Gambling Legends: The Incredible Story Of Mobster Stephanie St. Clair
“Queenie,” “Madam Queen,” “Madam St. Clair,” “Queen of the Policy Rackets” – whichever of the many nicknames you know her by, Stephanie St. Clair is one of the most formidable mobsters of the 20th century.
St. Clair spent her criminal career rubbing elbows with New York’s famous figures, from leading civil rights activists to the fearsome heads of the mafia’s Five Families.
With the “Godfather of Harlem,” Bumpy Johnson, as her hired security, Stephanie St. Clair was an imposing presence on the New York underground gambling scene.
Yet, her devotion to uplifting Black Harlemites through activism and education earned the respect and admiration of her peers.
She was known around Harlem for many things, her frequent (and often entertaining) newspaper ads being one of them.
However, it was her steadfast resolve in standing up to corrupt police officers and rival racketeers like Dutch Schultz that ultimately remains St. Clair’s biggest legacy.
Stephanie St. Clair spent most of her adult life in the public eye, taking out full newspaper ads to inspire her peers or address her foes. However, her early life is shrouded in mystery, which is partly St. Clair’s own doing.
There are several versions of her childhood, but most accounts state that she was born on December 24, 1897, in the French archipelago Guadeloupe.
In this version of her origin story, her French Caribbean background meant she could read in both French and English, making her far more educated than most white Americans.
Another version of her mythology (the spread of which St. Clair herself contributed to) is that she was actually born in France and taught herself English on the voyage to the US.
Whichever version is true, both accounts recognize that she traveled by steamer to the US (though whether this occurred in 1911 or 1921 is still up for debate).
The Rise Of The Queen Of Harlem
St. Clair arrived in New York in the midst of the Great Migration, where more than six million African Americans moved North to escape the persecution of the Jim Crow South.
She quickly settled in the African-American neighborhood of Harlem and began to sow the seeds of her criminal career by joining (and eventually leading) the Forty Thieves.
Initially formed in the 1820s, the Forty Thieves was one of New York’s oldest criminal gangs, famous for running theft and extortion rackets.
It’s unclear exactly how she came up with the money, but St. Clair soon decided to branch out from the Thieves and invested $10,000 to develop her own numbers racket.
Her new status as a “policy banker” would quickly attract the unwanted attention of her rival male racketeers, so she hired the services of a then little-known bodyguard, Ellsworth Raymond “Bumpy” Johnson.
Fans of the Epix series The Godfather of Harlem will be well aware of his name, but what is the significance of Johnson’s association with the Queen of Harlem?
Well, thanks to the employment of Stephanie St. Clair, “Bumpy” Johnson went on to dominate Harlem’s gambling scene and become one of the most philanthropic mobsters of the 20th century.
How Did The ‘Numbers Racket’ Work, And How Was St. Clair Involved?
Gambling was officially made illegal in New York in 1908. However, a constitutional ban on lotteries was enacted decades before, in the mid-1830s.
As a result, underground lotteries were rife, particularly in poor African-American neighborhoods like Harlem.
The “numbers racket” (also known as the “numbers game” or “Mafia lottery”) worked in a similar way to the Hispanic lottery “bolita,” however it was geared specifically toward the African-American community.
Simply put, the numbers racket was a small-scale lottery run on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis.
While some played for fun, many working-class Harlemites relied on the numbers racket to cover the cost of bills and clothes.
In the eyes of the law, St. Clair’s numbers racket was an illegal crime ring that preyed on Harlem’s poorest citizens. In actual fact, it had several benefits for the community.
St. Clair was able to employ dozens of Black men and women as ‘numbers runners’ and subsidize the low incomes they received as a result of their exclusion from traditionally ‘white’ jobs.
In addition, the profits from her racket allowed St. Clair to support legitimate black businesses and publish newspaper ads that helped educate Black Harlemites on their legal and voting rights.
However, Harlem’s police department didn’t see it this way.
Despite having several officers in her employment, St. Clair was arrested in December 1929 for the possession of policy slips.
On January 1, 1930 – just two days after her arrest – she announced in the Amsterdam News, “I have been arrested and framed by three of the bravest and noblest cowards who wear civilian clothes.”
In March 1930, she was sentenced to eight months in a work camp. Immediately upon her release in December, St. Clair sought revenge.
As part of an investigation into police corruption, St. Clair testified against the cops on her bankroll and successfully had over a dozen officers suspended from the force.
By the 1930s, Queenie and Bumpy had built an empire and dominated the Harlem gambling scene with their thriving numbers racket.
There had always been rival racketeers trying to muscle in on the operation. However, the repeal of Prohibition in 1933 meant that mobsters who made their money selling liquor (known as “bootlegging”) were looking for ways to replenish their profits.
Arthur “Dutch Schultz” Flegenheimer was, without a doubt, the biggest threat to both St. Clair and the entire gambling industry in Harlem.
He targeted competitors with extreme violence, forcing them to hand over a share of their revenue or relinquish their operation to him entirely.
Those who refused to submit would face violent beatings or even murder.
