he'd done. I intended to argue my case from this point of view, and to call several alienists of considerable esteem to substantiate my position. And that is what I did.

The trial got a lot of attention, particularly when I told the court that I had been offered a bribe of one thousand dollars to change our plea to "guilty." It would be a foolish lawyer who would admit in print to telling a lie, and so I will simply say that the controversy created by the presumption that the prosecution was afraid of my defense strategy did nothing to hurt our cause.

The trial lasted for more than three weeks and was the most photographed trial in the history of Cook County. I argued with a passion born of true conviction. I did not win the case but the court was, I believe, influenced enough by my arguments to sentence Mr. Ellis to only fifteen years in the Joliette Prison, a compromise that was a direct outcome of my arguments. Transitory insanity. A moment in which a man does not know right from wrong. That is a compelling moment to reflect upon.

The notoriety of the trial did nothing to hurt my business and by 1920 I was earning over $50,000 a year. At the time, that seemed to me to be a lot of money. But by now, I had more important things to think about than my financial situation. I had met my Imogene.

Augusta Imogene Homes. She worked in a delicatessen in Evanston. It was her wide, open eyes set in the perfect oval of a porcelain complexioned face that impressed me first. It was the face of an angel. But it was those eyes that drew me in. You could fall inside them. They promised understanding, comfort, love. Remus would stop on his way home, linger by the counter, find excuses to chat. I took to stopping by in the morning on my way into the office and leaving my groceries for pick up in the evening. I found that I could talk to Imogene about anything. About swimming the lake or about my latest case. She was married, with a twelve-year-old daughter, Ruth, and a husband whom she was in the process of divorcing. I offered to help her with the legal work of the divorce and as soon as it was final, I began to woo her in earnest. Nothing was too good for my Imogene. Gifts for her and for Ruth. Jewelry for Imogene, a dog for Ruth, a new car for the two of them.

My wife, Lillian, had been suspicious of my carrying on for some time. There had been other women and we had almost divorced on more than one occasion. Here is how Lillian found out about Imogene. It tells you how the smallest things can have the greatest outcomes. One day, Ruth lost her watch. It was a lovely watch. I had given it to her some months before. Sometime later, a young, unpleasant man, a plumber by trade, arrived at Imogene's home in Evanston. He produced a watch and demanded a fifteen-dollar reward. Imogene, always shrewd when it came to matters of money, offered him five dollars. They began what became a heated argument. I was upstairs, in Imogene's bedroom. I heard the argument and came downstairs. I argued with the man myself, hit him on the jaw and ran him out of the house. I was wearing slippers and a bathrobe at the time. An item about the incident appeared in the local papers and though I told the reporters that I had been visiting the family upstairs and had simply done what any red blooded man would do when he became aware of a woman in a distressed situation, my wardrobe during the battle did not serve me well in the press and while the plumber's assault charges against me were eventually dropped, Lillian's divorce papers were filed and soon my marriage was over. I gave Lillian fifty thousand dollars and my daughter, Romola, another thirty. In addition, I gave Lillian twenty-five dollars in expenses every week. It was a small price to pay if I could be with my Imogene.

I'm not a poet. I have never been one. I have been a lawyer and a businessman of some success, but never a poet. So I cannot talk in any real way to you about my love for Imogene. Lillian had been a perfunctory lover at best. Imogene knew the secrets of the bedroom and she knew how to climb from the bed into my heart with a simple glance. She made me a man. She reduced me to a child. She gave me a reason for living and a haven for my dreams and desires. She was all to me and I wanted, above everything, to prove myself worthy of her love. It was the Eighteenth Amendment to our constitution that gave me an opportunity to do so.

I do not drink spirits, wine or even beer. I never have. I do not like to be out of control. I prefer to swim the lake, not flop around in its waters with no idea how to reach the shore. But men will choose to alter their perception and the government would be well advised to stay clear of unenforceable laws. Time has shown the prohibition of liquor to have been a colossal mistake for this country, creating alcoholics and criminals by the truckload, while simultaneously making fools of law enforcement officials and depriving the federal and state governments of a virtually unending source of taxable revenue. It was the most wonderful thing that had ever happened to me.

In the nearly twenty years that I had been in practice, I had made the professional acquaintance of many criminals, thieves, conmen and the occasional murderer. But shortly after Prohibition became the law of the land, I found myself defending an entirely new class of lawbreaker. I was soon representing more men accused of bootlegging beer and whiskey than of any other crime. I defended many of these first bootleggers in the court of Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis. He was a hard, serious man who had no time for me and for what he considered to be my longwinded defense of my clients. I had little time for him and his arrogance. A client is entitled to the best defense that his attorney can mount, and a judge, even one flush from bringing down a rigged World Series, has no business interfering with that defense.

