Stephanie St. Clair was a notable crime boss in Harlem, New York who worked alongside fellow gangster Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson. St. Clair’s numbers operation was so prominent, it caught the attention of the Mob and sparked a brief but violent war.
St. Clair was born on the island of Martinique in 1886 and arrived in America via France in 1912. A fluent reader and writer of several languages, St. Clair used her intellect to fuel her business savvy. Nicknamed “Madame” or “ Queenie,” St. Clair became deeply immersed in the Harlem underworld and rose to fame via her numbers racket. Johnson was one of her lieutenants and the pair held sway over the illegal practice in the borough.
Rival gang member Dutch Schulz attempted to squeeze St. Clair’s business and their gangs participated in a brief feud that led to dozens of deaths. However, St. Clair did not relent and continued her illegal activities. It was rumored that she was a fierce hand-to-hand combatant with an infamous mean streak. St. Clair was also popular in Harlem because of her activist leanings – she helped expose police brutality and corruption, so much so that she was once jailed on false charges.
Eventually, St. Clair forged a truce with Schulz and handed over her operation to him and Italian Mafia boss Lucky Luciano. Luciano ordered a hit on Schulz which was successful. It was rumored that St. Clair knew about it beforehand and sent a telegram to Schulz’s bed that read “As ye sow, so shall ye reap.”
After the Mafia wars, to avoid exposure for St. Clair, Johnson began working closely with the Genovese family and became the Harlem leader of their operation. St. Clair eventually retired from her criminal life but not before doing jail time for shooting her husband.
St. Clair died in Harlem in 1969.
Janet Jackson is executive producing a biopic on St. Clair’s life set to air on Lifetime. It won’t be the first time her story has been fictionalized. St. Clair was portrayed in the movie Hoodlum by Cicely Tyson.
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Little Known Black History Fact: Stephanie St. Clair was originally published on blackamericaweb.com