Showing posts with label Ellen Poulsen. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ellen Poulsen. Show all posts

07 March 2017

Framed and Defamed

Framed and Defamed:  Stephanie St. Clair Meets Samuel Seabury



Stephanie St. Clair was known as the "Harlem Policy Queen."  In antiquated parlance, she was called "Mme. Stephanie Ste. Clair."  This black woman of another age was a policy banker in Harlem when that area north of 110th Street was the destination of black people migrating from the South in search of better social conditions.  She is sometimes remembered as the "Tiger from Marseilles" who fought back when the mob governed by Dutch Schultz tried to take away her business interests. 

Historically, she is confusing.  She was: 
1.  A hardened black woman who fell for the ministrations of a kindly old white man. 
2.  A numbers runner who sold out her network of cops-on-the-take. 
3.  A fierce street fighter who stood up to Dutch Schultz. 
4.  A rejected, dejected wife who tried to kill her cheating spouse. 
5..  All of the above. (This is the correct answer.) 

Today she remains a paradox.  Her life in the numbers was underground.  Her life as an informant was somewhat documented.  For this reason, we know more about her life after the fact -- "the fact" having ended the moment she started to talk to authorities about the underworld.

Even her existing pictures are a puzzle.  With the exception of one world news photo that shows her in police custody, none of her photos are substantiated beyond a shadow of a doubt.  The photo subject here was identified as being  the wife of Sufi Abdula Hamid.  For that reason, this is most likely an image of a slightly older St. Clair.  Researchers might look for ways to positively identify the providence of the few photos that exist of her.

St. Clair worked as a numbers bankers when neighborhood folks controlled the policy.   As a local figure, she blended in easily.  She arrived in the U.S. on a Caribbean steamship in 1911.  Its manifest listed her as a servant.  From that humble start, she started up her policy banking business around 1922.  At that time it cost a few days' pay to get started.

In or around 1930, she started having trouble with the cops.  Although her runners wore identification tags to indicate "no arrest," police started harassing them.  Around this time, Judge Samuel Seabury, a reformer, launched a commission to investigate New York corruption.  In those days New York had one reformer for every crooked cop and politician, so this didn't look like a big shakeup.  St. Clair, oddly enough, was fooled into thinking that this commission could bring her cops into line.  Threaten them with exposure, and they would allow her to continue her numbers.  It was kind of a blackmail by proxy and it backfired on her. 

The commission is now a page in the history of Tammany Hall and the ill-fated term of Mayor James "Jimmy" Walker.  It is worthy to note that this commission, which came to be known as the "New York City Investigation," heralded in a new "fusion" administration that blended reform and populist principles and resulted in the reign of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia.   

When St. Clair visited Seabury's offices, he welcomed the well-dressed, stately woman.  She sensed his empathy.  He considered her complaints about crooked cops to be at the heart of his investigation into corruption in the lower courts.  Police and bailiff bribes went hand in glove with the compromised criminal justice system that the commission uncovered in 1931. 

In going to Seabury, St. Clair abdicated her royal position in this insular, black community.  Speaking to the authorities was an act that made her a figure of betrayal to the neighborhood.  She had crossed 110th Street in more ways than one.  After that, her precinct bag man deserted her.  She was arrested by the same officers she'd once paid off.  She was sentenced to a term at Welfare Island.  The 1930 Census confirms that St. Clair was a resident there, living as a "work detainee." 

Her imprisonment was more than revenge over some precinct dirt.  Her arrest had come through higher channels.  It was a way to silence her violent opposition to the new numbers runners and bankers coming into Harlem.  The combination, fronted by Dutch Schultz with the backing of Tammany politician Jimmy Hines, was moving in and taking over.  After her release, she had a new complaint to take to Seabury.  She wanted police protection from the combination in order to allow her to continue her racket.  

The takeover had caused other bankers to emigrate back to their native Caribbean islands.  The bankers were all faced with the same choice.  They could let Seabury audit their books (assuming anything was written down) or they could roll over and allow the combination thugs to bash their brains in.  Those who did not leave the neighborhood would remain and work for the combination.  While St. Clair made the most noise, her barrel was as empty as the frightened bankers who had abandoned ship.

For now the system had moved from street corners to candy stores, from street runners to storekeepers.  One banker, Paloma Lida, put it this way:  "The racket is a snare and a delusion . . . now old lady Stephanie gets mixed up with the law and the grand jury.  Why did she do that?  Wasn't good business . . . no money in the policy slip profession; bottom done dropped out."