Judge Landis took the new law seriously, as he did most everything else. He would cut me off in mid-defense and find my clients guilty, fining them often in excess of ten thousand dollars. My clients would pay promptly, and they would pay in cash. Most of these men were ignorant, unpleasant bumpkins, with no manners and very little sense, and I could not but be amazed that such a worthless lot were earning the sort of income that allowed them to pay a fine of that size by peeling off the bills from a roll in their pants pocket. I was impressed with the rapidity with which those men without any brains at all piled up fortunes in the liquor business. I saw a chance to clean up. America was, as they liked to say, the land of opportunity. I obtained a copy of the Volstead Act. I read it carefully. Several times. I found what I was looking for. Title II, Section 3.

Some facts: There were 507 distilleries in the United States at the time that the new law went into effect. They had a combined output of two hundred and eighty six million gallons of distilled spirits a year. There were over a thousand brewers producing hundreds of millions of gallons of beer. There were warehouses filled with nearly 200 million more gallons of spirits. The law had made it illegal to manufacture, sell or transport liquor - but Congress had included a provision recognizing the existence of all this pre Volstead liquor, beer and wine.

Title II, Section 3 - "That nothing in this act shall prohibit the purchase and sale of warehouse receipts, covering distilled spirits on deposit in government bonded warehouses, and no special tax liability shall attach to the business of purchasing and selling such cash receipts."

You might notice as I did that there is no mention of or provision for destroying this liquor and that the law acknowledges that it is property. Essentially, the liquor was the property of its owner and was a kind of negotiated receipt. There was nothing to prohibit the purchase of as much of this pre-war, pre Volstead liquor as one wanted. Selling it again was another matter. I had to find a way to get the liquor out of the warehouses and into the marketplace. And the way was right there in the Act itself.

Title II, Section 6 said that it was illegal to make, sell, purchase, transport or prescribe liquor without getting a permit from the Commissioner of Internal Revenue. But section 6 also stated that it was legal for a person to buy and use liquor for medicinal purposes if prescribed by a physician. All I needed then was a permit for the seller and a prescription for the buyer. When physicians prescribe and patients obtain, they go through a licensed pharmacist. George Remus was such a pharmacist. If I were able to obtain wholesale withdrawal notices, I thought that I might become a pharmaceutical wholesaler. I could buy up the supplies of warehouse liquor and sell them, essentially to myself. I tried this on a small scale first, but with a permit that was less than legitimate and with the unfortunate result that I was arrested and tried for bootlegging. My argument that the liquor I had purchased was intended for druggists held and I was acquitted, but it was obvious to me that Chicago was not the place in which for me to do business. The police were corrupt in ways that would do nothing to further my own ends and the emerging criminal element; these were men cut from an entirely different cloth.

I decided to move to Cincinnati. It was an easy decision. Eighty percent of all the bonded whiskey in the country was stored within three hundred miles of that city. Chicago had always been my home, but I believed that I could find a new and more fulfilling life in the Queen City, as long as my queen, Imogene, was with me. I asked her to marry me and made all the arrangements to adopt Ruth as my own daughter. We were married in Newport, Kentucky and I took a suite in Cincinnati at the Sinton Hotel on the corner of 4th Street and Vine that I could also use as a temporary place of business. We moved in and began to look to make our permanent home in the city. The Sinton was the very hotel in which the Chicago "Blacksox" had struck their deal to throw the World Series, but if that was an omen of any cloud on our horizon, I chose to ignore it.

I had one hundred thousand dollars from the sale of my legal practice and I immediately established a relationship with Oscar Fender, the savings department manager at the Lincoln National Bank, and started my first wholesale drug company, Drobbatz Chemical. Now I could buy and distribute stored liquor for medicinal purposes. With Oscar's help and a ten thousand dollar down payment, I bought the Edgewood distillery. I was in business.

Two months after we'd moved to Cincinnati, Imogene and I went to New York City for our honeymoon. With the help of friends there, I was able to buy two more drug companies. Owning the drug companies would make it easier for me to obtain the withdrawal permits that I needed.

We came home to Cincinnati and I waited to obtain my permits. But things proceed along bureaucratic channels at their own pace, and I wanted Imogene to have the life that I had promised her without having to wait any longer, and so I took liquor from my distillery, legally withdrawing it, of course, and through some gentlemen I had been of legal service to while still in practice, I arranged to allow a portion of my liquor to be diverted into the illegal market.

In this endeavor, Remus had a few fine tricks up his sleeve. I started my own trucking company, the American Transportation Company. Give your operations simple, innocuous names was my way of thinking. It was an easy business to have my own trucks hijacked; after all, I knew the routes they would be taking and the drivers worked for me. The stolen liquor was then brought to a fifty-acre farm I had purchased in the Lick Run district on the west side of Cincinnati. It was a rough road in and out and I had armed guards round the clock to watch it and these men were desperados of the first order. Soon my farm was called, "Death Valley," a name which I did nothing to discourage as it served me well for my competition to think twice about any move to help themselves to my liquor. The bootlegging game was filled with greedy, unscrupulous fellows when truly, there was enough largesse to go around, and then some.

