The 1920s and 1930s were the heydays of organized crime in New York City. There were several mobsters from that period such as Dutch Schultz and Lucky Luciano who terrorized the city and made a fortune.
Amongst all of the organized crime figures in New York, there was one who was different from all the rest.
She was a woman.
Learn more about Stephanie St. Claire, the Queen of the Harlem Numbers Racket, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
The origins of Stephanie St. Claire are shrouded in mystery. There are many stories about here, some true and some probably fabricated. The reason why there is so much doubt about her beginnings is probably that she wanted it that way.
If her opponents didn’t know much about her, that gave her an advantage, and if legendary stories were told about her in the community, that didn’t hurt her either.
What we do know is that she was probably born in either 1897 or 1887 on the French island of Guadalupe in the Caribbean. The fact that the given dates for her birth are a decade apart is an indication of just how much her origins are a mystery.
She attended school and was very clearly intelligent, however, she had to drop out when she was 15 when her mother became ill.
She migrated to Montreal to work probably in 1911 and then migrated to New York in 1912.
On the trip to New York and the subsequent quarantine period, she taught herself how to speak English.
Once out of quarantine, almost penniless, she moved to the black community on the island of Manhattan: Harlem.
There are several stories about the rough times she had with several men she dates who were involved in the underworld.
She supposedly stabbed one boyfriend in the eye with a fork who tried to pimp her out.
Another man supposed was killed while trying to choke her when he accidentally hit his head on a table during the assault.
She began her criminal career as a low-level drug dealer with a new boyfriend and amassed a small fortune of around $10,000, which would be worth about $100,000 today.
With this money, she decided to go into business for herself and started her own numbers racket.
Here I need to explain what the numbers racket, or the policy racket, was.
The numbers game was basically an illegal lottery. It was devilishly simple and insanely profitable.
A bettor would select a three-digit number, giving them a 1 in 1000 chance of winning.
They would usually place their bet at a bar, a barbershop, or some other establishment that would be part of the game. You could bet as little as a penny, but bets of a nickel or a dime were also common at the time.
The betting slips would then be taken by numbers runners to a numbers bank.
The number selected every day would come from some public number source. A common way of selecting numbers came from digits in the amount of money bet at a local horse racing track, the last digits of the previous day’s stock price, or possibly even the weather.
There were certainly cases of people fixing the numbers game, but if the numbers were selected property it was difficult to impossible to do.
The reason the numbers racket was so profitable is that the odds of winning were 1000-to-1, but the payout was usually 600 to 800 to 1.
It was also known as the policy racket. The term policy came from the same basis as the idea of an insurance policy, as it was a forward-looking risk that was taken.
You might be wondering why this was illegal, because of all the things that organized crime was involved in, this was probably the most innocuous. The reason was simply one of taxes. The winners didn’t report their income, so it was illegal.
It turned out that Stephanie St. Claire was really good and running her own numbers racket, and Harlem had one of the biggest numbers rackets in the country.
Within several years, she had turned her $10,000 investment into $500,000.
By the early 1930s during the Great Depression, she was making over $200,000 per year.
She became well respected in the community and had an over-the-top personality and dressed flamboyantly. She would often be seen wearing a fur coat, expensive dresses, and a turban.
She lived at the prestigious apartment building 409 Edgecombe Ave. in the Sugar Hill district of Harlem, which was where many of the Harlem elite lived.
She donated money to political causes which advocated for the rights of black Americans and ran advertisements in black newspapers to educate people about their rights and call out police abuses.
She was very open about her occupation and never hid what she did. She earned many nicknames including the “Queen of the Policy Rackets” and “Queenie”, but most people simply called her Madam St. Clair.
In 1929 she was arrested for possession of numbers slips. In court, she defended herself and basically said that she was arrested because of her advocacy against police abuse and police who were jealous of her success.
She spent 8 months in a workhouse, and when she got out, she named the names of all the police officers she paid off and got dozens of cops fired.
The biggest challenge to her business happened in 1933 when prohibition ended.
Madam St. Clair was not involved with the smuggling of alcohol during prohibition, but the Italian mafia was. When their largest source of income dried up, they had to find new sources of revenue. One of their primary targets was taking over the various numbers rackets in New York.
