The Ghosts of Eden Park by Karen Abbott


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Prohibition was the United States’ ‘Noble Experiment’. Based on the perceived rise of alcoholism and violence in the 19th century, a movement started whose aim was to turn the still-young country ‘dry’ and allow people to embrace the protestant roots upon which the country was founded. It was a movement that was led from the countryside and hated, to a degree, by those in the cities. It was as much a push against the new immigrants to the country as it was to dry everyone out. The 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act that enforced it turned a nation of law-abiding citizens into criminals overnight and gave those of an entrepreneurial bent the chance to make vast sums of money. Early in the 1920s, a criminal defence lawyer and lifelong teetotaler named George Remus sat down and read the Volstead Act and found he run a coach and horses full of booze through the middle of it. Karen Abbott’s latest book, The Ghosts of Eden Park, looks at Remus, his wife Imogine and how Remus would go from the King of the Bootleggers to defending himself in court over the murder of his wife, pleading temporary insanity. 

George Remus was born in Germany in 1874 and came to America with his parents as a child. Forced to leave school at 14 to support the family, Remus worked in his Uncle’s pharmacy whereby the age of 21 he was a registered pharmacist and had bought the pharmacy. By 30 Remus had passed the bar and by his middle ‘40s was making a name for himself as a flamboyant criminal defence lawyer in Chicago. He’d married and had a daughter, Romola, but he fell in love with his secretary, Imogene. Theirs was a real love affair, and they complimented each other, with Imogene driving Remus on. With the passage of the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act, Remus saw an opportunity, and with Imogene’s support, they moved to Cincinnati where Remus had worked out that most of the whiskey in the US was within 300 miles. They then started buying up distilleries and the medicinal permits needed to withdraw the whiskey. Then, Remus’ men hijacked the whiskey. The money came in in boatloads. He called his system ‘The Circle’.

George Remus

George Remus

With this setup, Abbott paints 1920’s America with a beautiful brush. She fleshes out Remus’ story with an incredible cast that goes all the way up to two Presidents and the remarkable U.S. Assistant Attorney General, Mabel Walker Willebrandt. It is Willebrandt’s ‘Ace of Detectives’, Franklin Dodge, that would lead, to varying degrees, to both their downfalls. Abbott digs into these people with a laser focus, all the while showing the enormity of the task that was not only required in breaking the law but trying to uphold it.

Imogene Remus was as canny as her husband. When Remus finally goes down, he signs everything over to his love, and she promptly bleeds him dry. They were a perfect match for each other. Abbott uses Imogene’s letters to Remus as a catalyst to show just how wound around her fingers Imogene had her husband. Imogene and her lover, Willebrant’s agent Dodge, would be just as systematic in stripping Remus of his empire as Remus and Imogene were of building it. As Abbott nears that fateful day in Eden Park, she has you as hooked as Imogene did Remus.

Imogene Remus

Imogene Remus

Throughout the tale, Abbott’s uses the letters and testimony of her cast of characters to brilliant effect. While we think that much of the battle over alcohol was carried out at gunpoint, all sides used the press, and the press used them too. The newspapermen and the ‘colourful’ stories they wrote brings how the war over the Volstead Act was conducted in public and private and brings nuance to Abbott’s writing that sweeps you along.

As I finished Karen Abbott’s book, there was just one thought on my mind, ‘I wish I could write like this.’ Abbott’s prose is direct, and she uses an incredible economy of words. She can put you in the right moment and give you all the colour you need she takes you through Remus’ world. Whether it is discussing how to drain a distillery, the approach of early psychologists or how the legal system had to change to stay ahead of men like Remus, Abbott keeps you one step ahead, and her book flows like whiskey out of a bottle. The Ghosts of Eden Park is not just a Prohibition tale, it a story of love and betrayal, murder and how when a nation is screaming at itself over a divisive issue, someone can get away with murder.

The Ghosts of Eden Park is the best non-fiction book I’ve read this year.

The Ghosts of Eden Park by Karen Abbott is published by Penguin Random House USA and is out now. Karen Abbott kindly provided this review copy.

  1. Very nice review, can’t wait to finish it.

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