I was soon making so much money that in no time I was able to buy up quite a few of the other distilleries. These gave me access to more liquor, so much that I had to increase my illegal trade just to accommodate the surplus.

I had no thought of remaining a bootlegger, a criminal. I realized the frailty of human nature, and I planned to continue to profit from it, but I had every intention of running a legitimate business within the letter of the law. I saw no reason why my business could not eventually be traded on the stock market. I planned to do business with Wall Street, not to consort with criminals. I would to join the finest clubs and Imogene would host the finest parties. It was my ambition to buy up the entire cache of stored liquor in the country.

The problem was in obtaining the wholesale withdrawal permits that would enable me to move that liquor unimpeded. It was a problem that Remus soon overcame. I needed a great many withdrawal slips. And to get the withdrawal slips I needed Government support. And then, God bless him, Warren G. Harding was elected president.

Through a mutual friend, I obtained a meeting with Jess Smith. Smith was a venal, corrupt man who worked for Mr. Harding's Attorney General, Harry Daugherty. He let me know that, for a rather large payment, he could supply me with all the withdrawal slips I required. He then let me know that, for an additional one hundred thousand dollars, he could guarantee that, even in the unfortunate event of my arrest, I would never spend a day in prison. I peeled the money from the roll in my pocket. Paid the man in cash. How I loved to do business on this grand a scale, knowing that I could recount the story of my adventures to my Imogene, and that we would revel in the accomplishment and reap its rewards together.

Smith was true to his word. The permits came. The liquor flowed. Within the year I was, I believe, the third wealthiest man in Ohio. I owned most of our country's best-known whiskey manufacturers. By 1922, I had over forty million dollars and holdings that nearly doubled that amount. Hundreds of police officials, judges and government men were on my payroll, even if most of them did not know where the bribes that kept them in fine clothes and Scotch whiskey came from.

And now, I could indeed give my Imogene the world that she deserved. Our home on Price Hill became the center of the social life of the Midwest. Everyone came to our parties. They were glorious, impossible events. Scott Fitzgerald, having attended one of our smaller affairs, is said to have created the character of Jay Gatsby after seeing the swimming pool that I built for my wife. On New Years Eve, 1923, we gave a party for two hundred of the best people in Ohio. At dawn I had each man given a diamond tiepin and each woman a new car in which to drive drunkenly home.

My God, what a sparkling, wonderful ride it was. To think of it, even now after all that has happened, I feel a joy and an exultation undimmed by the passing of the years and of our dreams. We were deliriously happy, Imogene and I. We owned the world. We could have whatever we wanted. All that I wanted was Imogene.

I bought more and more distilleries, and it was then that I made a single mistake. You will recall my words about how small things can have great results. My mistake was this. I thought to expand my business into St. Louis, when truly, Cincinnati was my town. In St. Louis I came to the attention of Mr. Franklin Dodge of the Bureau of Prohibition. Mr. Dodge was not a bribable man. Shortly after a visit to St. Louis, I was arrested while leaving my "Death Valley" location and charged with violations of the Volstead Act.

I went to see Jess Smith in New York. He assured me that the trial would be a minor inconvenience and again promised that I would never spend a day in prison. I paid him another twenty thousand dollars in cash to guarantee that outcome. I returned to Cincinnati, confident that my arrest was no more than a slight bump in our road.

The morning after my return, I was at breakfast with my darling Imogene. She had been crying and I had been telling her not to worry. Then I saw the morning papers. Jess Smith, about to be implicated in what would become known as the Teapot Dome scandals, had taken a hotel room in New York City and blown his brains out against the wall.

I was sentenced to two years in the Atlanta Federal Prison. Again, Remus was not concerned. For a man of my wealth, Atlanta was little less than a fine hotel. We had white linen tablecloths, lobster flown in from Maine. On many evenings, my wife stayed the night and on those nights we were guests in the warden's visitors' cottage just outside the prison walls.

These were some of the finest days (and nights) of my life. Looking back, they seem to me like those last, best days of summer. A fall chill hints in the air, making the summer moments that remain all the more poignant and precious. Imogene and I were never closer. We made love. We made plans.

I had made all the arrangements to protect our business long ago. The distilleries, all the property and cash, were in Imogene's name. The men who worked for me were a hard bunch, and we had had our struggles over power, over territory, over how to run my growing empire, but they were smart enough to know that I would make them richer still if they stuck by me. Imogene would run the business until I was released from prison. Then we would sell out. We would spend the rest of our lives together, perhaps in Europe, Paris maybe, or in a chateau that we would buy on a Swiss lake.

