Updated: Feb 1, 2022
Program Chair Laura Lee Bennett had an opportunity to chat with attorney, indie filmmaker, and Humanities Washington speaker Steve Edmiston about some of the inspiration behind his presentation.
LLB: What got you started on this project? How did you come to investigate Roy Olmstead?
SE: I learned about Roy Olmstead from Ken Burns’ Prohibition documentary, when it first aired 10 years ago. Episode 2 features a segment on Olmstead. I’d never heard of him; and wanted to learn more in part because I knew my own community of “Woodmont,” in Des Moines, had a bootlegging history. It was only then that I discovered the actual detailed history and infamous connection between Olmstead and the Woodmont Dock.
LLB: How has this story affected your own views of local politics? Of local Prohibition history?
SE: The political/social themes in the story are so multi-layered, and still exist today around how and when we choose to regulate ourselves and our behavior! I’m fascinated with how a highly controversial law regulating social behavior (18th Amendment and Volstead Act) passed, became unpopular so quickly, and so easily integrated with a predictable rise in criminal activity facilitated by the collaboration with—you guessed it—politicians that didn’t believe in the law, and law enforcement that often didn’t want to enforce the law. Our local history is SO, so rich—it’s nearly overwhelming, and perfect for “micro-historians” to take a single event or person—and really take a deep dive. [Mine] started with the Woodmont Dock raid on Thanksgiving Day, 1925.
LLB: How does being a lawyer and screenwriter work together? Surely both pursuits require investigation and attention to detail. What else do these pursuits have in common?
SE: Both pursuits underscore the value of storytelling as a form of communication. I suppose that seems self-evident in screenwriting, but over my career as a lawyer, I’ve found that successes are increasingly predicated by being able to tell a persuasive, compelling story—a true story that the audience connects to emotionally and wants desperately for it to be true.
LLB: What has been your experience with this talk so far across WA state communities? What are the most common questions from audiences?
SE: I’ve been sharing versions of the Olmstead story for a few years, and find that audiences enjoy “connecting the dots” with the Olmstead story’s twists and turns, and epic scope. (The Supreme Court!) My own favorite stories are those “true stories” that I just can’t believe I didn’t know, that seem to have been lost to history, and I want to know more. The Olmstead story presents this type of “treasure hunt”—a little-known, lost history, and there is much we still don’t know. Audiences seek to explore their local bootlegging stories—every community has some!
Additional occurrences of Steve's presentation, and lectures by other Humanities Washington speakers, can be found at https://www.humanities.org/events/.
For more information about Steve or his ongoing projects, visit https://www.quadrant45.com/.