By Ellen Poulsen
Stephanie St. Clair arrived in the U.S. on a Caribbean steamship in 1911. Known as Madam Queen to those who lived through the glory days of Harlem’s policy racket, St. Clair acquired infamy as one of a group of Harlem residents who profited from financing this notorious numbers scheme.
In the 1920s, the poverty of Harlem was pervasive. Blacks who had migrated to Harlem were having a hard time getting by. They had no source of fresh fruit, vegetables and the family farm-raised meats they had eaten in the South. For a lot of Harlem residents, the “daily number,” a popular daily lottery that originated in the 1800s, gave them hope of economic prosperity. What made it unique was that it was run by Harlem residents themselves. The people who funded it were called bankers who had migrated to Harlem from the Caribbean. This popular lottery was encased in a grassroots system. The system in effect during the 1920s is referred to as the “Harlem policy racket.” It became defunct as a friendly neighborhood game in the late 1920s when it was violently taken over by thugs under the control of Dutch Schultz. Before that historical takeover, it was simply a lottery that everybody played. Folks in the neighborhood placed their bet every morning, paying as little as one cent. The bets ended at either late morning or late afternoon, depending on which game the player was betting.
Listed as a servant on the steamship’s manifest when she arrived in the United States, St. Clair had become a policy banker in or around 1922. In 1930, she had trouble with the police she’d paid for protection. Although her men ran the streets wearing I.D. tags that meant “no arrest,” police started harassing them. She blew the whistle to representatives of Judge Samuel Seabury, who was conducting an investigation into corruption in the Magistrate Courts. The committee was looking at dishonest police officers. She naively believed that the commission would force the cops who took her bribe payoffs to protect her numbers runners.
In going to the Seabury investigators, she abdicated her royal position in this insular, black community. She was once the revered “Mme. Stephanie Ste. Clair.” Speaking to Seabury put her over the line. She had crossed 110th Street in more ways than one.
The officers from precincts formerly on her payroll betrayed her. She was arrested and sentenced to a term at Welfare Island. The 1930 Census does confirm that Stephanie St. Clair was living on Welfare Island as a work detainee. This prison term has been attributed to payback by the cops.
It sounds like it was more than that. Judge Seabury’s investigation was digging up all the precinct dirt. Police suspensions were normal events in 1931. Her arrest was for other reasons and came through higher channels – a way to silence her violent opposition to the new numbers runners and bankers muscling into Harlem. The combination, fronted by Dutch Schultz with the backing of Tammany politician Jimmy Hines and attorney Dixie Davis, was moving in and taking over.
She was the only banker who fought back. Other bankers weren’t as brave. Faced with the double threat of Seabury reading their bank books and thugs coming into the neighborhood to break heads, the bankers fled to their native countries in the West Indies.
In this crucial stage, the system moved from the street corners to candy stores, from neighborhood runners to storekeepers. One banker, Paloma Lida, put the blame on St. Clair. “The racket is a snare and a delusion … used to put my name to checks for a hundred, a thousand, more than that even. Now old lady Stephanie gets mixed up with the law and the grand jury. What I’d like to know is, why did she do that? Wasn’t good business – advertising, maybe, but not good business – no money in the policy-slip profession; bottom done dropped out.”
“Why did she do that?” It’s a good question. Maybe she was too street, meaning she knew her neighborhood but not much else. She was a Caribbean woman of French ancestry, not schooled in reform politics. She’d been born in the 19th Century, in December 1896. She’d arrived in New York from the French island of Guadeloupe in 1911. As a Caribbean immigrant, she had heard of payoffs and graft in government.
When faced with police who were ripping her off and with nowhere to turn, she thought she could trust Samuel Seabury, a reformer and judge. Perhaps her righteous anger needed a righteous authority figure. An older, white, kindly man concerned with municipal injustice, Judge Seabury seemed to fit the bill.
After St. Clair left Welfare Island she returned to the Seabury Committee, this time to complain that police weren’t giving her protection from the combination policy thugs. But it was 1932 and too late; the Harlem newspapers had declared the old system of neighborhood runners and bankers obsolete. While she was imprisoned, the old bankers, her peers, agreed to work as employees of the combination. She wasn’t given a chance to return. Her name never surfaced among the documented lists of bankers who remained after the takeover.
Sometime after her release she married a Harlem activist named Sufi Abdula Hamid (real name Eugene Brown), whom the press had nicknamed “Harlem’s Hitler” because of his advocacy of boycotting Harlem’s white-owned businesses. The marriage didn’t last and she was replaced by a younger woman in his affections. A potential witness in Thomas E. Dewey’s later investigation of Schultz’s political backer Jimmy Hines, Hamid would die in an airplane crash during jury selection in Hines’ trial. The crash was not investigated even though the pilot – experienced and accredited – ran out of gas after takeoff. Shortly before Hamid’s death in 1938, St. Clair had taken a shot at him as he left his Harlem home.
Her later years were obscure. Even though she stood up against Dutch Schultz, she wasn’t particularly popular with reporters. In the 1930s and ‘40s she was not a subject for the type of investigative crime stories that appeared in Liberty and True Detective. Today she remains a mystery woman, a Caribbean immigrant mislabeled “The Tiger from Marseilles.” It was an apt description of her nature.
Ellen Poulsen is the author of Don’t Call Us Molls: Women of the John Dillinger Gang and The Case Against Lucky Luciano: New York’s Most Sensational Vice Trial, winner of the Silver Medal for True Crime Book Award.
1 “Harlem Policy Shows 90% Cut in Policy Racket,” NY Tribune, March 9, 1931. (Some sources report a 600 to 1 odds on the New York Clearing House and the Stock Exchange.)
Other sources: Sann, Paul, Kill the Dutchman! New York: Arlington House, 1971.
U.S. Census 1930, Manhattan District 1001-1249.
Port of New York Passenger Lists.
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture :
13, 20 Aug., 1932, New York Age.
9 Oct., 1934, New York Telegram.
1 Aug., 1938, New York Post.
Suggested further reading:
Chepesiuk, Ron, Gangsters of Harlem: The Gritty Underworld of New York’s Most Famous Neighborhood, Fort Lee: BarricadeBooks, 2007.
Johnson, Mayme and Karen E. Quinones Miller: Harlem Godfather: The Rap on my Husband, Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson, Philadelphia: Oshun Publishing Company, 2008.
Schatzberg, Rufus and Robert J. Kelly, African American Organized Crime, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1997.