Oh man, y’all are in for a treat this week.
Presenting the tale of Prohibition-era gangster Stephanie St. Clair. She ran Harlem’s numbers rackets, fought the mob and won, and repeatedly dissed them in full page ads in the newspaper — where she attached giant pictures of herself dressed to the nines, because Madame St. Clair was fabulous above all else.
The early history of Stephanie St. Clair (who went by Madame Queenie), is lost both to time and to her tendency to lie shamelessly about her past. This much seems certain: she was born on Guadeloupe in the Caribbean, came to New York in the 1910s, and by 1923, had started her own numbers racket with seed money of $10,000. Within a few short years, she was clearing a quarter million dollars a year.
Now, a quick explanation of numbers rackets – since it may be, like me, you’ve heard the term a million times but have no clue what it actually means. More commonly referred to at the time as “policy banking,” it was a mix of investing, gambling, and playing the lottery. Because few banks would accept black customers at the time, it was one of the few ways anyone in the community could invest their earnings. Although the practice was generally illegal, it provided a surprising amount of wealth and jobs. So: dubious practice, but actually sometimes good for the community!
And make no mistake, Stephanie St. Clair was extremely community-oriented. Most of her numerous newspaper ads were spent educating her neighbors about their rights, advocating for voting rights, and calling out police brutality. She spent her money on any number of community projects: a legal fund to help new French-speaking immigrants. She made sure all her employees were dressed impeccably and treated Harlemites with the utmost courtesy. She even lived in the same building in as many other neighborhood luminaries: C.J. Walker, W.E.B. Du Bois, Thurgood Marshall, and more.
“I’m not afraid of Dutch Schultz or any other man living. He’ll never touch me.”
She was not afraid to get rough, though, and the Great Depression afforded her ample opportunity. When the economy tanked and white mobsters’ profits began to plunge, they began edging in on Harlem. None were more ruthless in this land grab than gun-toting thug Dutch Schultz. He began making phone calls threatening her, kidnapping and murdering her men, buying off select police, and even at one point got her arrested.
St. Clair’s revenge was swift and brutal. When, at one point, Schultz sent an underling to intimidate her, she pushed the underling into a closet, locked him in, and called in four massive bodyguards to “take care of him.” She attacked and destroyed the storefronts of any business that ran Schultz’s betting operations. She tipped the police off to Schultz’s operations – which led to them raiding his clearing house, arresting 14 employees, and seizing around $2 million. She then bragged about it in the press because she gave somewhere in the neighborhood of zero fucks.
When Schultz was finally taken out (shot in the stomach while on the toilet) she dropped everything and rushed a telegram to his hospital deathbed. It simply said, “So You Sow — So Shall Ye Reap.” She signed it “Madam Queen of Policy.”
“I am sane and smart and fearless.”
The struggle against Schultz gradually edged St. Clair out of the numbers game. She’d begun taking out newspaper ads as a sort of insurance policy against the police and Schultz – publicly stating where she was and what she was doing, so everyone had a record of it. In so doing, she had to keep her nose clean, and ended up handing the reins to her protege, the terrifyingly violent “Bumpy” Johnson, who ran things for many years thereafter. With Johnson protecting her, Schultz dead, and a desire to keep her life on the straight and narrow, St. Clair transitioned into using her new public persona to advocate for political reform.
It was in this capacity that she met her future husband Sufi Abdul Hamid, known in the press as “Black Hitler.” Hamid was, as one could expect, an eccentric figure. A cape-and-turban-toting militant activist, he organized a campaign to boycott businesses that didn’t employ blacks, ran a mosque, and claimed to have been born in Egypt (he was from Chicago). For these reasons and many others, not the least of which were his rabid anti-semitism and Nazi-styled fashion, the press took a dim view on him and dubbed him the “Black Hitler.” Their marriage did not last long, ending when she shot him.
Or rather, shot at him. The vagaries of their marriage are too complex to explore in depth, but suffice to say, Hamid was cheating on her with a black fortuneteller “with more curves than a winding mountain grade” who went by Fu Futtam (she bafflingly claimed to be Asian – her real name was Dorothy Matthews). Hamid and Futtam attempted to start any number of businesses using St. Clair’s money — including, fittingly enough, manure sales. When St. Clair had had enough, she shot at Hamid three times, although the closest she came to hitting him was, according to Hamid, nicking his teeth.
No, I’m not sure how that would have worked either.
She went to jail for 3 years, and after that, her story gets a bit hazy. Harlem began a slow decline as outside forces began squabbling over it, with their efforts sapping the community of resources instead of reinvesting in it, as St. Clair had done. Hamid died in a plane crash months after her arrest, and the mosque he ran became a dance hall featuring a one-legged dancer (no, really). St. Clair herself lived a fairly quiet life, dying just shy of 73 years old in 1969.
Years later, when interviewed about St. Clair, the widow of “Bumpy” Johnson summed her up as a woman not afraid to “kick off her expensive high-heels and go toe-to-toe with any man or woman insolent enough to insult her breeding and character.”
EDIT: “Why isn’t this a movie?!”
A couple people have asked “why isn’t this a movie?” (which probably should have been the name of this blog, honestly), and well, it was – kind of! The 1997 movie Hoodlum has Cicely Tyson in it as Madame St Clair, although it sounds like she’s barely in it. The movie is more about Bumpy Johnson (Lawrence Fishburne) versus Dutch Schultz (Tim Roth). Guessing it starts around the time Schultz started moving in on Harlem and got her sent to prison.
(I love how few fucks she has to give in that second picture. Stephanie St. Clair, you are just the best.)
- I had a hell of a time trying to figure out a backdrop for this illustration. This is the fourth or fifth attempt. Not happy with it, but eh.
- The guy at screen left scribbling on Dutch Schultz’s newspaper is one of St. Clair’s dapper lieutenants. They operated by going from door to door, sitting down with neighborhood residents, and writing down the residents’ bets in very tiny letters on the day’s newspaper — in that way, there could be a record of what the resident had bet, without the runner carrying around a record of everyone’s bets. Moreover, because it was tiny, there was plausible deniability. On the back of the paper (the Amsterdam News) is one of St. Clair’s ads.
- The guy standing behind her is Bumpy Johnson. He wasn’t actually that big or imposing in real life, but his reputation had him as such.
- On the right hand side of the image, there’s an awning that reads “409.” This is a reference to 409 Edgecombe Ave, the building in Sugar Hill where St. Clair lived, along with many major figures of the Harlem Renaissance.
Next Time on Rejected Princesses
This brilliant scientist was left out of the picture, even though the picture was one she helped develop.