Sunday, January 11, 2004

Squeaky-clean Queen City once had 3,000 speakeasies

Cincinnati 101

Cliff Radel

Allen Singer loves to poke the soft underbelly of Cincinnati's contradictory nature.

In his first book, The Cincinnati Subway, he explained how short-sighted petty politics led a progressive city government to pull the plug on a modern subway system in 1927.

Now he's trying to make sense out of another ill-fated venture. He's working on Cincinnati Speakeasies. The book tells the story of a town, famous for crowing about its high morals, that supported an illegal network of speakeasies serving bootleg booze during Prohibition.

"My research," Singer said, "shows that at one point Cincinnati had 3,000 speakeasies."

He wants to know the whereabouts of those illicit bars. He'd like to see photos and hear stories about speakeasy life in Cincinnati.

Know anyone who worked in one of those joints, sampled the wares, played in the bands, delivered the hooch, watched for the cops and can repeat the secret knock that opened the speakeasy's door? Call Singer at (859) 291-4484 or e-mail him (

Writing about the subway drove him to drink. Figuratively.

The Cincinnati Subway - about a folly that was nearly two-thirds complete when it was permanently derailed by City Hall - came out in the spring of 2003. With 2,400 copies sold, it's in its third printing. And yet, Singer still has a powerful thirst "for the 1920s and 1930s. It was a fascinating time."

He's in a race with time. Prohibition started Jan. 16, 1920, and ended Dec. 5, 1933. People with firsthand knowledge are in their 80s and 90s.

"I must act fast to hear their stories," he said.

He's heard one about a house with a still on the second floor. Thirsty customers came in, knocked in code and the spirits were poured down a pipe. Bring your own bottle.

Local lore tells of speakeasies in the basements and garages of mansions in North Avondale and Hyde Park. Bootleg gin was allegedly made in St. Bernard and in a downtown bathtub at Arnold's Bar & Grill.

That's nothing to the tale of George Remus, the King of the Bootleggers. Living in a palatial Price Hill home with a marble-lined swimming pool and doing business on a farm near Cheviot, he pocketed $17.5 million a year in the early days of Prohibition. Al Capone was one of his rivals.

Federal agents raided Remus' business in 1921. They confiscated 500 gallons of gin, 13 barrels of whiskey and $40,000 worth of firearms from revolvers to machine guns. He went to prison in 1925.

The bootlegger got out of jail in 1927, just in time to gun down his two-timing wife in Eden Park. Swell guy.

Singer even came across a Prohibition-related story while researching his subway book. A report noted that bootleggers had set up shop in one of the subway's abandoned tunnels.

That mention will definitely be made in his speakeasy book.

Must keep poking the city's soft underbelly.


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