The Bootlegger’s Right-Hand Man

Upcoming PBS documentary turns the lens on a Kirklander whose rum-running father never forgot his strangely scrupulous boss.

By Jessica Voelker September 21, 2011 Published in the October 2011 issue of Seattle Met

Photo: Courtesy PBS

THREE AND A HALF YEARS AGO Edwin Hunt came across a newspaper ad: “Anybody who knows anything about the Olmstead Gang from Prohibition, please contact Florentine Films.”

“So I emailed them,” Hunt recalls. His missive hit the inbox of Oscar-nominated filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, who were seeking interview subjects for their forthcoming PBS documentary Prohibition (airing October 2–4). A segment of the three-part opus belongs to Seattle and a legendary cop-turned-bootlegger named Roy Olmstead.

Novick traveled to Kirkland to interview Hunt for four hours in his baby-blue-carpeted parlor. The septuagenarian had grown up with stories about his father’s days working as chief lieutenant to the man known as the Good Bootlegger. “Olmstead and my dad agreed a human life isn’t worth profit,” says Hunt. “No murders, no prostitution, no gambling. Just booze.” Choosing incentive over intimidation, the pair paid off anyone who got in their way. The local cops, the judges, the feds. Growing up, Hunt assumed his father had exaggerated, until he hit the history books and learned the truth. At the bootlegging operation’s peak, it took in $200,000 a month and delivered more than 200 cases of Canadian booze a day to Seattle’s thirsty masses. Everyone was on the take.

Correction: not quite everyone. Prohibition agents eventually caught up with the gang by tapping Olmstead’s phone, and in 1927 he and 20 other men were indicted. Hunt’s parents fled to China, only to be extradited back to Seattle, where Edwin was born in 1933. Hunt says the bootlegging years were the highlight of his father’s life, even as they instilled in him the cynical conviction that every man has his price.

“When the TV show The Untouchables came out in the ’60s and I told Dad about it,” recalls Hunt, “he said, ‘Untouchables? I touched them every day.’”

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