Schultz’s unyielding desire for total control of the numbers racket resulted in over 40 deaths, and by 1935, the FBI had branded him “Public Enemy Number One.”
As a hugely successful Black racketeer – and a woman at that – St. Clair was at the top of his target list.
Taking On Public Enemy Number One
The Numbers Queen wasn’t about to go down without a fight and did everything in her power to stop Schultz and his gang from infiltrating her racket.
She made a point of highlighting how Schultz’s actions were heavily racially motivated and encouraged her peers to stop engaging with businesses (both legal and illegal) that weren’t black-owned.
St. Clair spread this message every way she could, from full-page newspaper campaigns encouraging Harlemites to “Buy Black” to violently destroying storefronts associated with white racketeers.
In her own words, taking on Schultz and his mob of thugs cost St. Clair “820 days in jail plus three-quarters of a million dollars.”
Of course, these actions caught the attention of the man himself, and in 1935 Schultz ordered a hit on St. Clair.
Fearing for her life, the Numbers Queen was forced into hiding and handed her business over to her bodyguard-in-chief, Bumpy Johnson.
Fortunately, her days in exile were numbered.
Other prominent racketeers – namely the Italian mafia boss and “chairman” of New York’s Five Families, Charlie “Lucky” Luciano – decided to put an end to Schultz’s reign of terror.
When Schultz ordered an unauthorized hit on District Attorney Thomas Dewey, Luciano turned the tables and ordered the hit squad “Murder, Inc.” to assassinate Schultz.
The hit took place on October 23, 1935, while Dutch and his associates were dining at the Palace Chop House.
Dutch lived for almost an entire day after being shot – long enough for St. Clair to retreat from hiding and send him a telegraph that read, “As ye sow, so shall ye reap.”
After handing over her numbers empire to Johnson, St. Clair took a step back from the gambling scene. Yet, her run-ins with the law only seemed to increase.
She had always been a staunch civil rights activist, and in 1936 she married fellow activist and “soapbox speaker” Sufi Abdul Hamid.
However, their relationship was doomed from the start.
Dubbed the “Black Hitler,” Hamid was an anti-Semite and an Islamic-Buddhist cult leader whose skewed morality conflicted with other prominent activists of the era.
He ended up spending a huge chunk of St. Clair’s wealth and cheating on her with a young fortune teller.
Unsurprisingly, the Numbers Queen didn’t take kindly to his infidelities, and in 1938 she shot Hamid during a fight.
Though she didn’t kill him, St. Clair was sentenced to up to 10 years at the New York State Prison for Women.
Little is known about Stephanie St. Clair’s life after her release from prison.
She stopped taking out ads in the paper, only resurfacing in print in a 1960 New York Post article. Mayme Hatcher, the wife of Bumpy Johnson, claimed she retired to a mansion in Long Island.
Both accounts specify that she had transgressed from an illegal numbers racketeer to a legitimate businesswoman.
How Did St. Clair Die?
Stephanie St. Clair died in New York the same way she arrived – shrouded in mystery.
Despite a life spent dominating the underground gambling scene and becoming an advocate for civil rights, no report was made of her death in any of the local newspapers.
Far from the dramatic and violent deaths of her male mobster contemporaries, St. Clair passed away peacefully in 1969 in Central Islip, New York.
The Legacy Of Stephanie St. Clair
Almost her entire criminal career was spent living in 409 Edgecombe Avenue, an apartment complex that housed Harlem’s Black elite.
From civil rights activists like W.E.B. Du Bois to painters like Aaron Douglas and playwrights like Katherine Butler Jones, her neighbors were at the forefront of the fight for civil rights.
Rather than hide from the law, Stephanie St. Clair chose to step into the spotlight and use her wealth to uplift her fellow Harlemites.
With no fear of the dangerous repercussions her stoicism could have, St. Clair battled corruption from men both above and below the law – and looked fabulous while doing so.
Her refusal to back down to “Public Enemy Number One” Dutch Schultz not only protected her own racket from collapsing but also those of other Black racketeers who were subject to his violent quest for domination.
While keeping her racket afloat inflated her own wealth, it also provided countless jobs for Black men and women and allowed her to invest in legitimate Black-run businesses.
Meanwhile, she took on the NYPD head-to-head and won. Alongside testifying against corrupt police officers, her regular ads in the Amsterdam News helped to educate her peers on their legal and voting rights.
Instead of indulging in destructive behavior like her male mobster counterparts, St. Clair spent her life trying to uplift her fellow Harlemites and using violence only as a means to an end.
Madam Queen In The Media
Stephanie St. Clair has appeared as a side character in The Cotton Club (1984) and Hoodlum (1997).
She was also the focus of a 2014 episode of Celebrity Crime Files. As of yet, no programs or movies focus entirely on her story.
However, that is soon set to change. Two new projects are in the works that will focus on the life and times of Stephanie St. Clair.
One is a series called Queenie, a BET Studios production set to begin filming soon.
The other is from HBO, who has announced a film about St. Clair adapted from a book by Shirley Stewart, The World of Stephanie St. Clair.