He’s been gone for almost half a century, still he has been mentioned in the local Seattle media at least a half dozen times in 2010 alone. The life of Roy Olmstead (1886-1966) is a compelling story since he is considered by some as one of the most romantic figures in Seattle’s history. It’s no surprise that Olmstead’s life is expected to play a prominent role in a new Ken Burns film to be released in 2011.
So why am I writing about him? Well—I feel the significant aspect of his life has been passed over by most previous writers. He led an adventurous and colorful life prior to prison, but I believe what he did afterward tells much more about the man. His is a story of redemption and his true calling as a Christian Science practitioner.
Roy Olmstead joined the Seattle Police Department in 1907 and quickly became a rising star in the department. By 1919, he was the youngest lieutenant on the force. Yet, his law enforcement career ended forever when he was found in a side job of illegal bootlegging.
Unflustered, he went into bootlegging full-time. Well-liked by nearly everyone and known for his intelligence, self assurance, good humor and generosity, Olmstead was also a talented administrator. He quickly put his less organized competitors out of business and many of them went to work for him. He was considered by the Seattle establishment as “the honest bootlegger” and many viewed him more as a folk hero than a criminal kingpin. Unlike Chicago’s Al Capone, Olmstead refused to allow his men to carry guns, noting, “Nothing we do is worth a human life.”
Aside from bootlegging, he and his wife Elise established Seattle’s first children’s radio show and first commercial radio station, KFQX. This station remains one of Seattle’s major broadcast channels today—KOMO.
Yet, on Thanksgiving Day in 1924, federal authorities raided Olmstead’s Mt. Baker neighborhood mansion, and one of Seattle’s richest and most celebrated citizens was under arrest. The trial was front page news. William Boeing, founder of the famous airplane company, had been a customer of Olmstead’s and testified at the trial. Olmstead was convicted on March 29, 1926 and sentenced to serve four years of hard labor in federal prison.
The trial and conviction never seemed to bother him. He was quoted as saying, “I’m not complaining, I broke the law.” (The wire-tapping used to ensnare Olmstead was so controversial, his case was heard by the US Supreme Court. In a famous decision, his conviction was upheld in 1928 by a 5-4 vote.)
As he began to serve his sentence at McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary, he wasted no time and became an avid reader. Then something happened that changed his life.
A fellow prisoner lent him the Christian Science textbook, “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,”by Mary Baker Eddy. He studied the book and became a student of Christian Science. Soon he was helping his fellow prisoners by using what he was learning. When he was released in 1931, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer wrote, “Olmstead was looking the picture of health, and he bade the prison guards goodbye in much the same fashion that he must have paid his respects to the attendants of a fashionable resort.”
Stories about Olmstead rarely go much beyond his release from prison, but in 1948, he joined the ranks of 168 other full-time Christian Science practitioners in Seattle. He established a downtown Seattle office for the sole purpose of healing people. He also continued his work with prisoners, spoke out against drinking and supported local Christian Science activities—including serving as president of Sunrise House, Seattle’s Christian Science nursing facility. He did this for eighteen years until shortly before his death in 1966 at the age of 79.
The moral transformation of Roy Olmstead is an inspiration to all who may have made mistakes and found themselves on the wrong side of the law. Through Olmstead’s study of Christian Science, he became a new man, free from the dishonesty and duplicity that had been part of his earlier life. When interviewed by historian Norman Clark, Olmstead remarked, “The old Roy Olmstead is dead. He no longer exists.” In 1935, in recognition for his work with prisoners in King County, President Franklin D. Roosevelt granted him a full pardon.
I am not sure how his later years will be portrayed in the upcoming Ken Burns film. I spoke to the producer, Lynn Novak, in 2008. She made no assurances that his turn to Christian Science would be mentioned. Nonetheless, you now know that bootlegging was not his true calling; nor did he fade away into obscurity. Rather, he went on to live the most significant years of his life—serving humanity and quietly healing all those who sought him out.
Today, Christian Scientists continue to visit prisoners in prisons throughout Washington State. Sunrise House (now renamed Sunrise Haven) continues to care for those relying on spiritual healing, and Christian Science practitioners continue to be available to the Seattle public. To learn more about Christian Science practitioners or Sunrise Haven, visit cswashington.com.