During the height of 1920’s Prohibition, the Federal Courthouse in downtown Indianapolis was home to a trial that exemplified many of the issues surrounding prohibition. It was dubbed “The Jack Daniels Whiskey case.”
At the time, the Federal Courthouse was also home to the central post office and housed an array of federal agencies. Though the courthouse has undergone many changes in the decades since the trial, the murals on the walls in the courtroom, the judge’s bench, clerk’s bench, and attorney’s tables all remain the same in what is now the Honorable William E. Steckler’ Ceremonial Courtroom.
“The Jack Daniels Whiskey Case,” as US v. Motlow was commonly known, featured so-called “King of the Bootleggers” George Remus, who was heavily involved in a conspiracy, but turned government witness to protect himself. Formerly an attorney, Remus had gotten into bootlegging “for the thrill and excitement of the game.” He was an exceptional bootlegger and had made tens of millions of dollars doing it. His connection to this Indianapolis case added an element of drama to the proceedings. That legacy continues today, as his character is represented on the popular HBO series “Boardwalk Empire.”
In 1923, Remus became part owner of the Jack Daniels distillery in St. Louis—invited to participate due to his extensive knowledge of bootlegging. Unfortunately for Remus, some of the inexperienced players in the conspiracy failed to play their part as directed. Federal prohibition agents discovered theft of whiskey when they stopped a truck being driven from St. Louis to Indianapolis containing four barrels of whisky that were connected to the Jack Daniels distillery. As a result, thirty-five individuals, including George Remus, were indicted.
Remus’ directive about how to foil the law were ignored, as co-conspirators were more concerned with turning a quick profit. In August, the St. Louis conspirators instructed their contact at the distillery to drain the barrels of all of their whiskey—30,000 gallons worth—and begin distribution. This was contrary to Remus’ instruction to slowly drain the reserves–by removing six gallons of whiskey from each of the 896 barrels in the warehouse. They merely needed to add enough water and alcohol to bring the barrels up to proof without ruining what remained in the barrels. Then, after the barrels were tested and verified by government agents, they could tap from the kegs again, repeat the process, and avoid detection.
Instead, each barrel was drained of whiskey and refilled with water and alcohol–bringing barrels up to proof. However, if any government agent tasted the “whiskey,” he would immediately know that the whiskey had been drained.
The other conspirators had a number of employees at the distillery who received kickbacks and bribes to make sure that the government “gauger” would taste only real whiskey. However, they hadn’t counted on a gauger arriving at a time when no conspirators were present. Instead, “gauger” Charles Barlow arrived to conduct inspections when the nightwatchman was on duty. The nightwatchman, innocently and unknowingly, betrayed the secret when he complied with Barlow’s request for a taste from one of the barrels. One sip, and the conspiracy came crashing down.
Investigators in the case received their first big break on December 15, 1923, when Marion County Sheriff, George Snider, pulled over a suspicious armored truck on the National Road, just west of Indianapolis. He quickly realized the truck had been following a touring car, which doubled back after the truck stopped. Sheriff Snider discovered four barrels of real Jack Daniel’s whiskey—worth about $16,000—in the truck. Authorities had collected some of the siphoned whiskey, along with the men who transported it, and they also now had a new location for a trial: Indianapolis.
Indiana was a notoriously dry state, and the district judge who drew the case, Robert C. Baltzell, was known across the country for handing out harsh sentences for prohibition-related offenses. Judge Baltzell, who presided in this courtroom from his appointment in January 1925 until his death in 1950, took on the Jack Daniel’s case with vigor.
The jury returned guilty verdicts for 24 of the men who had stood trial, including Remus. Three defendants who had testified in their own defense were acquitted by the jury. The judge then overturned a guilty verdict against one of the men, and granted a second a new trial.
The conspiracy and the trial that resulted from it were historically and legally significant. The government was successful in breaking up one of the largest bootlegging operations in the Midwest, and taking the conspiracy down from the lowest rum runners to the highly placed, politically influential, financiers.
U.S. v. Motlow unfolded against the backdrop of the marble walls of the Federal courthouse in Indianapolis and remains one of the most significant parts of the court’s legacy. It was one of the most unusual and dramatic cases to have been held there. The case effectively issued a warning that no man, regardless of power or position, was outside the reach of the National Prohibition Act.
For more information about Prohibition and the exhibition running through Feruary 15, 2015, visit Indiana Museum’s American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition.
Want to know more about Indianapolis whiskey history before you visit the exhibit? Check out this Indianapolis Collected article.
Guest author: Doria Lynch