Nicknamed ‘Queenie’ and ‘Madame St. Clair’, Stephanie St. Clair (1897-1969) was one of the most famous racketeers in Harlem in the early 20th century. Known for her entrepreneurial, no-nonsense spirit, St. Clair ran a lucrative illegal numbers game, lent money and forcefully collected debts, becoming a multi-millionaire in today’s money in the process.
In addition, St. Clair resisted Mafia intimidation, denounced corrupt police and right up until she died, campaigned for African-American rights.
So who was Stephanie St. Clair?
She emigrated from the West Indies to the US
Stephanie St. Clair was born in the West Indies to a single mother who worked hard to send her daughter to school. In her 1924 Declaration of Intention, St. Clair gives Moule Grandterre, French West Indies (present-day Guadeloupe, West Indies) as her place of birth.
Aged around 15, her mother became ill, so St. Clair had to give up her education. Her mother then died, so she left for Montreal, likely as part of the 1910-1911 Caribbean Domestic Scheme which encouraged domestic workers to move to Quebec. In 1912, she moved to Harlem in New York from Montreal, and used the long voyage and quarantine to learn English.
She started her own drug dealing business
In Harlem, St. Clair fell for a small-time crook called Duke, who tried to push her into sex work but was instead shot and killed. After four months, she decided to start her own business selling controlled drugs with a boyfriend called Ed. After a few months, she had made $30,000 and told Ed she wanted to start her own business. Ed tried to strangle her, so she pushed him away with such force that he cracked his skull and died.
Racial discrimination limited her money-making options
After Ed died, in 1917, St. Clair invested $10,000 of her own money into a game called policy banking, which was a semi-illegal mixture of investing, gambling and playing the lottery. This was one of few finance-related money-making avenues open to St. Clair since many banks at the time wouldn’t accept black customers, and black residents were mistrustful of white-controlled banks.
Putting money into the numbers game was akin to an underground stock market, which was not usually otherwise open to black people. St. Clair employed her own men, bribed policemen and quickly became a successful numbers game runner, known as ‘Queenie’ in Manhattan and ‘Madame St. Clair’ in Harlem.
Her popularity in Harlem was in part because she provided many jobs, such as numbers runners, and donated money to local programs that promoted racial progress. By 1930, St. Clair had a personal fortune of around $500,000 in cash, which is worth around $8 million today, and owned several properties.
She refused to yield to gang intimidation
After the end of Prohibition, Jewish and Italian-American crime families earned less money so decided to move into the Harlem gambling scene. Bronx-based mob boss Dutch Schultz was the first and most problematic gang leader to attempt to take over St. Clair’s business, in part because he had powerful political and police allies.
Paired with her chief enforcer Ellsworth ‘Bumpy’ Johnson, St. Clair refused to pay protection money to Schultz, despite the violence and police intimidation that she and her business faced. She attacked the storefronts of his businesses, and successfully tipped off the police about him.
After St. Clair’s struggle with Schultz, she wanted to become legitimate so passed her business to ‘Bumpy’ Johnson, who passed his business on to Five Points gang member Lucky Luciano upon the requirement that all major decisions be run by him. Schultz was assassinated in 1935. St. Clair sent a telegram to his death bed that read ‘As ye sow, so shall ye reap’, which made headlines across the US.
She tried to kill her partner
In 1936, St. Clair entered into a non-legal marriage with controversial anti-Semitic race activist Bishop Amiru Al-Mu-Minin Sufi Abdul Hamid, dubbed ‘Black Hitler’. Their contract specified that if, after a year, the couple wanted to get married, they would hold a legal ceremony. If not, they’d terminate their relationship.
In 1938, St. Clair fired three bullets at Hamid after learning of an affair, for which she was convicted for attempted murder and sentenced to two to ten years at a New York state prison. During her sentencing, the presiding Judge James G. Wallace stated, ‘This woman [has] been living by her wits all of her life.’ As St. Clair was led out of the courtroom, it is said she ‘kissed her hand to freedom.’
She faded into obscurity
After a few years, St. Clair was released from prison. Details of her life are unclear; however, it seems she may have visited relatives in the West Indies before retreating into relative obscurity. However, she continued to campaign for black rights, writing columns in local newspapers about discrimination, police brutality, illegal search raids and other issues.
It is unclear whether she died a wealthy woman, and where. Some reports state that she died in a Long Island psychiatric institution in 1969, while others state that she died at home, shortly before her 73rd birthday. ‘Bumpy’ Johnson had reportedly come to live with her and write poetry. However, her death was not mentioned in any newspaper.