September 18, 1886|
Beaver City, Nebraska
|Died||April 30, 1966
|Occupation||Policeman, then bootlegger|
|Violating the National Prohibition Act and for conspiracy|
|Criminal status||Served term, later Pardoned|
|Allegiance||King County Bootleggers|
|Conviction(s)||January 19, 1925 (age 38)|
Roy Olmstead (September 18, 1886 – April 30, 1966) was one of the most successful and best-known bootleggers in the Pacific Northwest region during American Prohibition. A former lieutenant in the Seattle Police Department, he began to bootleg part-time while still on the force. Following his arrest for that crime, he lost his job in law enforcement and turned to illegally importing and distributing alcohol from Canada as a full-time and highly profitable occupation. Eventually, wiretaps of his phones provided sufficient evidence for his arrest and prosecution, despite an appeal that reached the Supreme Court regarding the legality of the wiretap.
Born in 1886 to farmers John and Sarah Olmstead, in Beaver City, Nebraska, Roy moved to Seattle, Washington, in 1904. Working in the Moran Brothers Co. shipyard before joining the Seattle Police Department on May 16, 1907, he rose rapidly through the ranks and was promoted to sergeant on April 5, 1910; his brothers Frank and Ralph were also on the Seattle force. Seattle police chief Joe Warren (1858–1934) was so impressed with Sgt Olmstead's intelligence and professionalism, he appointed him Acting Lieutenant in 1917, with the promotion being made permanent on January 22, 1919.
When Washington State prohibited the manufacturing and selling of alcohol in 1916, the police force began raiding bootleg operations. Olmstead, noting the potential for profit, began his own bootlegging operation while still a policeman. On March 22, 1920, Olmstead was identified driving around a roadblock set by Prohibition Bureau agents raiding a rum-running operation. He was fired from the force and paid a fine of $500, but now could devote his full attention to his smuggling operations.
He ran his illegal operation like a business and before long he became one of the largest employers in Puget Sound. Known on the West Coast as "the Good Bootlegger", Olmstead did not engage in the practice of diluting his contraband with toxic industrial grade chemicals in order to increase his profits, selling only bonded liquor imported from Canada. To most other bootleggers, smuggling alcohol was but one facet of their criminal organization, and many were involved in prostitution, gambling, gun-running, and narcotics trafficking. Olmstead did not engage in these activities, and many did not regard him as a "true criminal" as a result. Despite the risks involved in rum-running, Olmstead did not allow his employees to carry firearms, telling his men he would rather lose a shipment of liquor than a life.
In early October 1924, Roy and Elise Olmstead started radio station KFQX, with the assistance of inventor Al Hubbard. For the most part, Elise ran the station. Typical of stations of the time, it had a variety format. The most popular program was "Aunt Vivian," where Mrs. Olmstead as "Aunt Vivian" read bedtime stories for children, beginning at 7:15 at night. This led to a popular legend that Elise inserted coded language into her stories as signals for her husband's bootlegging network. Elise was broadcasting from her home as usual on November 17, 1924, when the home was raided by government agents and put off the air.
KFQX's legacy is tangled with several different Seattle radio stations. After the raid the station was leased to Birt Fisher, who changed the call letters to KTCL. After Olmstead's liquor trial ended, he sold the station to Vincent Kraft who changed the call sign to KXA and moved the frequency from 570 to 770, the dial position now occupied by KTTH. Soon, KVI moved to 570. Birt Fisher was already in the process of starting up KOMO Radio when the lease on his previous station ended. Studios for KFQX were built in the Smith Tower, but were seldom used for that station before it changed hands. They were later used by KEVR, which later became KING-AM, broadcasting at 1090 AM, a frequency now occupied by KFNQ.
Olmstead v. United States
Largely on the basis of evidence obtained through police wiretapping of his telephone, Olmstead was arrested and tried for conspiracy to violate the National Prohibition Act. A Federal grand jury returned a two-count indictment against Roy Olmstead and 89 other defendants on January 19, 1925, with the trial ending on February 20, 1926, with the conviction of 21 defendants including Roy Olmstead and his attorney, Jerry Finch. Olmstead was sentenced to four years with hard labor and fined $8,000; Finch receiving a sentence of two years and a fine of $500. Other defendants' sentences ranged from 15 months to three years, with fines; defendants who cooperated and testified for the government, received one-year sentences. He appealed his case, arguing that the incriminating wiretapping evidence, which had been obtained without a warrant, constituted a violation of his constitutional rights to privacy and against self-incrimination. However, in February 1928 the Supreme Court upheld the conviction in the landmark case of Olmstead v. United States.
Prison and later life
Olmstead spent his four-year prison sentence at the McNeil Island Correctional Institute, and was released on May 12, 1931, with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporting: "He got the usual time off for good behavior, but aside from this, he served his full term plus thirty days for the $8,000 fine assessed against him." He moved back to Seattle to be with his wife and daughter, where he worked as an insecticides salesman and fumigator. On 25 December 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt granted him a full presidential pardon. Besides restoring his constitutional rights, the pardon remitted $100,000 the IRS claimed he owed in unpaid liquor taxes.
While in prison, Olmstead became a Christian Science practitioner and a carpenter; he later worked with prison inmates, in the Puget Sound area, on an anti-alcoholism agenda. He was a vibrant and active community member for his remaining years, teaching Sunday school and visiting the prisoners in the King County Jail every Monday morning. Olmstead and his wife separated in 1940 for personal and religious differences, and divorced in 1943. He died on April 30, 1966, at the age of 79.
- Daryl C. McClary (November 13, 2002). "Olmstead, Roy (1886–1966) — King of King County Bootleggers". HistoryLink. Retrieved January 5, 2012.
- Roy Olmstead, biography on the website of the 2011 PBS miniseries Prohibition. Accessed January 6, 2012.
- Ken Burns, Lynn Novick (October 2011). Prohibition; Episode 2: A Nation of Scofflaws; Good Bootlegger. PBS. ISBN 978-1-60883-430-3. OCLC 738476083.
- Daniel Okrent (2010), Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, Scribner Book Company, ISBN 0-7432-7702-3
- Metcalfe 2007, p. 69-70
- Metcalfe 2007, p. 102
- Richardson 1981, p. 33–37.
- Richardson 1981, p. 40.
- Richardson 1981, p. 134.
- Richardson 1981, p. 95.
- Prohibition’s Roy Olmstead: The Man Who No Longer Exists, BlogCritics.com, October 4, 2011. Last accessed January 6, 2012.
- Metcalfe 2007, p. 339
- Metcalfe 2007, p. 340
- Metcalfe 2007, p. 342
- Metcalfe, Phillip (2007). Whispering Wires. Portland, OR: Inkwater Press. ISBN 978-1-59299-252-2.
- Richardson, David (1981) Puget Sounds: A Nostalgic Review of Radio and TV in the Great Northwest ISBN 0-87564-636-0
- External links
- Olmstead, Roy (1886–1966) -- King of King County Bootleggers
- Roy Olmstead, biography on the website of the PBS miniseries Prohibition
- Prohibition’s Roy Olmstead: The Man Who No Longer Exists, BlogCritics.com