Stephanie St. Clair, the notorious “queen” of the illegal numbers racket in New York’s Harlem neighborhood, sat in a witness chair to testify about payoffs she made to New York police to protect her employees from arrest.
The date was December 8, 1930, in a Prohibition-era city reeling from recent exposures of police officers who, as the New York Daily News put it, “for years have waxed wealthy on vice, gambling and speakeasy shakedowns.”
What followed was an extraordinary and daring performance by St. Clair, a haughty, profane and driven African-American woman still at the peak of her authority as one of the wealthy bankers for the numbers racket in Harlem.
By 1930, she was reportedly worth $300,000 (the purchasing power of about $4.3 million today). But her reign wouldn’t last long, as more powerful white mobsters came calling to take over.
St. Clair had arrived at the Superior Court building in an expensive squirrel fur coat and cloche hat. In court, prosecutors presented evidence to support allegations of graft by New York’s vice cops. St. Clair was a key witness, despite her reputation as financial backer for illegal numbers games. The court charged some officers with demanding protection payments from St. Clair and the two other chief numbers bankers in Harlem, Casper Holstein and Wilfred Brunder.
Speaking in the French accent leftover from her childhood in the French-run island of Martinique in the Caribbean, St. Clair testified that she knew all the plainclothes vice cops in Harlem. She paid them to not to arrest her workers or customers found holding one of her policy tickets, used for betting the numbers. She said the bribes came to $6,000 as of 1928. Yet the cops double-crossed her and made arrests anyway.
She named names – such as police Lt. Peter J. Pfeiffer, whom she claimed accepted her gifts totaling $1,100.
“My first payment to Pfeiffer was $500,” she said. “I gave it in cash to [Harlem gambler] ‘Mustache’ Jones. Then Pfeiffer called me up and said, ‘Thank you.’ The next payment was $100 and the third $500. Jones took the money to Pfeiffer and I recognized the voice that later said, ‘Thank you.’ Naturally, I wanted to be sure that the lieutenant got the money.”
The inquiry – which found at least eight plainclothes officers had framed female defendants in vice cases – proved devastating for the New York Police Department.
In a shake-up ordered by Mayor Jimmy Walker, the department either reassigned – or in the case of Pfeiffer’s superior, fired – five top commanders. It required plainclothes officers in Manhattan and the Bronx to return to full uniform.
St. Clair maintained her no-nonsense resolve to take on New York’s political establishment and gangster bosses – after she had nearly conquered Harlem.
Born in 1896 (some say years earlier) in Martinique, St. Clair immigrated to New York in the early 1920s and entered the numbers, or “policy,” racket in Harlem.
People referred to her as “Madame.”
The racket involved betting on a three-digit number to win. The winning digits came from random – and unpredictable – banking figures published in the newspaper, or the closing numbers of the New York Stock Exchange. Later, the winning numbers – again, chosen at random, to eliminate fixing – were based on what daily horse races paid at a selected pari-mutuel track, such as Hialeah Park in Florida.
The numbers game was a quintessential part of life in Harlem, where upwards of half of its residents placed bets, typically of five or ten cents. Numbers games, affordable gambling for the poor, provided more local jobs than any other business in Harlem, including numbers runners and money collectors. Runners would go to their assigned “drops” in candy stores, beauty shops and other small businesses to pick up betting slips with numbers chosen by customers.
The odds to win were 1,000 to 1 against, but the payoff odds were 600 to 1, and a five-cent bet could win $30 (worth around $430 today).
Still, few people won.
By the late 1920s, St. Clair was a wealthy woman. As the banker taking the risk to cover winning wagers, she was the biggest earner, garnering about one-third of the game’s profits. By one account, she made up to $250,000 a year. She lived at 409 Edgecombe Avenue, the finest apartment building in Harlem.
In 1929, police caught her carrying numbers betting slips. She would serve eight months in state prison. Later, she did more time for shooting and wounding (not seriously) her then husband.
With the end of Prohibition anticipated in 1932 – and likely taking effect the next year – New York gangsters who made their fortunes selling illegal beer and liquor knew they had to find new rackets.
Dutch Schultz, the “beer baron of the Bronx,” coveted the city’s numbers racket. By then, New York’s illegal numbers games took in $20 million a year. Schultz believed he could greatly expand that with better management. So he and his shady lawyer Dixie Davis approached the numbers bankers of Manhattan, offering them a deal to let Schultz take over if they each paid him $500 a week. One complied, the others refused, including Harry Miro and St. Clair. Schultz’s men forced Miro to comply at gunpoint.
Schultz worked on Harlem’s other African-American numbers bankers, Holstein and Brunder, by lending them thousands of dollars, calling the loan in when he knew they could not pay it back and taking over their numbers routes in retribution.
St. Clair was now the only hold-out. Schultz threatened her and had his thugs assault her employees. In 1932, Madame St. Clair talked to police and reporters about it, extended a plea to Mayor Joseph McKee and took out newspaper ads accusing gangsters such as Schultz and crooked politicians of trying to take her livelihood away.
She allegedly attacked and broke the windows of white-owned small businesses in Harlem that accepted bets for Schultz. The gangster refrained from physically harming her, but his intrusion with his heavily armed hoods took its toll, and St. Clair had no choice but to surrender her territory and customers.
Schultz did expand the numbers racket by 1935 – to an estimated $100 million a year. He used his numbers whiz, Carl “Abba Dabba” Berman, to make sure that heavily bet three-digit numbers did not win. Berman bribed racetrack technicians to alter the numbers.
Meanwhile, gangland slayings were common all over town. Schultz, who defied the city’s ruling Mob chiefs by plotting to kill special prosecutor Thomas Dewey, was one such target.
On October 23, 1935, gunmen, surely sent by New York’s top mobster Charles “Lucky” Luciano, burst into a New Jersey restaurant and opened fire, mortally wounding Schultz and killing Abba Dabba and two Schultz henchmen. Schulz lingered in the hospital until the next day, speaking nonsense in a delirium.
St. Clair had the last laugh. After Schultz died, police found a telegram among his belongings. The message read: “Don’t be yellow. As ye sow, so shall ye reap. Madame St. Clair, policy queen.”
St. Clair’s prominence, however, faded thereafter.
One of her employees, Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson, agreed to oversee the numbers in Harlem, but he worked for Luciano, whose family evolved into the Genovese crime group. The La Cosa Nostra held onto illegal numbers in Harlem until New York legalized the lottery in the 1970s.
Johnson, a convicted drug dealer with about 40 arrests, died in 1968. St. Clair followed him in death later that year.
: Tha Airbender.