Picture New York City in the early 20th century. Sure, downtown NYC evokes glamor, but all five boroughs contended with violence, lawlessness, and a rapidly changing society. Gangs ran rampant, controlling liquor, guns, and gambling—but in Harlem, they had their own numbers games. One of the most successful operators not only staved off mafia control during the roaring 1920s, she was also a Black woman. To her adoring clients and even her begrudging enemies, Stephanie St. Clair was the undisputed Queen of Numbers.
Stephanie St. Clair Editorial
Playing the Game
After rampant corruption in the 19th century, most states banned lotteries, leading to illegal numbers games to pop up. Numbers game, also known as policy rackets, were a fairly simple form of lottery. The gambler would make a bet with a bookie at a semi-private location (to keep the exchange away from the eyes of the law), picking the three numbers that they hoped would match those drawn the next day. With the bet made, a messenger would transport the money from the bookie to the numbers bank, where the person running the game kept the cash.
The highest concentration of numbers games were in working-class ethnic neighborhoods—the mafia ran the Italian lottery for New York’s Italian neighborhoods, Cuban areas had their own version, the bolita, and Harlem had its fair share of policy banks as well. By 1925, 30 Harlem numbers games were in operation, all run by Black men, except for one: the lottery organized by Stephanie St. Clair.
It’s a Long Way to the Top
A long history of poverty, tragedy, violence, and heartbreak prepared Stephanie St. Clair for her climb to the top of Harlem’s illegal gambling circuit. Born in the West Indies, St. Clair grew up in Martinique, but had to leave school at 15 to support her sick mother. She found work as a maid, but after her employer’s son assaulted her, she fled to France. After finding work proved impossible, she left Marseille for the United States.
Upon arriving in New York, St. Clair immediately became acquainted with its seedy underbelly. In quick succession, sources allege that she struck up a romance with a local gangster, stabbed him in the eye with a fork when he pushed her limits, and promptly fled the city. However, her nightmare was just beginning—the Ku Klux Klan stopped St. Clair’s bus. They hurt St. Clair and either assaulted or even killed the bus’ other passengers. St. Clair was lucky to escape with her life.
The Queen of Numbers Takes Her Crown
After the vicious attack, St. Clair reluctantly returned to New York, fearing that her gangster ex would try to get his revenge. However, when she arrived in Harlem, St. Clair received some welcome news. Her old flame had been killed by someone else. While biographers aren’t sure of St. Clair’s exact birthdate, they estimate that all this happened when she was in her early 20s, or even her teens.
Having survived two close calls, St. Clair decided to take a position where she couldn’t be victimized anymore. She began selling illegal substances with the help of her new boyfriend. After she saved up a significant chunk of cash, she told him to take a hike, and that she’d take over the business on her own. To say that this coup did not end well would be an understatement. When St. Clair’s beau attacked her, she fought back. St. Clair pushed him away so hard that he hit his head on a table and passed away.
That’s Madame St. Clair to You
St. Clair quickly bounced back from the tragedy. She worked her way up the ranks of a local gang called the 40 Thieves, at one point acting as their leader. Between the gang’s loot, and the money she’d saved selling illegal substances, she was ready to begin her own policy bank. However, there were two things standing in her way. One: The local police, whom she handily bribed. Two: Competition. Plenty of other people were running their own numbers games, particularly, the mafia. At first, they left St. Clair to build her business, but it wouldn’t take long for that to change.
St. Clair excelled at running her policy racket, reaching the height of her success during the Prohibition era, when she became known as Madame St. Clair. With the help of her right-hand man, “Bumpy” Johnson, she built one of the largest operations in Harlem. It soon drew the attention of gangster Dutch Schultz, who already had fingers in the pockets of the area’s other policy banks. St. Clair fought valiantly against Schultz. She even had the police raid his house, where they seized about $12 million. While many policy banks fell to Schultz, St. Clair’s never did.
Reap What You Sow
Unfortunately, St. Clair’s feud with Schultz brought so much attention to her that she had no choice but to change the way she organized her numbers game. She handed most of the daily operations off to Bumpy, but made sure to stay active behind closed doors. But St. Clair didn’t have to hide for too long. At the end of Prohibition, the mafia shot Schultz in 1935. He stayed alive for 24 hours, and in that time, St. Clair infamously sent him a telegram that said “As ye sow, so shall ye reap.” While St. Clair hadn’t been the one to rid the world of Dutch Schultz, she had outlasted him.
However, St. Clair couldn’t do the same with law enforcement—although she certainly tried. She became a self-styled Civil Rights advocate, speaking out against police brutality and using her wealth to educate other Black citizens of Harlem about their legal rights. The police struck back against St. Clair’s activism by arresting her and throwing her into a harsh workhouse for months on end.
If You Thought the 20s Were Roaring…
Despite this brutal treatment, St. Clair remained an activist—although her message was perhaps slightly derailed by the company she kept. In the 30s, she married a man named Sufi Abdul Hamid—and from there, St. Clair’s life devolves into something out of a bizarre, madcap film. Not only was Hamid a rabid anti-Semite, he was also a cult leader and militant activist. And he was having an affair with a fortune teller. Somehow, it gets more insane from there.
Hamid was on the way to meet his lawyer one day—trouble in paradise?—when he was shot. The authorities arrested St. Clair for the crime. Her response to the charges sums up St. Clair’s indomitable cool. She calmly told police that it couldn’t have been her because if she wanted him dead, he would be. Despite this ballsy stance, a jury convicted St. Clair after a splashy trial. While she’d made her fortune from a decade of illegal lotteries, this was the crime that finally put her away. St. Clair spent 10 years in prison for the death of Hamid.
End of the Road
After all this turmoil and drama, St. Clair lived out the rest of her days relatively quietly. She still campaigned against police brutality and argued for political reform, but there were no more numbers games or tumultuous relationships. Instead, St. Clair eventually reunited with her former enforcer Bumpy Johnson, slightly before both died in the late 60s. She even lived to see the the first official state-run lottery in New York…while still living off the profits from the illegal lottery she’d operated 40 years earlier. In that sense, Stephanie St. Clair remained the Queen of Numbers until the day she died.