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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Roy Olmstead "The Good Bootlegger"

The Seattle police second patrol, November 11, 1919. (Seattlepi.com file)

The photo above was taken November 11, 1919, showing the second patrol in Seattle, Washington. The eighth officer from the left in the second row from the bottom is Roy Olmstead. He was the department's youngest lieutenant, Olmstead was able to figure out how bootleggers operated. Washington, at the time, was one of 23 states that had enacted "dry laws" before the national prohibition went into effect. He lost his job when he was caught unloading whiskey with some bootleggers. What Olmstead learned from the bootleggers allowed him to create one of the biggest bootlegger rings of the time. Olmstead became well known amongst Seattle's elite citizens for his role in supplying the speakeasies with Canadian whiskey. It may seem like this is a story about a bootlegger, which is true, but, this is also a story about rehabilitation as well.

"Olmstead built Seattle's first commercial radio station in his Mount Baker home, and his wife broadcast the first kids show in the Northwest. But the show wasn't done for the kids. Elsie Olmstead peppered her fairytales with code words for her husband's crew, telling them exactly where and when they were to meet with Canadian booze freighters". Clearly, Olmstead was a bright individual, he figured out how to navigate his way through the murky waters of prohibition. Known on the West Coast as "the Good Bootlegger" because he did not dilute the whiskey to increase profits nor did he use toxic chemicals, the only crime he committed was supplying alcohol to speakeasies. Olmstead, unlike other bootleggers of the time, he did not use: prostitution, gambling, gunrunning, and narcotics trafficking as another source of income.

The Fed's were finally able to stop Olmstead with the use of wiretaps which he would argue was unconstitutional and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court where it was upheld. While in prison Olmstead began practicing Christian Science helping people with their alcoholism and rehabilitation. President Roosevelt gave Olmstead a full pardon on December 25, 1935, for his good deeds during his four year sentence at McNeil Island Correctional Institute. Olmstead continued to go back to the prison to help inmates for decades until his death.

Olmstead's was making $200,000 a month when he was a bootlegger, about 8 million dollars a month in today's money. When Olmstead died in 1966 his estate was worth $28,000, at his request he had no funeral.


The Seattle PI

Last Call:The Rise and Fall of Prohibition

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