Born in the French Caribbean in the late 19th century, Stephanie St. Clair eventually settled in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City, where she quickly established a considerable criminal empire. In the 1930s, gangster and bootlegger Dutch Schultz attempted to take over her operations and a bloody territorial war ensued. At its end, 40 people were dead and Schultz had emerged victorious. However, he was assassinated on the order of Mafia boss Lucky Luciano shortly thereafter. Despite her loss of power, St. Clair was able to live comfortably off of her profits for the remainder of her life, and after a brief stint in prison devoted most of her energies to civil rights causes. She died on Long Island in 1969.
Perhaps by her own design, the details of Stephanie St. Clair’s origins are hazy, with considerable discrepancies regarding both the year and place of her birth, as well as the circumstances and timing of her arrival in the United States. What can be stated with some measure of certainty is that she was born sometime in the late 19th century, somewhere in the French Caribbean—likely Guadaloupe or Martinique, though she herself liked to claim France—and that she eventually settled in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City around 1910. From this point, the facts are more easily corroborated, but no less shady.
Whatever doubts exist about her youth, St. Clair was known in her community to be a well-educated, well-spoken woman, capable of reading and writing in both French and English and fluent in Spanish as well. Tall and always fashionably dressed, she was known as Queenie throughout the other boroughs of Manhattan, and in Harlem as Madame St. Clair. However, St. Clair possessed a violent temper and was prone to outbursts of profanity in any one of the several languages she spoke. Within a short time after her arrival in Harlem, she was running a much-feared extortion gang called the Forty Thieves.
During the 1920s St. Clair sought to expand her criminal enterprise by investing her ill-gotten gains in the Harlem numbers rackets, an illegal lottery. The move quickly paid off, making both her and her right-hand man—a career criminal named Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson—considerably wealthy. However, the riches and power they gained in the process would soon make them targets as well.
By the early 1930s, the arrival of the Great Depression and the end of Prohibition were taking their toll on organized-crime outfits throughout the country. In New York City, Jewish gangster Dutch Schultz’s solution for the loss of his formerly lucrative bootlegging operations was to attempt a takeover of the numbers game in Harlem. But St. Clair and Johnson had no intention of rolling over for Schultz, and a violent war for territory ensued, with more than 40 people killed in the process.
Significantly out-muscled by Schultz, St. Clair sought the help of the New York Police Department, who had previously provided protection for her operations in Harlem. When she was refused, she took revenge on the department by purchasing ad space in newspapers to accuse it of corruption and eventually testified before the Seabury Crime Commission, resulting in the firing of several officers.
However, this did nothing to improve St. Clair’s prospects in her battle with Schultz, who further strengthened his position by purchasing Bumpy Johnson’s acquiescence with promises of a share in the profits. With no one left to turn to for help, in 1935 St. Clair surrendered her operations to Schultz and his ally in the Italian Mafia, Lucky Luciano. Unfortunately for Schultz, he would not get to enjoy his victory for long.
Seeking to evade impending charges of income-tax evasion, Schultz began to formulate a plan to assassinate special prosecutor Thomas E. Dewey. However, Luciano refused to condone the move, believing it would draw an undue amount of attention to the activities of the Mafia. When Schultz decided to proceed with his plan anyway, Luciano ordered Schultz’s assassination instead. He was gunned down in a restaurant in Newark, New Jersey, on October 23, 1935, but initially survived and was rushed to the hospital. Lying on his deathbed, he received a telegram from St. Clair containing the brief but vindictive message: “As ye sow, so shall ye reap.”
Despite having lost control of her empire, St. Clair had retained enough of her wealth to live comfortably for the rest of her life. She also married around this time, to a man who called himself Sufi Abdul Hamid, but their relationship was a tempestuous one, and St. Clair was eventually sentenced to several years in prison for shooting him in the head. After her release she returned to Harlem but not to her wicked ways, and spent much of her time devoted to civil rights causes. She died on Long Island in December 1969 and was buried at the Trinity Church Cemetery in Manhattan.
St. Clair has been portrayed in film by Novella Nelson in The Cotton Club (1984) and by Cicely Tyson in Hoodlum (1997). In the spring of 2016, it was announced that Janet Jackson would executive produce a new film about St. Clair.
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