The Saga of Roy Olmstead – Part 1

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Preamble: The inspiration to tell this story is a result of our CEO/founder’s comments regarding KXRO Aberdeen & whether this station was associated with notorious bootlegger & broadcaster Roy Olmstead. In addition, our colleague Steven confessed to not knowing about this story. I began research to answer Jason’s query about this connection & our team determined it was time to tell this tale of one of Seattle’s more colorful broadcasters. Some of what I have written is based upon information found in David Richardson’s excellent, but now long out-of-print “Puget Sounds”. I have also uncovered a number of other biographical details of Roy’s life & activities to round out this story. For those who haven’t read “Puget Sounds” nor are aware of this tale, we now present the Saga of Roy Olmstead:

Seattle Police Dept. Lieutenant Roy Olmstead, 1907

Roy was born in 1886 on a farm in Nebraska & moved to Seattle just after the turn of the 20th Century where first worked at Moran Bros. shipyards before joining brothers Frank & Ralph in the Seattle Police Dept. He worked his way up the ranks to Lieutenant. In 1916, when Wash. state made alcohol illegal, Roy soon after embarked on a profitable bootlegging operation while still employed on the force. He was caught in a sting in 1920, fired from the force & fined $500 for his illegal activities, but now had the ability to devote to bootlegging full time. Roy’s operation became one of the largest in the region & was based on obtaining liquor from Vancouver B.C. as Canada had no such prohibition at the time. His launch, the “Eva B” picked up liquor shipments at D’Arcy Island in Haro Strait near the U.S-Canada border. 

Roy’s launch, the “Eva B” unloading liquor

Following the divorce of his first wife in 1924, while in Vancouver on a booze run, he met & later married resident & second wife Elise – who went by the name “Elsie”. Olmstead ran a first-class operation catering to Seattle’s elites as opposed to the sleazy & seedy ‘speakeasys’ hidden away in Seattle’s back alleys. He never watered down his whiskey, nor ever threatened, hijacked or blackmailed anyone either. Unlike most gangsters of the era, he did not engage in other criminal activities such as prostitution, gun-running, narcotics or gambling. He also disdained the use of guns & never allowed any of his henchmen & associates to carry weapons.

Roy & Elise “Elsie” Olmstead

In early October 1924, Roy and Elise Olmstead started radio station KFQX, with the assistance of inventor Al Hubbard, whose name appeared on the license as “proxy owner”.

Listing of U.S. radio stations, 1924

The station was Elsie’s idea & she was predominantly responsible for running it. They bought a spacious mansion in the Mt Baker neighborhood at 3757 Ridgeway Place & converted one of the bedrooms into a studio. Studios were built in the Smith Tower, but were seldom used. Hubbard was increasingly becoming one of Roy’s right hand men in his smuggling operation, therefore had little time to devote to engineering at the new station. An ex-railroad telegrapher & wireless enthusiast named Nick Foster was hired to engineer 1420, running a whopping 1,000 watts – one of the most powerful stations in the U.S. at that time.

Engineer Nick Foster at the transmitter controls of 1420 KFQX

It was Elsie who thought up the programs, handled station finances, and appeared on air throughout the nightly 4-hour broadcast schedule commencing at 6:30 pm each night. After news, stock market reports & weather, Elsie hosted a children’s bedtime stories program at 7:15 as “Aunt Vivien”. Although never proven, legends have it that Aunt Vivien’s yarns contained coded messages for Roy’s booze boats waiting offshore for discreet times to unload their precious cargo. Another of Elsie’s innovations was the installation of dedicated phone lines for live remote broadcasts of Earl Gray’s orchestra from the sophisticated Butler Cafe located at 2nd & James, sponsored by Buesgher musical instruments & Pacific Music Co. Other sponsors were paying $80 an hour for programs, making KFQX profitable & successful.

Listing of U.S. radio stations, 1925

Meanwhile federal racketeering agents were trying to gain the upper hand to bust Olmstead & attempted to intimidate engineer Nick Foster into telling all. Foster professed his innocence which convinced agents he had no involement in illegal activities. Nick tipped Roy that a raid was coming, but Roy dismissed this without worry. The Olmsteads did not drink or posess alcohol & were ‘tea-totalers’ with nothing incriminating on the premises. In November 1924, while “Aunt Vivien” was on air, agents burst in to the Ohmstead’s home & ordered Nick Foster at gun point to shut off the KFQX transmitter. Roy, Al Hubbard, and a number of other associates at the house, including bandleader Earl Gray were arrested & handcuffed. Agents tricked some of Roy’s associates by telephone into bringing some alcohol to the house & used this as an excuse to bust the entire organization. In downtown Seattle, Nick Foster & Earl Gray were released without charges. The Olmsteads & Al Hubbard were charged & released on bail.  Meanwhile, a trusted Olmstead bookkeeper took the liquor empires’ money & headed north for Canada, never to be seen or heard from again.

“Seattle Daily Times” headlines.  Note incorrect spelling of Roy & Elsie’s surname.

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. He was sentenced to four years with hard labor and fined $8,000.

Newspaper reports of trial proceedings, 1926.  Mr Finch was the lawyer for Roy & Elsie Olmstead at the trial.

Olmstead 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. Olmstead spent his four-year prison sentence at the McNeil Island Correctional Institute, and was released in May 1931 with time off for good behavior. Elsie Olmstead was also among 90 others indicted on charges, but she was cleared of any wrongdoing. Al Hubbard was also indicted, but charges were stayed due to lack of evidence.

“Seattle PI” headlines, February 1928


Join us next weekend for the conclusion of this fascinating tale. I’ll tell you all about the Olmstead’s second radio station, and Roy’s much different later life after his jail release.

The Olmstead’s mansion & KFQX studio located at 3757 Ridgeway Place in Seattle’s Mt baker neighborhood.

 

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Mike Cherry

Author: Mike Cherry

retired broadcaster: on-air, MD, PD, asst PD, Prod Mgr, IT, station technician/engineer, pioneer Internet webcaster, station installation/maintenance; 12 years in commercial radio, 17 years volunteer in campus/community radio in B.C., Alberta & Wash. Amateur radio operator & "DXer" specializing in AM night-time DX, short-wave DX/listening & remote SDR DXing/listening

13 thoughts on “The Saga of Roy Olmstead – Part 1

  1. Dear Madam or Sir, would you please let me know whether you have information about the various bootlegging drops that Olmstead and his crew used throughout the Puget Sound? Meadowdale Dock just north of Edmonds was one spot. Camano Island (somewhere) and Woodmont Dock in Demoines were others. As I recall Smuggler Cove in Mukilteo was another place, but not sure. I’m working on a project to identify these locations as best as we can.

    Documents so far reveal that booze was shipped from Victoria, B.C. to D’Arcy Island where Olmstead’s boats would pick up the contraband and distribute their ware throughout the region. Any other more detailed information would be appreciated.

    Sincerely yours,

    Terry Cox
    Mukilteo, WA 98275

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