Books

Book Review: ‘The Ghosts of Eden Park’

TIMEDecember 27, 2021

When we think gangsters and Prohibition, Brooklyn-born Al Capone usually comes to mind. Known as “Scarface,” Capone gained notoriety for his reign as the crime boss of The Chicago Outfit.

Twenty-five years before Capone is born, another later-to-be American gangster is born in Berlin, Germany.

“The Ghosts of Eden Park” tells the story of this German immigrant with immense smarts and talent who uses his energies to find ways to skirt the law rather than take the path of a respected trial lawyer.

Known as the Volstead Act, the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution was passed in 1919 outlawing the manufacture, sale, barter, transport, import, export, and distribution of intoxicating liquor.

In his pursuit of abundant wealth, George Remus (1874-1952) embarks on a destructive path pitting his, often troubled personality, against a devious wife and a savvy, maverick prosecutor. You don’t expect that it is going to end well.

One of the aspects that makes “The Ghosts of Eden Park” so thrilling to read is the architecture of the narrative itself.

Known for her talent to bring real-life dramas to light, Abbott has taken this factual story from the 1920s Age of Excess giving the reader real-life gangsters, flapper girls, cagey law enforcers, and a persistent, morally driven prosecutor, and created a page-turner narrative.

The characters, plot, lavish parties, murder, prison time, and courtroom trial scenes are all real. They all happened.

As Abbott explains in her introductory remarks, “As strange as this story may seem, this is a work of nonfiction, with no invented dialogue. Everything that appears between quotation marks comes from a government file, archive, diary, letter, newspaper article, book, or most often, a hearing or trial transcript.”

Abbott sees and shares this story through her keen novelist’s eye. Murder, intrigue, and Jazz Age indulgence reveal what can happen when human nature is lured and tempted when greed, fame, and lust coalesce. Human vulnerability is exposed.

Remus ricochets between his conflicting personalities—at times seemingly the perfect husband and father, a consummate professional to a lawless and unforgiving madman. Mistrust and jealousy knock continually against his comfort zone.

Remus adores his wife, Imogene. He spoils her with material opulence. He is also intensely jealous of her, and perhaps for good reason. Readers will soon learn that her manipulative motivations will lead to his undoing.

Telling the story of the rise and fall of George Remus allows Abbott to introduce readers to another woman—this one quite sensational.

Staying true to the facts of the story, Abbot gives readers a look into the life of Mabel Walker Willebrandt popularly known by her contemporaries at the time as The First Lady of Law. As only the second woman to receive an appointment to Assistant Attorney General (1921-1929), one of her main missions was handling cases concerning violations of the Volstead Act. She was the highest-ranking woman in federal government at the time and the first woman to head the Tax Division.

Willebrandt proves herself a fine foil during the Prohibition-era crackdown and learning of her dogged efforts is enlightening. American history has its strong women and pulling them from the pages of history brings new knowledge to the table, along with a tremendous amount of respect.

Along with Willebrandt, readers will get a look at a 29-year-old rising star J. Edgar Hoover. While many considered him too young, Willebrandt had lobbied for his promotion as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigations.

As Abbott writes, “[Willebrandt] had told Attorney General Stone that Hoover was ‘honest and informed and one who operated like an electric wire, with almost trigger response.'”

Abbott is masterful in her writing approach with vivid details, colorful prose, and an action-packed plot taken from the headlines of Gatsby-era America.

For readers who enjoy history and crime sagas, particularly those set against the backdrop of the Jazz Age, this is a book worth picking up.

It’s entertaining, engaging, and full of surprising, historical details. And it’s all true.

“The Ghosts of Eden Park: The Bootleg King, the Women Who Pursued Him and the Murder That Shocked Jazz-Age America”
By Karen Abbott
Crown, 2019, 432 pages

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Anita L. Sherman is an award-winning journalist who has more than 20 years of experience as a writer and editor for local papers and regional publications in Virginia. She now works as a freelance writer and is working on her first novel. She is the mother of three grown children and grandmother to four, and she resides in Warrenton, Va. Anita can be reached at anitajustwrite@gmail.com