The Good Bootlegger: Roy Olmsted


When I created my bootlegger character David, I had in mind the real bootlegger, Roy Olmsted. I learned about him in Daniel Okrent’s LAST CALL: “Olmsted had entered public life as a promising member of the Seattle Police Department, praised by the department’s very dry chief as ‘quick and responsive . . . bright and competent.’ But Olmsted’s competence extended beyond ordinary police work, and while still a member of the department . . . he began running liquor from Canada. Roy Olmsted was handsome, personable, intelligent, and remarkably ethical. He never diluted his imports or blended them with industrial alcohol as so many other bootleggers did, and he dealt in such volume that he was able to undersell every other bootlegger in the Pacific Northwest. . . he ‘avoided the sordid behavior of others in the same business–no murder, no narcotics, no rings or prostitution or gambling’–and as a result, ‘many people could not regard him as an authentic criminal.'”

What happened to Roy? Like my fictional David, he served time in prison–four years. President Roosevelt later pardoned him. Not sure whether a pardon is in David’s future . . .

Published in: on December 30, 2016 at 9:07 am  Leave a Comment  
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Lydia Pinkham’s Cures All

Long before Prohibition, women feeling unwell had sought relief in Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, a patent medicine. Made of 21% alcohol, it certainly provided a big swig of relief! There weren’t many vegetables in Ms. Pinkham’s miracle compound, but each bottle had the equivalent of almost 8 ounces of 80-proof whiskey, enough to make a patient feel high or even drunk. The odd thing is, Ms. Pinkham was a temperance devotee, but maybe making money trumped personal preferences.

I’ve been interested in these patent medicines because one of my characters is a bootlegger and in the third book of the series, he runs a scam at a drug store that involves medicinal alcohol. His scheme is to capitalize on the ability of doctors, dentists, and even vets, to write prescriptions for liquor if it was intended for medicinal use. I did not make this up! I didn’t need to–people in the Roaring Twenties came up with hundreds of ways to work the system and get legal prescriptions for alcohol.