Mental Floss
RETROBITUARIES

Stephanie St. Clair, Harlem's Queen of the Underworld

Jake Rossen
Stephanie St. Clair ran Harlem's numbers game for years.
Stephanie St. Clair ran Harlem's numbers game for years. / Arlenechang, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
facebooktwitterreddit

In the 1920s and 1930s, it was widely understood that individuals involved in organized crime were not to be trifled with. People like “Bumpy” Johnson, Al Capone, and others had the connections and moral turpitude to silence dissenters.

Stephanie St. Clair didn’t pay that wisdom any heed. Known as the queen of the illegal lottery racket—a.k.a. "the numbers"—in Harlem, she had choice words for gangster Arthur “Dutch Schultz” Flegenheimer, who was rumored to be coming into her territory.

“[I’m not] afraid of Dutch Schultz or any other living man,” St. Clair said. “He’ll never touch me. I will kill Schultz if he sets foot in Harlem. He is a rat. The policy game is my game.”

For anyone who knew (or knew of) St. Clair, they understood she meant every word. In early 20th-century Harlem, gambling belonged to “Madame Queen.”

Running the Numbers

St. Clair’s past can be difficult to sort, which is something she relished. In the criminal world, the less you knew about an adversary, the better. Accounts of her background have her born in either 1887 or 1897 in Guadeloupe. In either case, she found herself in New York City in the early 20th century, where the vast underworld of crime rackets promised big money—so long as you didn’t mind a big risk.

Chief among these illicit ventures was the numbers game, a popular form of amusement for civilians and a major source of income for organizers. Entrants would pay pennies and pick a number in an upcoming lottery, usually between 0 and 999: If their number came up, they’d win a piece of the pot. The numbers runners would pocket the rest.

St. Clair had arrived in New York broke and speaking only French. Making an initial investment of $10,000—possibly from winning the numbers herself—St. Clair started her own game, quickly expanding to dozens of subordinates who would gather the money and support the infrastructure. While it was a criminal enterprise, it was still an enterprise, and one that required leadership and organizational skills.

Despite the low stakes for participants, it was a windfall for the runners, or “bankers,” who cleaned up on the daily draws. By 1930, St. Clair was said to have amassed $500,000, or about $8 million today. Her annual income was $200,000, and she lived in an apartment building that housed prominent members of the community, including National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) activist Walter White, playwright Katherine Butler Jones, and future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

While “the numbers” were popular in big cities, it held particular appeal for Harlem’s residents, who were predominantly Black and often faced financial persecution from conventional institutions. Black Americans had difficulty getting bank loans and starting businesses. Playing the underworld’s version of a lotto was one way to potentially come into money—and, to some, not any riskier than toying with the stock market.

The game was not without consequences—most people lost. And of course, there was the threat of getting caught: In 1930, St. Clair herself was sentenced to eight months in prison for being in possession of numbers betting slips. Considering her profits, it was a small price to pay.

Figures in organized crime, too, noticed the success of St. Clair and other Harlem operators, including the aforementioned Dutch Schulz. An imposing career criminal looking to rebound after the end of Prohibition, Schultz had the backing to strong-arm smaller players into either handing over their operation or giving him a piece of it.

St. Clair was not interested in doing either.

"As Ye Sow, So Shall Ye Reap”

Schultz, not accustomed to being told no, met St. Clair’s resistance with predictable violence. He reputedly killed some of her employees—as many as 40 people total were murdered in numbers-related squabbling—before boasting he had taken out a hit on her life, prompting St. Clair to temporarily go into hiding. Worse, she could hardly rely on the police for any aid: Many were in Schultz’s pocket.

But St. Clair was defiant. Store owners who took bets for Schultz were harassed by St. Clair’s crew; with others, she asked for solidarity, chastising Black residents for relying on a white man to run the lotto.

Though St. Clair didn’t have the same imposing backing as Schultz, she was effectively able to wait him out. Having angered other rivals with his attempt to off district attorney Thomas Dewey, Schultz was killed in 1935, putting an end to their stand-off.

It was believed Schultz died at the order of criminal kingpin “Lucky” Luciano. Owing to their feud, however, St. Clair was among those suspected of doing the deed. Earlier that day, St. Clair had sent him a telegram reading “Don’t be yellow. As ye sow, so shall ye reap.”

Criminal Elements

Like many gangsters of the era, St. Clair wasn’t particularly bashful about publicity. Her name was often in newspapers, whether it was due to her battles with Schultz or her need to speak out in support of immigrants and against issues that mattered to her, like police brutality. At one point, she even testified at a police hearing about the corruption she had witnessed, including an alleged attempt by officers to steal $40,000 from her. Another time, she insisted officers had taken $6000 from her as a pay-off. It may have seemed like self-sabotage, but St. Clair was adamant people and policymakers knew that law enforcement had dirty hands. Thirteen officers were dismissed as a result of her testimony.

In the late 1930s, headlines began to focus less on her criminality and more on her relationship with a Black separatist named Bishop Amiru Al-Mu-Minin Sufi Abdul Hamid. Angered by Hamid’s cheating, she pulled a gun and fired at him multiple times.

Though he lived, she was still on the hook for attempted murder and was put on trial for the crime. Hamid came out looking poorly—his real name was Eugene Brown, and his claim of being descended from Egyptian pharaohs tenuous at best. Still, St. Clair was sentenced to prison. By the time she was released, her desire to run afoul of the law seemed to have disappeared. She lived the rest of her life largely in anonymity, possibly on Long Island, and likely died circa 1969.

Remembering the Risk-Taker

St. Clair's image has popped up in recent decades. In 1997, Cicely Tyson portrayed her in the crime drama Hoodlum. In 2017, HBO Films announced a movie focused on St. Clair directed by Tim Story and based on The World of Stephanie St. Clair (2013) by Shirley Stewart. While the project appears to have lost momentum, it's likely her story will eventually reach a wider audience.

"Madame Queen" takes up a curious place in history. In some ways, she was a pioneer in speaking out against segregation—albeit in criminal circles—by railing against white store owners for pairing with white racketeers. She was also vocal in calling out police corruption. Clearly, she also had financial incentive to discourage the likes of Dutch Schultz. But owing to her outspoken nature and media presence, she undoubtedly stirred conversations about racial equality.

LaShawn Harris, author of 2016's Sex Workers, Psychics, and Numbers Runners: Black Women in New York City's Underground Economy, told Smithsonian.com in 2021 that St. Clair was "a risk-taker, [who was] willing to challenge normative ideas about gender and race." Harris added that St. Clair "should be included in histories of Black business and Black entrepreneurship."

Criminal or no criminal, Stephanie St. Clair recognized prejudices that affected everyone and bet on herself to challenge them. Most of the time, she won.

facebooktwitterreddit