Did you catch the PBS series on Prohibition this week? As the “King of the Puget Sound Bootleggers,” Seattle’s legendary Roy Olmstead made an appearance in the second episode of the three-part series. I’m writing to add more to his story after he was arrested and convicted of bootlegging.
When Olmstead was sent to prison in 1928, he used his time in confinement to improve himself. According to Philip Metcalfe, author of “Whispering Wires: The tragic Tale of an American Bootlegger,” “the man who arrived in 1928 was not the man who departed three years later.”
Metcalfe further writes, “Olmstead first sought relief in books on psychology and philosophy, but was not satisfied until a cellmate lent him a copy of Science and Health [with Key to the Scriptures] by Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science…Slowly, over time, he became a devout Christian Scientist, customarily rising every morning at 5:00 to read and reflect.”
Once out of prison, Olmstead and his family lived modestly, turning down lucrative offers to work in the liquor industry. He gave up smoking and drinking, but always maintained his sense of humor. He sought out the friendship of Judge Jeremiah Neterer, who had sent him to prison. They would joke occasionally, but mostly Olmstead wanted to talk seriously about the nature of man and the world.
He gave lectures against drinking and began visiting prisons ministering to inmates—a practice he began soon after his release from McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary in 1931.
Olmstead never really lost his celebrity status in Seattle and was asked throughout his life if he was the famed bootlegger from Prohibition days. He was usually quoted as saying, “The old Roy Olmstead is dead. He no longer exists.”
Given the student of the Bible Olmstead became in prison, I would guess he was following this guidance from St. Paul’s Biblical passage in Colossians, Chapter 3: “…put off the old man with his deeds; And put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him.”
In a previous blog post I wrote last year, “The Redemption of Roy Olmstead,” I received the following comment from Doug Wood:
“I met Roy Olmstead when I was about 15. He talked to a bunch of us Sunday School kids. I still remember his stories helping/healing prisoners and telling us all about his bootlegging days. He was a fun, funny guy. When he was asked to do an interview he would always agree provided they gave credit to Christian Science.”
Olmstead was a full-time Christian Science practitioner (someone who works to heal others through prayer alone) in downtown Seattle for 18 years until shortly before his death in 1966 at the age of 79.
If you are able to watch the PBS portrayal of Olmstead, I hope you’ll think of the exemplary life he led in his last 35 years. I think this is how he would have preferred to be remembered.