Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Broken Wings: Finding George Remus

A few weeks ago, while attending a festival in my Mother's hometown, Falmouth, we stopped in to Riverside cemetery to "visit" with my grandparents. As we paid our respects, I realized it was just daylight enough to go scoundrel hunting. About a year ago, I was watching Ken Burns' series Prohibition. As the story unfolded, he covered a chapter of history I had only vaguely heard stories about: prohibition and the Cincinnati area. I knew the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky area had been a hotbed of illegal activity that began with the prohibition era, but I had never heard of its king: George Remus. In a stunning footnote to history, it turns out George was buried in the same cemetery as my grandparents, despite his life and death in the Cincinnati/Covington areas. Burns also noted that locals remembered his stone because it contained angels, whose wings were ripped off shortly after he was buried there. This was something I had to see for myself.
In very short order, we found him. It wasn't hard at all since the cemetery isn't that large. Plus, I can count on one hand the number of stones that contain any type of statue. Based on the date of his death, I knew he had to be in the older portion of the cemetery, and with the "angels" clue, we found him within a few minutes of driving around. And sure enough, the wings were missing.
The stone itself marks a joint plot containing George, his third wife, Blanche Watson, and two individuals from Blanche's family: Belle and J. Taylor Watson. Based on the life dates of Belle and J. Taylor, I'm guessing this may be Blanche's parents (Belle: 1854-1938 & J. Taylor: 1846-1889)

So, looking at the stone as a joint product, I tried to link up a timeline of its construction. Based on the style of the stones, it was not something from the 1880s when J. Taylor died, nor did it appear to be contemporary to the 1950s when George died. However, taking the death date of Belle into consideration, I'm guessing the stone was nearer to her death date of 1938, when George and Blanche were already a married couple.

I also noticed that the individual burial locations based on gender had been switched. In most cases, the husband is planted first, on the left, and the wife on the right. Here we have George and Blanche correct, but Belle and J. Taylor are switched to place Belle and Blanche next to each other. This is not completely unheard of, but solidifies a close bond between the women. Ironically, in the newer part of the cemetery, my grandparents pulled the same switcheroo so my grandmother and her sister could be buried next to one another without displacing their spouses. Of course, even this switch is odd because if J. Taylor was the first to be interred in 1889, Blanche and George did not even know each other at the time. Perhaps the arrangement was made sentimentally at an earlier date? Conjecture on my part - but all things must be considered when analyzing burial placement. Of course, it goes without saying: wouldn't we also love to know who ripped the wings off? If it was done prior to Blanche's death in 1974, as the reports say, why didn't she have them repaired? Unless she knew that was a useless waste of money.

If the monument itself is a product of 1938, this speaks volumes as to George's last years. These years are something that has begun to intrigue me a bit. Of all the things written about George, his bootlegging, prison time, and murder of his second wife (without prison time for the murder), very little has been written of his years after prohibition. The last 20 years or so are relegated to postscripts - most concur that he attempted to rebuild his fortune, through business and liquor sales, etc., but they all conclude that he failed in his attempt and lived out the rest of his years in obscurity, dying at his home in Covington. But, how obscurely did he live, and to what extent did he really fail?

According to other reports, he had a nice real estate office in Cincinnati, and even owned stock in the Reds baseball team. From what I remember of Burns' production, it was the liquor part that failed on the second go round. I'm assuming the rest of his business was lucrative, at least to provide comfortable means. Let's just assume that the stone itself, in all its elaborate design serves as proof that George did have a decent size fortune. After all, the rest of Blanche's family plot does not match this opulence. The surrounding Watson stones are modest to say the least - very small indeed. Which brings me to the conclusion that the statue was a product of George's money, not Blanche's.

If you ever get the time, you should read up on George. It is a fascinating story. As a young German immigrant (age 5), he was later known as the King of the Bootleggers, and also got away with murder after shooting his second wife, Imogene, in cold blood up at Eden Park. Seriously, a rather twisted guy. Legend has it that Fitzgerald based his Great Gatsby character on Remus after meeting him at the Seelbach Hotel in Louisville (legend light on documentation) - but you get the idea about this guy's lavish and brazen lifestyle.

I also found it worth note that his change in professional venue from Chicago to Cincinnati, during the height of prohibition, was not just based on the overly crowded and protected territory under Capone, but on the German friendly population of Cincinnati that was already adept at producing a crap ton of liquor. Those family ties folks - remain strong in crime as well as genealogy.

As a postscript to my own family history - George's link to Falmouth has intrigued me even more. When I heard about the prolific nature of liquor production in Northern Kentucky, during and after prohibition, I suspected my great-grandfather's German immigrant family had a part in this profession. They were always listed as farmers in the census, but the family tradition of wine production is cemented with family artifacts related to said endeavor. One court record even relates the story of accused slander during a wine sale gone wrong - in Covington.

The family's wine production is a subject I hope to research more, but it's hard to research a profession purposefully veiled in secrecy. One clue that keeps me hot on the trail is a picture from 1935 - just after prohibition. My great aunt and uncle (brother and sister) sitting on the hoods of their matching brand new cars. By legal profession, he was a farmer, and she was a domestic servant in Cincinnati. During the depression, this was a highly unusual purchase for their legal circumstances. 1935 was during the time when Remus was trying to rebuild his liquor empire - with the Falmouth/German connection, did they know the Watson family and work for Remus? I highly doubt it - but Remus was known for a complex network of "connections" to supply his inventory - and he was well known for paying them quite handsomely. I guess I have some more research to do!


Bill Harshaw said...

Remus is a character in HBO's Boardwalk Empire.

Unknown said...

Bill, I've heard about that, but sadly haven't seen any of the episodes. I hope they are making his character bigger than life - as he was in reality!

TheDaughter said...

You need to talk to Danny Woodhead of Woodhead Funeral Home in Falmouth. He can tell you what happened to the Angel's wings. His family is part of that story. It's an interesting story.


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