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Roy Olmstead: Seattle's "Rum King"

On March 22, 1920, federal agents nabbed a tugboat crew unloading Canadian whiskey on a beach near Edmonds. Prohibition had been in effect for 3 months, and this was the first big raid in the Northwest – the feds seized 100 cases of liquor and arrested 11 people, including a young police lieutenant named Roy Olmstead.

Olmstead was fined $500 and lost his job; the incident ended what had been a promising career in law enforcement. From a bootlegging perspective, however, it was Olmstead’s best move yet. Having spent years as a police officer studying the illegal liquor trade and building a network of high-ranking friends in judicial circles, Olmstead was now free to devote himself full time to becoming Seattle’s “Rum King.”

Roy Olmstead’s bootlegging empire dwarfed any other liquor operation in Seattle, and many legal businesses as well. Seattle’s Prohibition-era booze was mostly imported from Canada, where alcohol remained legal. Roy Olmstead purchased Canadian liquor in massive quantities, loading it onto ships ostensibly headed for Mexico. (This was to avoid paying the $20-per-case fee the Canadians slapped on liquor shipments bound for the U.S.) As the ships headed south from Vancouver, they unloaded the cargo on islands in Haro Strait for later retrieval.

A fleet of fast boats picked up shipments of liquor from the secret caches and delivered them all over Puget Sound, operating on dark, stormy nights in order to avoid hijackers and the Coast Guard. (The Boeing Company manufactured powerful engines for these speedboats – a side business that some say helped keep the company afloat when demand for airplanes plummeted after WWI.)

Bruce Rowell, a jazz club manager from Columbia City, recalled liquor deliveries to “The Ranch,” a roadhouse on Hwy 99, north of Seattle. Roadhouses were drinking establishments located on the outskirts of towns; they took advantage of less stringent liquor laws outside city limits and allowed patrons quick access to the highway in case of a raid. The Ranch had the added advantage of proximity to a small beach where Olmstead’s running boats would unload their cargo.

With his economies of scale, and without the Canadian fee, Olmstead could undersell other importers by a hefty margin. Eventually he was able to absorb or eliminate most of his competitors. Olmstead never let his rumrunners carry weapons, insisting that “Nothing we do is worth a human life.” So even though hijackers sometimes tried to steal his shipments, the liquor trade in the Northwest was far less violent than in other parts of the country, where turf wars between mobsters often led to bloody events like Chicago’s “Valentine’s Day Massacre.”.

Roy Olmstead’s responsible, businesslike approach to smuggling earned him a stellar reputation (along with hundreds of thousands of dollars, of course). A gracious, gregarious man, Olmstead was welcome at Seattle’s best homes and clubs. He and his wife Elsie bought a mansion in Mount Baker (3757 Ridgeway Place), where they entertained in style. Elsie installed a radio station in a spare bedroom, and she read children’s stories over the air every night. Rumors that she used her children’s program to deliver coded messages to rumrunners on Puget Sound appear to be unfounded.

Olmstead had little to fear from local law enforcement, as most of the key policemen, prosecutors, and judges were his loyal friends and customers – or on his payroll. Federal Prohibition agent William Whitney, however, developed a personal grudge against Olmstead and determined to bring him down. His agents tried every they trick in the book catch Olmstead out, and eventually resorted to tapping Olmstead’s phones.

Olmstead knew his phones were tapped, but figured that since wiretapping was against state law, such evidence could never be used against him. He took great pleasure in using the tapped lines to deliver false leads, along with pointed insults about Agent Whitney himself, disguised as casual conversation.

It all came to a head on Thanksgiving Day, 1924, when federal agents broke into the mansion, rounded up the inhabitants, and began making telephone calls. Imitating Olmstead’s voice, Whitney invited all the bootlegger’s friends to come over for a wild party – and bring liquor. Would-be revelers who showed up with bottles and cases of booze were dismayed to find themselves corralled into the parlour at gunpoint.

Olmstead, his wife, and dozens of others were arrested that night. In the end 29 people were tried, including Olmstead himself. At the trial, the illegally obtained wiretapped evidence was admitted, much to Olmstead’s lawyer’s outrage. Olmstead, on the other hand, is reported to have laughed uproariously when transcripts of his phony telephone calls were read aloud in court. Olmstead was convicted, but appealed based on the illegal wiretapping issue. Eventually the case came before the Supreme Court, which ruled against him.

That wasn’t the end of the story, however. Civil liberties advocates were appalled by the Supreme Court ruling, and the dissenting opinion by Justice Louis Brandeis proved far more influential than the decision itself. “In a government of laws,” Brandeis wrote, “existence of government will be imperiled if it fails to observe the laws scrupulously… If the government becomes a lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for the law.”

Thus we have the Rum King to thank not only for keeping Seattle in Canadian whiskey for half a decade, but also for Justice Brandeis’s famous assertion of “the right to be left alone” – and the anti-wiretapping laws Congress later passed to protect that right.

Roy Olmstead’s colorful career is recounted in Emmett Watson’s book, Once Upon a Time in Seattle.


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