Stephanie St. Clair

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Stephanie St. Clair

Stephanie Saint-Clair (December 24, 1886–December 1969) was a mob boss who ran numerous criminal enterprises in Harlem, New York in the early part of the 20th century. Saint-Clair resisted the interests of the Mafia for several years after Prohibition ended; she continued to be an independent operator and never came under Mafia control. She ran a successful numbers game in Harlem and was an activist for the black community.

Early life[edit]

Stephanie Saint-Clair was born of mixed French and African descent on Martinique, of an unknown father. Her mother, Félicienne worked hard to send her daughter to school. When Stéphanie turned 15, her mother became ill and she had to leave school. She is employed as a maid by a rich family, where she is repeatedly raped by the son. She managed to save some money and, after the death of her mother, finally leaves Martinique for France in 1912. Even though she can read and write, a rare quality for a black female at the time, she cannot find decent employment. She emigrated to the United States via Marseille, aged around 23. She used the long voyage and the subsequent quarantine to learn English. In Harlem, she fell in love with a small-time crook, Duke, who soon tries to prostitute her. Enraged, she planted a fork in his eye and promptly left New York on a bus. The following night, the bus is stopped by the Ku Klux Klan. Several black passengers are hanged or burnt alive in front of her, and she is repeatedly raped. She therefore goes back to New York, learning that Duke has been shot in a fight between gangs. After four months, she decides to start her own business, selling controlled drugs with the help of her new boyfriend, Ed.

After a few months, she has made $30,000 and told Ed she wants to leave him and start her own business. Ed tries to strangle her and she pushes him away with such force that he cracks his skull against a table and dies. For months afterwards, she employed her own men, bribes cops, and on April 12, 1917, invests $10,000 of her own money in a clandestine Lottery game in Harlem. She becomes known throughout Manhattan as "Queenie", but Harlem residents referred to her as "Madame Saint-Clair", running one of the leading numbers games in the city.[1]

Numbers Game Involvement[edit]

She was involved in policy banking, an admixture of investing, gambling, and playing the lottery. Many banks at this time would not accept black customers, so they were not able to invest legally. Policy banking wasn't technically legal, but it was the only way for black individuals living in Harlem to invest their money. In this way she used the underground economy in Harlem to address race politics.

At this time the numbers game in Harlem was male-dominated and Saint-Clair was one of the only women in the game. Saint-Clair helped the black community in Harlem by providing many with jobs as numbers runners and other jobs within her business. Because of her success in the numbers game, she lived a lavish life making over $20,000 a year in the 1920s.[1][2][3]

Police Corruption[edit]

Saint-Clair was known to put out newspaper ads in the local newspapers educating the Harlem community about their legal rights, advocating for voting rights, and calling out police brutality against the black community. Several times she complained to local authorities about harassment by the police. When they paid no heed she ran advertisements in Harlem newspapers, accusing senior police officers of corruption.

The police responded by arresting her on a trumped-up charge and she spent eight months in a workhouse. In response she testified to the Seabury Commission about the kickbacks she had paid police officers and those who had participated in the Harlem numbers game. The Commission subsequently fired more than a dozen police officers.[2]

Mafia Involvement[edit]

After the end of Prohibition, Jewish and Italian-American crime families saw a decrease in profits and decided to move in on the Harlem gambling scene. Bronx-based mob boss known as Dutch Schultz was the first to move in, beating and killing numbers operators who would not pay him protection.

Saint-Clair and her chief enforcer Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson refused to pay protection to Schultz despite the amount of violence and intimidation by police they faced. St. Clair's revenge was to attack the storefronts of businesses that ran Dutch Schultz's betting operations, and to tip off the police about him. This resulted in the police raiding his house, arresting more than a dozen of his employees and seizing approximately $12 million (about $216 million dollars in 2016 currency). Saint-Clair never submitted to the control of Dutch Schultz like many others in Harlem eventually did.[1]

After Saint-Clair's struggles with Schultz, she had to keep clean and away from police, so she handed off her business to "Bumpy Johnson". Eventually "Bumpy Johnson", her former enforcer, negotiated with Lucky Luciano, and Lucky took over Schultz' spots with a percentage going to "Bumpy". The Italians then had to go to Bumpy first if they had any problems in Harlem. That's when the legend of "Bumpy" Johnson began. The book Harlem Godfather: The Rap on my Husband, Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson by Johnson's wife, Mayme (co-authored with Karen E. Quinones Miller) assert this factually.[citation needed]

Luciano realized that the struggle with the Five Families was hurting their business, so Schultz was assassinated in 1935 on the orders of The Commission. Saint-Clair sent a telegram to his hospital bed as the gangster lay dying. It read, "As ye sow, so shall ye reap." The incident made headlines across the nation. By the 1940s, "Bumpy" Johnson had become the reigning king in Harlem while Saint-Clair became less and less involved in the numbers game.[1][2][3]

Later life[edit]

After Saint-Clair retired from the numbers game, she started a new era of her life as an advocate for political reform. In the late 1930s, Saint-Clair met her husband, Sufi Abdul Hamid, known[by whom?] as the "Black Hitler" for his anti-Semitic, Nazi fashion of activism. Hamid was a militant activist and was the leader of an Islamic Buddhist cult. Saint-Clair and Hamid's marriage went downhill quickly when he started cheating with a black fortune teller, known as "Fu Futtam".

Hamid and Futtam attempted to open a business with Saint-Clair's money, and their marriage officially ended in 1938 when Hamid was shot and Saint-Clair was charged. Accounts vary on whether Saint-Clair was involved in the shooting or not, some[who?] saying that she shot at him for revenge. She was charged for shooting at him and spent 10 years in the New York State Prison for Women at Belford.

After she was released from prison, Saint-Clair continued her work in informing those in the community of their civil liberties. She continued to write columns in the local newspaper about discrimination, police brutality, illegal search raids, and other issues facing the black community. She died quietly and still wealthy in 1969, aged 82, one year after the death of the love of her life, Bumpy Johnson, whom she had met many years before and who came back to live with her and to write poetry.[1][2]

Cinematic and theatrical portrayals[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e Stewart, Shirley (2014). The World of Stephanie St. Clair: An Entrepreneur, Race Woman, and Outlaw in Early Twentieth Century Harlem. Peter Lange Publishing Inc. 
  2. ^ a b c d Harris, LaShawn (2008). "Playing the Numbers Game: Madame Stephanie St. Clair & African-American Policy Culture in Harlem". Black Women, Gender and Families 2 (2): 53–76. 
  3. ^ a b "Stephanie St. Clair profile". The Mob Museum. Retrieved June 28, 2016. 
  4. ^ "A story from the street where she lived", The Boston Globe; accessed June 28, 2016.
  5. ^ "Celebrity Crime Files: Lady Gangster", imdb.com; accessed June 28, 2016.

External links[edit]

Preceded by
Peter H. Matthews
Policy racket in New York City
circa 1923–1932
Succeeded by
Dutch Schultz