The targeting of numbers games in Harlem was violent. Dutch Schultz, who ran a mob family out of the Bronx, either wanted to take control, or at least get a cut of all the numbers games in Harlem.
Some of the number bankers in Harlem were threatened, beaten, or kidnapped. Some were killed.
Madam St. Clair, however, refused to give in to Dutch Schultz. She and her primary enforcer, Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson, went to war with the Dutch Schultz gang.
She and her gang would trash black-owned stores that ran betting operations for Schultz. She would get the community to berate black-owned businesses for working with white-owned gambling operations.
Once when one of Schultz’s men came to intimidate her, she pushed him into a closet and locked it, and then ordered her men to “take care of him”.
She eventually tipped the police off as to the location of Schultz’s betting operation. They raided the building and confiscated $12 million dollars, which would be worth almost $200 million dollars today.
As Schultz was at war with Madam St. Claire, he was also having problems with the city as well. He had been targeted by District Attorney Thomas Dewey. This was the same Thomas Dewey who everyone thought would win the Presidency against Harry Truman in 1948.
Schultz decided to assassinate Dewey and put out a contract on his life.
This, however, was going too far. The head of New York’s five mafia families didn’t want the attention and heat that such a killing would bring down on them, so Charles “Lucky” Luciano put out a hit on Dutch Schultz.
On October 23, 1935, Dutch Schultz was shot in a Chinese restaurant by hitmen who worked for the mob’s Murder Incorporated.
That evening has he laid in the hospital, a telegram was sent to his room by Madam St. Clair which simply said, “As ye sow, so shall ye reap.”
He died three days later.
Even though Dutch Schultz was out of the picture, her problems weren’t over. She lost the support she had amongst the police after her arrest when she turned on them and named names.
There was still pressure from the Italian mob, so she eventually decided to retire and focus on legitimate business, and gave control of her numbers operation to “Bumpy” Johnson.
Johnson came to an agreement with Lucky Luciano and the mafia that the mob would get a cut of the Harlem numbers income, but anything that the mob did in Harlem had to first come through “Bumpy” Johnson.
After her retirement, she still brought attention to herself.
In 1936, she married or at least claimed to have married as it wasn’t actually legal, a con man by the name of Sufi Abdul Hamid who claimed to be from Egypt. He was even more flamboyant than Madam St. Clair. He was reported to have walked around Harlem wearing a silk turban, a black and crimson lined cape, a green velvet blouse, and black riding boots.
The Harlem newspapers dubbed him “Black Hitler” as he was virulently anti-semitic, and had been convicted of stabbing a communist.
On January 18, 1938, she shot and wounded Hamid after learning that he had been having an affair with a fortune teller by the name of Fu Fu Futtam.
At her trial, she was able to get Hamid to admit under oath that his real name was in fact Eugen Brown, and he was from Lowell, Massachusetts, not Egypt.
She was sentenced to 2-10 years in the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women and was released in 1942.
After that, very little was ever heard from Stephanie St. Clair again. Unlike her previous life, she kept a low profile and ran he legitimate businesses, mostly owning apartment buildings.
One of her last mentions in the news occurred in a 1960 article in the New York Post. In a story about the history of the Harlem numbers racket, she was reported to be a “prosperous businesswoman” and “living a lavish lifestyle”.
She passed away quietly, and still wealthy, in 1969. There were no mentions of her death in any New York newspapers.
Before she died, she had lived long enough to see the ultimate take over of the numbers racket. In 1967, the State of New York established the New York State Lottery.
The numbers racket had been taken over by the government.
Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast.
The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.
I have some more Boostagrams to share with you. All of today’s Boostagrams come from listener Petar.
They sent 1234 sats from the episode on the Last Soldier to Die in World War I. They wrote, “Sounds like suicide by German to me R.I.P. Gunther”
That pretty much is the consensus. There isn’t really any other reason why he would have done that at literally the last minute as he was well aware the war was ending.
He sent 102 sats on the episode on Abdulrahman Ibrahim Ibn Sori and wrote, “What an incredible and tragic story. I was thinking someone should make a film about it.. turns out someone did.”
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