In the era of Prohibition, a street-savvy Black woman reigned supreme as she created Harlem’s first female-owned policy rackets bank, and amassed wealth through illicit activity that was dominated by men. Known by several aliases such as “Queenie,” “Madam St. Clair,” the “Queen Of Policy Rackets,” and “Madam Queen,” she was born Stephanie St. Clair on December 24, 1897. Stephanie St Clair was of a French-Caribbean background, born in the island of Guadeloupe. In 1911, a 13-year old Stephanie set out to Canada and subsequently made her way to New York City the following year. According to historian Shirley Stewart, St. Clair may have been employed in domestic work, but those gigs were not enough to fund her numbers bank.
Madam St. Clair dated a few men that helped her get her feet wet in Harlem’s street life. She was attacked by a gangster she dated, stabbed him in the eye in defense, and fled Harlem to avoid retaliation. Upon her return to Harlem, she was greeted with news of his death. St. Clair then dated another man and engaged in his business of dealing illicit substances. The revenue from this business was used as an investment for her numbers bank. St. Clair parted ways with her boyfriend and attempted to seize the entire business from him. The boyfriend did not take kindly to St. Clair’s attempt to strong-arm him. The break up led to a physical struggle, which ended up in the boyfriend’s death, from a fatal blow to his head on a table edge after Stephanie pushed him. Stephanie eventually took over the business completely and subsequently joined the street gang, “40 Thieves,” as a rank-and-file member. 40 Thieves is New York City’s oldest known street gang, whose members were primarily Irish-Americans and immigrants. Stephanie’s membership developed into her leadership over the gang.
St. Clair’s street endeavors led her to invest $10,000 in the establishment of her numbers bank in 1923. Numbers is also known as policy racket, but what exactly is it?
One of the biggest money making operations regarding illegal lotteries was the policy racket. It was also called the numbers racket, the numbers game, or simply ‘playing the numbers’. This poor man’s lottery operated primarily in poor Black, Latino, and Italian neighborhoods from the late 1890’s well into the 1960s. Some cities that were major cogs in the policy racket were New York, Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Atlanta just to name a few. The game itself consisted of a player picking any three digit number from 0 to 999. The odds were about a 1000 to 1 against winning while the pay off might be anywhere from 600 and 800 to 1 for a winner. Bets were generally a nickel or a dime, but any amount was acceptable even that as small as a single cent.https://discover.hubpages.com/education/History-of-the-Policy-Racket-in-Black-America
St. Clair was protected by many men, but her strongest ally was Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson. Bumpy Johnson acted as her enforcer. With the protection of men, her fierce attitude and street smarts, St. Clair was able to make $250,000 a year with the numbers bank, making up to $7,000 a day according to her.
Known for her extravagant looks and lifestyle, St. Clair resided in a townhouse in the Sugarhill section of Harlem, 409 Edgecombe Avenue. 409 Edgecombe Avenue is a historic address that has been home to W.E.B Dubois, Aaron Douglas, Thurgood Marshall, and Roy Wilkins. During this time, Stephanie wrote columns for a local newspaper on topics, such as police brutality against civilians and prisoners. Her 409 Edgecombe home was raided by police suspicious of her engagement in the policy rackets in 1928. This incident led to her writing more columns against police abuse and letters to city officials that detailed their excessive force.
On the morning of Monday, December 30, 1929, St. Clair was arrested for possession of policy slips in the hallway of 117 West 141 Street by Detective Roberts, taken to the West 135th Street police station, and held on $2,500 bail at the Washington Heights court. Detective Roberts claimed St. Clair was found with six envelopes filled with policy slips. Due to hospitalization to treat an illness, St. Clair missed her January 8, 1930 court appearance. Her attorney Frank Stanton was able to prove her hospitalization with a doctor’s certificate. She was arrested after release from the hospital, then released on bail in anticipation for the January 20 appearance.
