Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Stephanie St. Clair

Stephanie St. Clair (1886 – 1969) was a female gang leader who ran numerous criminal enterprises in Harlem, New York in the part of the 20th century. Despite resisting the interests of the Mafia for several years after Prohibition ended, she eventually operated under their control. Madam St. Clair was born of mixed French and African descent on Martinique. She immigrated to the United States via Marseilles in 1912 and ten years later took $10,000 of her own money and set up a numbers bank in Harlem. She became known throughout Manhattan as Queenie, but Harlem residents respectfully referred to her as Madame St. Clair. She became affiliated with the 40 Thieves gang but eventually branched off on her own and ran one of the leading numbers games in the city. She complained to local authorities about harassment by the NYPD, and when they paid no heed she ran advertisements in Harlem newspapers, accusing senior police officers of corruption. The police responded by arresting her on a trumped up charge, and in response she testified to the Seabury Commission about the kickbacks she had paid them. The Commission subsequently fired more than a dozen police officers.

After the end of Prohibition, Jewish and Italian-American crime families saw a decrease in profits and decided to move in on the Harlem gambling scene. Bronx-based mob boss Dutch Schultz was the first to move in, beating and killing numbers operators who would not pay him protection.

St. Clair and her chief enforcer Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson refused to pay protection to Schultz despite the amount of violence and intimidation they faced. Eventually Bumpy Johnson, her former enforcer, negotiated with Lucky Luciano in becoming the enforcer for the Five Families supervising and shaking down Harlem's black lotteries and bookmakers. Johnson initially approached St. Clair in an attempt to persuade her to join him. Although she refused at first, Johnson continued doing his best to protect his former boss.

Both eventually realized that the struggle with the Five Families was hurting their business, forcing the pair to collaborate and arrange a truce with Schultz. St. Clair would be allowed to continue operating as long as she paid a "Family Tax" to the Italians. After Schultz was assassinated in 1935 on the orders of The Commission, St. Clair sent a telegram to his hospital bed as the gangster lay dying. It read, "As ye sow, so shall ye reap." The incident made headlines across the nation.

By the 1940s, "Bumpy" Johnson had become the unquestioned Mafia enforcer in Harlem while St. Clair became less and less involved in the numbers game. She died quietly in Harlem in 1969. St. Clair was portrayed by Novella Nelson in the 1984 film The Cotton Club, by Cicely Tyson in the 1997 film Hoodlum and by Fulani Haynes in Katherine Butler Jones' 2007 play 409 Edgecombe Ave, The House on Sugar Hill.

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