When American politicians outlawed the consumption of alcohol in the 1920’s, there were many people who fought back: bootleggers, rumrunners, and speakeasy hosts. In Seattle, the illicit alcohol trade was dominated by Roy Olmstead and his crew, the most polite and well-meaning gentleman-criminals in the whole country. At one point becoming the city’s largest employer, Roy refused to let his men carry guns, traffic in drugs or women, or run gambling dens, making him one of Seattle’s most popular entrepreneurs. He was busted repeatedly, but nothing stuck until 1924 when he was arrested and tried on wire-tapping evidence–the first such evidentiary hearing in the country, possibly even the world.
But while we know Roy’s history quite well, due to the sensational and national nature of his trial, this play follows his second-wife, Elise (Elsie) Olmstead, British national, rumored WWI intelligence agent, founder of Seattle’s then-largest radio channel, now KOMO News, and a mysterious figure generally referenced only in passing. Which is just the way she wanted.
Elsie Olmstead aka Elise Caroline Campbell aka Parche aka Vivian Grubb aka Vivien Potter aka Aunt Vivien
Elise (Elsie) Caroline was born in England, but her history is murky as she went by both Campbell and Parche before meeting Roy. At the age of 19, Elsie emigrated from England to Canada where she was recruited by Prohibition Agent William Whitney to infiltrate Roy Olmstead’s operation. What Whitney wasn’t counting on was the couples’ instant attraction. It wasn’t long before Elsie followed Roy back to the states as his mistress, wherein Roy put her up in what they called the “Snow White Mansion” in Seattle’s Mount Baker Neighborhood. When Elsie moved in, she went by the name of Mrs. Potter until Roy’s divorce from his first wife went through. In 1924, they were married and she openly became Mrs. Olmstead, silent partner to his criminal empire. While her involvement in his rumrunning dealings is supported only in rumor and conjecture, what is fact is that she had access to all his books, was heard on wire-tap to set up multiple arrangements for the organization, and started the KFQX radio station in the backyard of their home. KFQX broadcast for several hours in the evening, including news reports, bedtime stories read by “Aunt Vivien” (another of Elsie’s aliases), and live jazz band music phoned to them from their studio in Smith Tower. The control room for the station was in the spare bedroom of their house, and the giant antenna was in their backyard. Most of the public believed that the Olmsteads were passing coded messages to their rumrunners through the bedtime stories that Elsie read, but there is no evidence of that. The best reference in the court documentation to support any kind of coded messaging was one rumrunner who, when asked, said he had never received any, especially not through the stories. He went on to imply that other runners had received messages over the radio through either the sports and news segment or band announcements. Just…not through the bedtime stories like the papers would have you believe. Elsie lived happily, if tempestuously, in the Snow White mansion for four years before the prohibition agents raided the property and arrested the Olmsteads and a host of their party goers, eventually making 99 arrests in the evening. It would have been more, except Mrs. Whitney, the agent’s wife, didn’t speak German so when they were calling rumrunners to lure them to the property, several of them caught wise when they tested her kraut as Elsie was fluent in German. As the entirety of the prosecution’s argument rested on the wire-tapping evidence, the first of its kind, Roy and his lawyers fought his initial conviction tooth and nail with the help of Elsie who was acquitted of all charges almost immediately. Who suspects a demure housewife knitting beaded handbags every day? The Olmstead’s took the fight to the Supreme Court, selling the mansion, the radio station, and anything they could to fund the legal battle. After years of court appearances, Roy lost his last appeal and did four years in jail. While he was in prison, prohibition was repealed and Elsie began her work to obtain Roy a presidential pardon, a goal she eventually achieved. She and Roy divorced in the mid 1940’s and we lose track of her until she remarries in her 50’s, and eventually passes away at the age of 79. Roy is centered, with Elsie above and behind him, and his arm around his mother.
Roy Olmstead was born in the midwest and moved to Seattle with his family while he was a young boy. Working on the docks as a teenager, he eventually joined the police force as a young man. He married a young woman name Viola Cottle and had two daughters while working his way up to being the youngest Lieutenant in the Seattle PD, earning him the nickname The Baby Lieutenant. He was popular with residents of the city, known as being cheerful and jovial. When Prohibition took effect, Roy supplemented his copper’s paycheck with a bit of rumrunning on the side. Pictured here are the Seattlites who composed his Federal Grand Jury. Before long, he was caught unloading a boat of illicit booze and was dismissed from the police force. He took this as an opportunity to expand his rumrunning into an empire. Viola eventually asked for a separation and divorce, which Elsie helped instigate of course, and the rest, as they say, is history. When Roy got out of prison, he was a changed man. He’d discovered christian science and decided to dedicate the rest of his life to fighting alcoholism and doing outreach. This didn’t sit well with Elsie and she filed for divorce after obtaining his pardon, citing abandonment and religious differences
Prosper Graignic was Roy’s best boat captain, rarely ever caught, and even when caught at sea, he usually managed to hide the goods before the Coast Guard could find it. He raced faster and faster boats through the Sound over the course of his career and retired out to the islands after it was all over. Doc Hamilton was a local proprietor and friend of the Olmsteads. He ran high end speakeasies, loved his dapper suits, and during the trial made sure to bring enough Alabama Salad to feed the entire press corp. Doc’s Barbecue Pit in North Seattle was his flagship establishment, serving licensed booze to fancy folks while tending the barbecue pit himself on most nights. William (Bill) Whitney was the prohibition agent with a grudge against Roy Olmstead. It didn’t help that Roy took every opportunity he could to poke fun at the man, leading him on wild goose chases throughout the city. Bill is quoted as saying, “I only rough up bootleggers who deserve it, and they all deserve it.” He was not a nice man, and neither was the mob squad he led, known for beating up anyone they suspected of engaging in anti-prohibition activity. He married one of the secretaries that worked for the prohibition office, Clara, and utilized her to take notes and transcribe the wiretapping evidence used to convict Roy. While these last two characters are not in the play, they were central to the story of the Olmsteads. This is Al Hubbard, conman and inventor. He was responsible for the technical side of the creation of the radio station, as well as innovations to keep Roy’s boats speeding along. After the raid, he switched sides and became a plant for the prohibition office, then framed Bill for taking bribes. Most of the records are of the opinion that he was playing both sides against the middle for his own benefit for most of prohibition, or even possibly at Roy’s order. After prohibition came to an end, Al went on to become the “Johnny Appleseed of LSD” and was at one point responsible for 90% of the LSD production in the country before it became illegal. Mayor Doc Brown was firmly in the bootleggers camp, taking bribe money and making deals with Roy on the daily. For a brief moment when he was away from the city, his interim replacement Bertha Landes tried to undo some of his corruption, but Brown started right back up on his return. It’s no surprise, then, that Bertha was voted in as his replacement come 1926 whereby she began dismantling the support structure for bootlegging as fast as she could.
If you find this history as fascinating as I did, there are a lot of wonderful sources to check out, listed on the
sources page. The information here is kept purposefully vague as there are lots of wonderful and surprising details that appear in the play and we don’t like spoilers!
Writing at the top of Smith Tower while enjoying an entirely legal drink.