Why did she do it, is a good question.  Maybe she was too street -- she knew her neighborhood but not much else.  She was Caribbean.  She knew corruption, not reform politics.  She was a 19th Century woman, born into a gas-lit winter, December of 1896.  Why did the Tiger trust Seabury?  Perhaps her righteous anger needed a righteous authority figure -- which she thought she'd found in the kindly white man who was fighting injustice. 

By 1932, with all of the old bankers now working for the combination, St. Clair was shut out.  Her name never surfaced among the documented lists of bankers who survived the takeover. 

She went on to a spectacular life through her marriage to Harlem activist Sufi Abdula Hamid.  Nicknamed "Harlem's Hitler" by the press, Hamid advocated the boycotting of Harlem's white-owned businesses.  The marriage was not made in heaven, in spite of Hamid's affectations to spiritualism.  St. Clair was eventually replaced by a younger woman in Hamid's life.  Never one to turn the other cheek, St. Clair attempted to murder him by shooting at him outside his home.  Having survived the wrath of St. Clair, he went on to die in a plane crash above Bellmore, Long Island, as he was preparing to testify in the trial of politician James "Jimmy" Hines.

Her later years were obscure.  As a black underworld woman, she wasn't fodder for justice stories or detective magazines in the way that white gangsters and their molls would be featured.  For this reason, also, she was able to drop out of site.  Thus, her last years are a mystery.  She was mislabeled "The Tiger from Marseilles" in one book.  In spite of its incorrect birther origins -- she was born in Guadeloupe -- the tag has become part of her lore. 


Sources: 

Sann, Paul.  Kill the Dutchman!  New York:  Arlington House, 1971.  New edition of same cited above.
U.S. Census 1930.
Port of NY Passenger Lists

The following sources were found via primary research in the Schomburg Center for Research and Black Culture in Harlem:

9 March, 1931, New York Tribune
13, 20 August, 1932, New York Age
9 October, 1934, New York Telegram
1 August, 1938, New York Post.

Ellen Poulsen, author, Don't Call Us Molls: Women of the John Dillinger Gang; and The Case Against Lucky Luciano:  New York's Most Sensational Vice Trial.
Lecturer and commentator on the 1930s Crime Wave.  Currently completing work on a biography tentatively entitled:  Chasing Dillinger:  Indiana's Matt Leach Collides with the F.B.I." 



 







27 January 2017

Crime Does Not Pay -- Serialized Morality Tales of the 1930s

In 1935, crime spree bandits like Midwestern desperadoes Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson had been killed.  Likewise, inner-city gangsters of Chicago and New York who had been prominent in the "Big Six" era of organized crime were also gone -- either to prison or dead through mob retaliation.  The disappearance of these criminals from the American landscape left the public hungry for information about them.  Enter magazines like True Detective, Sterling and Liberty.  They created a new genre of the gangland memoir.  At the same time, J. Edgar Hoover, the F.B.I.'s director, had positioned himself as an anti-crime pundit.  He was clamping down the lid on the way these stories were told.  The gangland gravitas seething inside women like Evelyn Frechette (Dillinger's moll), Florence "Cokey Flo" Brown (a material witness in the trial of Charles "Lucky" Luciano), and other women on the verge of disaster went into print.  One such publisher,  MacFadden Publications, would send a ghost writer into prison or wherever these offenders lived after the fact.  Even city dailies joined the trend.  These stories went into syndication and were featured across the United States.  For the authors of these memoirs, the payment was nominal.  "I got $25.00 and a couple of gowns," said Mary Kinder, Dillinger moll and girlfriend of Pete "Harry" Pierpont.

Joseph "Fatso" Negri
Some of gangland's molls avoided the pathos of the paid-by-the-page sob story.  One moll not treated kindly by the press was Helen "Mrs. Baby Face" Gillis.  While still a fugitive after the death of her husband in an F.B.I. shootout, Helen Gillis appeared on the front page of Chicago's papers with "Kill Widow of Baby Face" captioned beneath her young face.  Mrs. Gillis went into prison undoubtedly relieved to escape further press coverage. 
            
The art of the memoir was not lost on women in hiding.  Florence "Cokey Flo" Brown, the chief material witness who testified against Charles "Lucky" Luciano in his 1936 trial for compulsory prostitution, had her story published in Liberty in 1937 while her actual whereabouts were unknown.   
Women were not the only gang associates who were called upon to write for these rags that sold for $.25.  Joseph "Fatso" Negri, an associate of Lester "Baby Face Nelson" Gillis, became a chronicler of the last weeks of the Nelson gang in True Detective.  In the series, which ran for several months, Negri introduced the mob expressions and jargon that might have been lost.  "Nelson always used the words 'to charge on,' in speaking of bank holdups, Negri wrote.  "The six of us tried to pile into one car, but it couldn't be done, what with everyone lugging along his machino and wearing his bulletproof vest." 

