Tuesday, January 08, 2002

The Jazz Bird: Fact vs. fiction

        Craig Holden's novel The Jazz Bird, is based on the 1927 murder trial of Cincinnati bootlegger George Remus. Here's a quick look at where fact and fiction converge and diverge:

        George Remus, the killer

        Fiction: A lawyer and pharmacist who comes to Cincinnati from Chicago in the 1920s with a scheme that makes him at least $20 million. He buys distilleries licensed to sell “medicinal” whiskey to drug companies and then sells the booze to dummy drug companies while shipping it to illegal customers.

        Truth: A lawyer and pharmacist, he was a friend and co-counsel of famed defense lawyer Clarence Darrow. Mr. Darrow testified as a character witness for him at his trial. He came to Cincinnati from Chicago and turned a $10,000 investment into an estimated $80 million fortune in less than three years. He sold “medicinal” whiskey to legitimate drug companies he set up, then stole the whiskey from the drug companies.

        Charlie P. Taft, the prosecutor

        Fiction: He is the son of former United States President William Howard Taft and plans a career in politics. He fades away after losing the case.

        Truth: He was the youngest son of the former president. He became Hamilton County prosecutor just a few months before the trial. His political career suffered a setback after the trial — he wasn't nominated for a second term as prosecutor. He did stay in politics, helping found the Cincinnati Charter Committee and serving as a councilman and mayor until his retirement almost 50 years later. He ran an unsuccessful race as a Republican for Ohio governor in 1952, the year George Remus died.

        Imogene Remus, the victim

        Fiction: She is the wealthy 25-year-old daughter of a high society family in Cincinnati. She is the wife of a World War I veteran left in a coma by a shell fragment when she meets George Remus. She tries, unsuccessfully to get Remus accepted by Cincinnati society.

        Truth: She was a 35-year-old secretary in Chicago when she divorced her first husband to marry George Remus, who divorced his first wife to marry her. She entertained lavishly in Cincinnati in hopes of being accepted into Cincinnati society. The Cincinnati upper crust was willing to buy Mr. Remus' whiskey, but never accepted him, or his wife, as social equals. She was 39 when she was killed.

        The trial

        Fiction: George Remus defends himself, pleading not guilty by reason of insanity. He plays to the press and frequently disrupts the proceedings, which are likened to a Vaudeville show by the Enquirer. The jury acquits him in 20 minutes, recommends his release from the hospital in time for Christmas and drinks up at a party he throws for them.

        Truth: That's all true.


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