It was about eight months into my sentence that the worm began to turn. Franklin Dodge, not content with simply having brought me successfully to trial, caught wind of the fact that some of us in Atlanta were living a bit beyond what the public considered proper for a guest of the state. He came to the prison to see for himself and, in short order, the lobster, the tablecloths, the evenings with Imogene were all gone. Remus was not worried. I am from tough, German stock. I've lived easy and I've lived hard and it was no great effort to spend little more than a year as a convict with the promise of Imogene and that Swiss lake to keep me whole.

But Imogene, deeply saddened by the change in my situation, concerned for me, took it upon herself to go to see Dodge, to ask for some sort of consideration, and that was where the worm turned for a second time. I play the scene of their first meeting over in my head. I start before it. I start when we first came to Cincinnati. Did I disgust her even then? Had I been nothing but her ticket out of a Chicago delicatessen and a dead-end life? I don't see it that way. I watch our nights in bed together. I watch the promises we made. I watch her, coming out of the pool that I built for her. I wrap her in a towel and hold her and she smiles up at me with those wide, open eyes. And she loves the man that she sees. I was her fool, but all men are fools and I don't know that she had planned her escape, or even felt that she was trapped until I went to prison. Was she a bird in a gilded cage? A whore sleeping on satin sheets? I only know that she came to see me shortly after my circumstances in the prison had been reduced. What I think is that she saw me then, really saw me, for the first time. Saw a man who needed her in a way that young, beautiful women despise being needed. And this is what I think she was; a woman still young enough to shun her own mortality when she saw it reflected in the eyes of her suddenly much older husband.

Dodge was a man of Imogene's own age. He had a different sort of authority. A different sort of power. We all thought that he was incorruptible. In fact, he'd just been looking for an opportunity. Soon after he and my wife met, they became lovers. When that happened I don't know and it is a scene that I don't care to play. They became lovers and Dodge resigned from the Bureau. He and Imogene liquidated all of my assets, hiding the money in various locations around the Midwest. They tried to have me deported, Imogene bringing proofs that my father had never become a citizen. She went so far as to offer one of my own associates fifteen thousand dollars to kill me upon my release from prison. She was always a bit cautious with money. Had she offered twenty, I might be long dead, and Imogene might have her own tale to tell.

I came out from prison to find our home emptied of all our possessions. I had little left to my name. A few thousand dollars, most of it from a pittance Imogene had allowed me after selling the Fleischman Company for a tenth of what it was worth. I had a Chrysler automobile, and I had my chauffeur, with whom I had always been rather close. His name, like mine, and like that of my uncle who had owned the pharmacy in which I'd worked as a boy, was George. Imogene had by then filed for a divorce.

It was a winter day in 1927. George was driving me to the courthouse to finalize the divorce. We were approaching Eden Park when I saw, in a cab as it passed us, Imogene and Ruth, my adopted daughter. I had George follow them. As we neared the park, I could tell that Imogene had seen that she was being followed, had recognized the car, and was having the cab try to out distance us. I yelled for George to take them down and we gave chase.

We had reached a secluded section of the park when George succeeded in running the cab off the road. Imogene, as if sensing what was to come, leapt from the cab. I was out now too, holding the revolver that George always kept in the back seat in case of an encounter with some bootlegger or other criminal. I shouted for Imogene to turn and face me. Ruth was on my arm now, begging me not to shoot. I pushed her away and then I shot my wife twice in the back of the head. I can still see the mist of blood and brain spraying up against the leafless trees of winter in Eden Park. I hear the sound of Imogene as she fell dead onto the snowy ground. I see her wide, open eyes staring, lifeless, at her own blood pumping out onto the snow.

I returned now to the legal trade, pleading my own defense. That defense was obvious. I had pled it before. Guilty by reason of transitory insanity. The endless circles that make up the dance of life.

The trial competed with Charles Lindberg's Atlantic crossing for the headlines that spring. Clarence Darrow and many others spoke in my defense. I had long been a welcome fixture of the city. Generous, quite popular. I was known to be kind, even-tempered. No one likes a cheating wife, and a good man deeply in love and betrayed; that is a pain that most can understand. This time, my plea worked. It took the jury only nineteen minutes to decide to acquit. Transitory insanity; a temporary lapse in the ability to tell right from wrong. The courtroom erupted in a burst of spontaneous enthusiasm that, I must admit, rather warmed my heart.

For a time, I thought of going back into the business, but it was overrun now with criminals. More to the point, my reason for doing anything that grand was gone.

Sometimes I'm sorry that I killed her.

About the Author

Les Bohem has been writing for a long, long time. He used to play in a band. Look for his new CD, "Moved to Duarte" available later this year.