With the dawn of the Second World War, the crime-does-not-pay stories became old hat.  For those survivors of the 1930s criminal era, these serialized memoirs had helped to pay legal fees and keep the rent paid for a while.  These first-person accounts of gangland served a purpose that went beyond twenty-five bucks and a couple of gowns.  Today avid crime researchers, jaded by the age of technology, are still fascinated by these original stories of gangland.      



Ellen Poulsen"
Author of "Don't Call Us Molls: Women of the John Dillinger Gang,"
"The Case Against Lucky Luciano:  New York's Most Sensational Vice Trial,"
and a forthcoming biography of Captain Matt Leach of the Dillinger saga.



06 January 2017

Her Face for the World To See

Her Face for the World to See
In the era of Harold Robbins, she wrote the book on love, mob-style.  From the mid-1950s to 1961 Liz Renay had the kind of troubles that only organized crime could render – subpoenas, jail, abandonment, disgrace, paranoia.  She had spiraled into the mob as a beautiful showgirl dating Albert Anastasia’s reputed bodyguard Tony “Cappy” Coppola.  Using him as a springboard, she bounced from New York to Hollywood, where Mickey Cohen introduced her to the casting couch. She leant Cohen some money and the gratuity ruined her life.  After a barrage of subpoenas and a grand jury appearance resulted in a perjury charge, a hanging judge threw her into jail for three years.  Her story’s title cried big tears:  My Face for the World to See.   
Liz Renay – striptease dancer, B-girl, gun moll – confessed with no footnotes.  It’s not a perfect way to get the history, but in firsthand accounts of a woman’s life with the mob, it beats a blank.  The genre of not-really-true crime confessionals had been established earlier with the publication of the Roaring Twenties madam Polly Adler’s memoir, A House is Not a Home, the raunchy masterpiece of ghostwriting which became a bestseller.  In this type of confession genre, there is no documentation, no tangible facts save for what’s on public record – and fact-checkers have to look up newspaper records and court documents to establish timelines hiding beneath the innuendo.      
Renay’s story does not resonate historically like Polly Adler’s tale of vice in the age of Tammany.  It does, however, put a personal spin on the intense pressure that mob associates felt in the McClellan era.  Renay blamed her three-year commitment on Robert Kennedy’s vow to get Mickey Cohen.  The tax evasion case against Cohen in 1961 and ’62 swept Renay into prison on a suspicious technicality after she’d been set free on probation on the perjury charge.   “Could Robert Kennedy be so base that he’d smash my life...?”     
For Adler and Renay, the dangers were everywhere.  The D.A. had boiler-plated their names onto blue-backed subpoenas while the mob tailed them to within five feet of every police station house.  In an uncharacteristic way, their memoirs detailed lurid true-crime with a tender twist.  After a meeting with New York District Attorney Frank Hogan, Renay’s only thought is to take a warm bubble bath.  Polly Adler detested the experience of the prison shower messing up her salon-styled hair.   The editors chose to focus these molls' indignities on the trivialities of hair and makeup;  
Maybelline  saved their world.  
Consider that Renay talked about Albert Anastasia; Adler dished about Detroit’s Purple Gang.   Their musings were not based on specific activities but rather, gifts, proposals, manners – nothing to rival the revelations of Joseph Valachi or Henry Hill.  Neither woman was ever coaxed into protective custody or witness protection for selling out the secret of Cappy’s botched marriage proposal or the Purple Gang’s crass behavior while visiting Adler’s house of prostitution.        
The warnings issued to known crime figures who have flirted with memoirs are well-known among readers of true crime nonfiction.  Those who did cross the line to talk lived out their lives in federally sanctioned hiding places.  Yet Renay and Adler carried on without the mob connections of their wild days.  Renay knew that after-the-fact meant just that.  She left the life of a moll for a 1970’s reinvention as a campy film star.

There are legions of historical gun molls who, framed in their black & white photos taken in courtrooms, mob funerals and police stations, didn’t change with time but remain frozen in whatever era they typify.  (See Reney below, on trial and accompanied by her loving daughter.)    
By turning their tawdry experiences into literary stock, Adler and Renay elevated themselves and in doing so, escaped the mob.  It wasn’t easy.  Polly Adler’s worst John would prove to be the U.S. tax man.  Liz Renay made her image pay as an old stripper for the new age.  They both found life after organized crime.  More realistically, they stayed alive. (This blog is reprinted from an article originally submitted to the Las Vegas Mob Museum.)