Roy Olmstead

Roy Olmstead, "the king of King County bootleggers," joined the Seattle, Washington, Police Department in 1907 and quickly rose through the ranks, becoming sergeant in 1910.

In 1916, Washington implemented state-wide alcohol prohibition. The next year Olmstead was promoted to lieutenant. In this role, the young police officer was involved in many arrests of rumrunners and bootleggers. In so doing, he noticed their lack of organization and the many mistakes they made. By the time the more strict National Prohibition law went into effect, Olmstead realized that bootlegging could be very profitable, especially if operated in a more systematic and businesslike manner.

Olmstead began his own bootleg operation as a side-line but was soon arrested and lost his job in law enforcement. Thus, he turned to bootlegging as a full-time and highly successful occupation. Within a short period of time Roy Olmstead's ad hoc business became one of Puget Sound's largest employers, utilizing office workers, bookkeepers, collectors, salesmen, dispatchers, warehousemen, mechanics, drivers, rum running crews, and legal counsel. He chartered a fleet of vessels, had numerous trucks and automobiles, and even purchased a farm to cache the contraband liquor. Before long, Olmstead's organization was delivering 200 cases of Canadian liquor to the Seattle area daily, and grossing about $200,000 a month.

In November of 1924 Roy Olmstead was again arrested, this time as a result of an informant and police wiretapping of his telephone. In February of the next year he was found guilty and convicted for violating the National Prohibition Act (Volstead Act) and for conspiracy. Olmstead appealed his case arguing that the wiretapping evidence used against him constituted a violation of his constitutional rights to privacy and against self-incrimination.

In 1928 the U.S. Supreme Court, in Olmstead v. the United States, upheld the conviction. Olmstead spent his four-year prison sentence at the McNeil Correctional Institute, after which he became a carpenter. On 25 December 25 of 1935, President Roosevelt gave Roy Olmstead a christmas present by pardoned him, excused him from his unpaid fines and court costs ($10,300), and restored his civil rights.

Eventually, Roy Olmstead became a full-time Christian Science practitioner, who also worked with prison inmates with an anti-alcoholism program for decades until his death in 1966 at the age of 79.

Widespread bootlegging was only one of the many problems caused by National Prohibition that led the American people to reject it three-to-one in favor of Repeal.

In spite of the clear failure of Prohibition, many people and organizations today support neo-prohibition ideas and many vestiges of Prohibition are still strongly defended.


References and Resources on Roy Olmstead and the Roy Olmstead Wiretapping Case:

  • Black, Forrest. Ill-Starred Prohibition Cases. Boston: R.G Badger, 1931. Roy Olmstead case described.
  • Broderick, Henry. Prohibition Seattle Style. Seattle: Dogwood Press, 1969. The important role of Roy Olmstead is described.
  • Charns, Alexander. Cloak and Gavel: FBI Wiretaps, Bugs, Informers, and the Supreme Court. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992. Supreme Court case of Roy Olmstead is included.
  • Clark, Norman. The Dry Years. Prohibition & Social Change in Washington. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1965. Presents the story of Roy Olmstead's criminal career.
  • Dash, Samuel. The Eavesdroppers. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1959. Describes Roy Olmstead case.
  • Economic History of Seattle (The). ( watkins/seattle.htm+%22The+Economic+History+of +Seattle%22&hl=en&gl=us&ct=clnk&cd=1 Roy Olmstead played a major role in the economy of Seattle during the early years of National Prohibition.
  • Freund, Paul. The Supreme Court of the United States: Its Business, Purpose, and Performance.New York: Meridian Books, 1961. Significance of Roy Olmstead Case explained.
  • Johnson, Burt. Roy Olmstead's Story ( ~samaha/bill_of_rights/case%2520materials/olmstead/ olmstead_background.pdf+%22Burt+Johnson %22+Olmstead&hl=en&gl=us&ct=clnk&cd=9
  • Keve, Paul W. The McNeil Century: The Life and Times of an Island Prison. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1984. Roy Olmstead was incarcerated at the McNeil prison.
  • Kobler, John. Ardent Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. NY: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1973. Significance of Roy Olmstead is emphasized.
  • Metcalfe, Philip. Whispering Wires: the Tragic Tale of an American Bootlegger. Portland, OR: Inkwater Press, 2007. Biography of Roy Olmstead.
  • Murchison, Kenneth. Prohibition and the Fourth Amendment: a new look at some old cases. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, , 1982, 73(2), 302-332. Roy Olmstead case included.
  • Murphy, Walter. Wiretapping on Trial. New York: Random House, 1965. Describes Roy Olmstead case.
  • Newitz, Annalee. My Favorite Wiretapper. ( columnists/story/18962/ Roy Olmstead was the subject of the wiretapping.
  • Olmstead, Roy (1886-1966) -- King of King County Bootleggers. Encyclopedia of Washington State History
  • Olmstead v. United States (277 U.S. 438 (1928) Historic case in which Roy Olmstead challenged his conviction on grounds of privacy violation because of wiretapping.
  • Olmstead v. United States: Further Readings.
  • The Roosevelt Week. Time, January 6, 1936. Reported the presidential pardon of Roy Olmstead.
  • Roy Olmstead: a rumrunning king on Puget Sound. Pacific Northwest Quarterly, 1963, 54, 89-103. Describes pivotal role of Roy Olmstead in bootlegging.
  • Roy Olmstead: Seattle's "Rum King" Rainier Valley Historical Society.
  • Smith, Michelle. The Era of Intemperance: A Case Study of Prohibition in the Pacific Northwest [Roy Olmstead is the subject of this article].
  • Westin, Alan. Privacy and Freedom. New York: Athenium, 1967. Olmstead v. United States is included.

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