She was chased out of the Harlem numbers rackets by Dutch Schultz, but when Schultz lay dying from a bullet wound, Stephanie St. Clair had the last laugh.
Stephanie St. Clair was born in 1886, in Marseilles, an island in the East Caribbean. At the age of 26 she immigrated to New York City and settled in Harlem. Almost immediately, she hooked up with the Forty Thieves, a white gang who were in existence since the 1850’s. There is no record of what St. Clair did for the next ten years, but it’s safe to say, considering her ties to the Forty Thieves, a notorious shake-down gang, what she did was anything but legal.
In 1922, St. Clair used $10,000 of her own money and started Harlem’s first numbers rackets. St. Clair was known for having a violent temper and often cursed her underlings out in several languages. When people questioned her about her heritage, she snapped that she was born in “European France,” and that she spoke flawless French, unlike the French-speaking rabble from the Caribbean. In Harlem they called her Madame St. Clair, but in the rest of the city, she was known as just plain “Queenie.”
In the mid 1920’s, known bootlegger and stone killer Dutch Schultz decided he wanted to take over all the policy rackets in Harlem. Schultz did not ask Queenie to back away too nicely, resulting in the deaths of dozens of Queenie’s numbers runners. Queenie enlisted the help of Bumpy Johnson, an ex-con with a hair-trigger temper, to take care of the Schultz situation. Johnson went downtown and visited Italian mob boss Lucky Luciano. He asked Luciano to talk some sense into Schultz. But there was not much Luciano could do, since at the time, he was one of Schultz’ partners. Luciano suggested that Queenie and Johnson throw in with Schultz, making them, in effect, a sub-division of Schultz’s numbers business. This did not sit too well with Queenie, and even though Johnson tried to convince her this was the smart move, she turned down Luciano’s offer.
Then out of nowhere, Queenie began having trouble with the police, whom she was paying off to look the other way. This was the work of Schultz, who through his connections with Tammany Hall, had several politicians in his back pocket, as well half the police force in New York City. While Schultz’ number runners worked the streets of Harlem with impunity, Queenie’s runners, when they were not being killed by Schultz’ men, were being arrested by the police.
Queenie decided to fight back with the power of the press. In December 1930, Queenie took several ads in Harlem newspapers, accusing the police of graft, shakedowns and corruption. That did not go over too well with the local fuzz, and they immediately arrested Queenie for illegal gambling.Queenie was convicted and sentenced to eight months hard labor on Welfare Island. Upon her release, she appeared before the Seabury Committee, which was investigating graft in the Bronx and Manhattan Magistrates Courts. Queenie testified that from 1923-1926, she had paid the police in Harlem $6000 to protect her runners from arrest, and that the police had taken her money and arrested her number runners anyway. Schultz must have had a good laugh over that one, since $6000 was less than he paid monthly to keep the cops happy in New York City.
Nothing came from her testimony before the Seabury Committee, so Queenie decided to plead her case to New York City Mayor Jimmy Walker, who was almost as crooked as Schultz. Queenie told Walker that Schultz was pressuring her to join his gang, or else. Walker, who was being investigated by the Seabury Committee himself, answered Queenie by quitting his job as Mayor and relocating to Europe for the next few years.
Queenie then pleaded with the other black policy number bankers in Harlem to join forces with her in a battle against Schultz. Knowing that Schultz had too much juice in the government, and too many shooters in his gang, they turned her down flat.
Bumpy Johnson soon found out that Schultz had put the word out on the streets that Queenie was to be shot on sight. Queenie then went into hiding, refusing to even go outside to see the light of day. On one occasion, Johnson had to hide Queenie in a coal bin, under a mound of coal, to save her from Schultz’ men. That was the final straw for Queenie. She sent word to Schultz that she would agree to his demands. Schultz sent word back to her that she could remain alive, as long as she gave Schultz a majority share in her numbers rackets. Queenie reluctantly agreed.
Schultz had his own run of bad luck, when he demanded that Luciano and his pals agree to the killing of Special Prosecutor Thomas E. Dewey, who was breathing down Schultz’s neck. Schultz’ proposition was turned down, and when he said he would kill Dewey himself, he was shot in the stomach in the bathroom of a New Jersey restaurant. Schultz lingered in a delirious state in a hospital for a few days before he died. As he was laying there mumbling inanities, a telegram arrived saying, “As ye sow, so shall you reap.”
The telegram was sent by the Queen of Harlem — Stephanie St. Clair.
Queenie eventually turned over her rackets to Bumpy Johnson. She faded into obscurity and died in her sleep in 1969.
In the 1997 movie “Hoodlum,” Lawrence Fishburne played Bumpy Johnson, Tim Roth played Dutch Schultz, Andy Garcia played Lucky Luciano and Cicely Tyson played Stephanie “Queenie” St. Clair.
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