“The Ghosts of Eden Park” by Karen Abbott

“The Ghosts of Eden Park”
by Karen Abbott

New York: Crown, 2019
432 pp. $20

Reviewed by Ed Lengel

War often produces a social urge for moral purification. In 1917, Congress proposed a constitutional amendment to ban the sale of alcoholic beverages, nationwide. Anti-German feeling contributed to the idea; German American beer brewers and consumers, who had once led the opposition to disable the momentum for it, no longer had a public voice after American’s entry into World War I.

Ratification by the required thirty-six of forty-eight states took place January 16, 1919, the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution went into effect the following day, and Prohibition became law later that year with the passage of the Volstead Act.

So began, a century ago, a fourteen-year drama that would transform American society. The Ghosts of Eden Park captures the excitement of an era as it unfolds with all the power of Greek tragedy.

A German-American, ironically, instigated the first large-scale, organized attack on the Volstead Act. Even more paradoxically, he was a teetotaler. Born in Berlin, Germany, in 1874, George Remus came to the United States as a toddler, and matured into a shyster lawyer/pharmacist, with a nose for money. By the time Prohibition started, he was already quite wealthy, but–for him–the Volstead Act had weaknesses–and wiggle-room–for exploitation. Permits for the medical prescription of alcoholic beverages were easily procured by anyone with the resources to bribe the relevant officials. And, although Prohibition shut down distilleries across the country, millions of gallons of liquor processed before 1919 still sat in warehouses—many of them in and around Cincinnati; from that city, Remus elected to plunder the supply for sale to thirsty consumers who were willing to pay top dollar.

The continuing and powerful demand for liquor– which Prohibition could not stamp out–instantly corrupted American police and officialdom, and turned opportunists like Remus into millionaires overnight. Within a short time, he was known to the media as the Bootleg King, who openly bribed officials, distributed truckloads of liquor, and built a fairy-tale mansion known as Marble Palace that Jay Gatsby would have relished. In the process, he married Imogene Holmes, a woman of questionable background and virtue (according the standards of the time), who slipped easily into the role of society matron, while indulging an insatiable appetite for wealth and display.

Remus, however, was a coarse and violent man who understood nothing about subtlety. And, he made powerful enemies. Chief among them was the Assistant Attorney General, Mabel Walker Willebrandt, who targeted Remus, and quickly succeeded in bringing him down. Within a few years the Bootleg King, who had cockily assumed he was too powerful to fall–did, –and very hard. In 1925 he started serving a two-year federal sentence for violating the Volstead Act, that was to be followed up by additional time in Ohio on other charges.

Then, the vultures swooped in.

While Remus languished, his wife, Imogene, faithful at first, took up with a corrupt federal agent named Franklin Dodge—formerly one of Willebrandt’s favorite enforcers—and pillaged the Bootleg King’s ill-begotten riches. Humiliation and rage drove George Remus to insanity—or so he claimed—and on October 6, 1927, finally out of prison, he shot Imogene to death just before they were to be divorced. His subsequent trial by prosecutor Charles Phelps Taft, son of the former president, put Remus’s temporary insanity plea to the test in a legal case that gripped the nation.

The lurid intensity of Remus’s life and times provides temptation for the kind of vapid writing that was as common in celebrity magazines a century ago, as it is now. Abbott resists the trap by leaning heavily on court transcripts to present the tale just as it happened, and the characters just as they were. At times, this results in prose as mechanical as any police report, but the innate fascination of the subject enlivens Abbot’s scrupulously honest presentation and makes The Ghosts of Eden Park a compelling read with all the allure of the Jazz Age.

Ed Lengel is an author, a speaker, and a storyteller.