On March 14, 1930, she was sentenced to an indefinite period, but served eight months, but she did not go down without a fight. As she fought for an acquittal, St. Clair claimed that she did not publish letters in a local newspaper that disparaged the police in Harlem. Her defense was that she was from Montserrat and unable to write in English. St. Clair was ordered to write a few words for the court to compare her handwriting to the letters sent to the local newspaper. Similarities between the handwritings led the court to find her guilty, but she continued to fight. Although she admitted her involvement in the numbers business for a short period of time, she quit in 1928 due to extortion by police officers. She claimed on the day she was arrested on West 141 Street, she was only visiting her friend Mrs. Murray, to sign incorporation papers for a new company she formed. The letters were produced as evidence to the court, but Mrs. Murray’s name was not included as an incorporator. St. Clair’s defense was weakened when the handwriting on the policy slips were also compared to the letters. Lastly, Officers Hunter, Robert, and Carter arrested several “numbers collectors” at 580 St. Nicholas Avenue. Several of them claimed to work for St. Clair. After her sentence was given, she vowed to testify in the Seabury Investigation upon her release. St. Clair served her eight months at the workhouse on Welfare Island, now known as Roosevelt Island.
On December 8, 1930, Stephanie St. Clair exposed her regular payments to police officers in exchange for protection of her policy games, while on the stand. St. Clair admitted to a time she paid a fee of $1,100 to Lieutenant Peter J. Pfeiffer. Her payment to Pfeiffer was done through “Mustache” Jones, a well-known Harlem gangster. She testified that while running her numbers bank from 1923 to 1928, she paid $6,000 to several officers. St. Clair even testified that she witnessed officers with Chile Mapocha Acuna. Acuna worked with over thirty police officers as their informer and helped to frame innocent women unless they were able to pay the officers off. Acuna testified this in court a week prior to St. Clair’s appearance. St. Clair implicated about four other officers, including one she alleged stole $400 from her.
By the 1930s, Italian mobsters started to move into the rackets in Harlem as their money sources dried up due to the Great Depression. A prominent Bronx mobster, Arthur “Dutch” Schultz, set out to strong-arm the Black policy bankers in Harlem, and became St. Clair’s biggest rival. Schultz either forcefully snatched their businesses or forced the bankers to pay him a percentage of their daily earnings. St. Clair quickly organized Black policy bankers against Schultz:
St. Clair moved swiftly against Schultz, organizing the remaining small Black policy owners in her fight against “the Dutchman.” She and her allies violently confronted white storeowners who were collecting bets on Schultz’s behalf, smashing cases, destroying policy bets and ordering their adversaries out of Harlem. St. Clair also took out ads encouraging Harlemites to “play black” and only place numbers bets with Black organizers.https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/meet-stephanie-st-clair-immigrant-turned-millionaire-who-dominated-harlems-gambling-underground-180977759/
St. Clair stated “It’s Dutch’s life or mine. Dutch’s men know that I am the only one that can take back the racket he stole from my colored friends.” Schultz would retaliate against St. Clair as he sent various threats to her home, murdered her soldiers, and even placed a hit on her life. By this time, St. Clair was no longer protected by Bumpy Johnson. Schultz even sent a man to her home to intimidate her, but her body guards locked him in a closet and possibly murdered him. St. Clair called on help from Mayor McKee as she feared Schultz would put her on the spot, as well as continue to terrorize the Black policy racket owners.
Schultz and St. Clair’s feud would come to an end on October 25, 1935. Schultz was murdered in Newark, New Jersey. Charles “Lucky” Luciano, head of The Commission, ordered Schultz’ hit. St. Clair sent a telegram that day, which was reportedly the last thing Schultz read as he died. The telegram read: AS YE SOW, AS YE SHALL REAP.”
After Schultz’s death, St. Clair went on to marry Sufi Abdul-Hamid, notoriously known as “Black Hitler” in August 1936. Abdul-Hamid advocated for the destruction of Jewish businesses as he advocated for more Black businesses. Sufi Abdul-Hamid was a very controversial figure and their marriage did not last long. St. Clair caught wind of Abdul-Hamid’s affair with a woman, Madam Futtam. St. Clair was arrested for Abdul-Hamid’s attempted murder on January 18, 1938. Abdul-Hamid was hit on above his mustache and he was able to disarm St. Clair, then hold her for the arrest. For the shooting, St. Clair was sentenced two to ten years. In court, she thanked the judge and was carried away to serve the sentence.
Upon release, St. Clair steered clear from illicit activity, but still lived off the wealth she made as a policy banker. She continued to advocate for the civil rights and economic progress of Black people. She remained mostly secluded and out of the spotlight. St. Clair passed away quietly in Harlem in December 1969.