Bankers, Kings and Queens

The men and women who operated the numbers game were known as bankers.  The most successful bankers were known as Kings and Queens.  As early as May 1924, the New York Age estimated that there were at least 30 bankers in Harlem, many of them Cuban, and many employing between 12 and 20 collectors.  Huge sums could be made operating numbers, but a popular number hitting could also quickly wipe out a banker, although, notoriously, they often avoided that fate by simply refusing to pay out, or offering players reduced payouts.

The most successful bankers earned the label King or Queen.  The first banker to achieve enough success to be called a numbers king was a Cuban named Marcellino, who controlled much of the gambling by Spanish-speakers.  He displayed the ostentatious style that would become a hallmark of the kings and queens, driving up and down Lenox Avenue in a chauffeur-driven limousine, and living in a palace of an apartment, adorned with imported chandeliers and a baby grand piano.

Casper Holstein outside Washington Heights Court, 1928 (New York Daily News)

The most successful numbers king was almost certainly the reputed inventor of the game, Casper Holstein, a native of the Virgin Islands.  He owned a fleet of cars, apartment buildings in Harlem and a home on Long Island, and acres of  land in the Virgin Islands.  However, unlike most kings, he did not live a flamboyant lifestyle.  He was a committed member of the Monarch Lodge of the Elks, even running unsuccessfully to be the fraternal order’s national leader.  He gave generously to support Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association, and his native Virgin Islands.  Holstein was also a key supporter of the Harlem Renaissance, “a great help to poor poets,” as Langston Hughes put it.  He gave money to charities and loans to aspiring businessmen.

Alex Pompez, 1938 (Corbis)

One of the few ways that Holstein did not spend his money was on sports, but other kings promoted boxers and, most notably, operated baseball teams.  A Cuban banker, Alex Pompez, played the most prominent role in baseball, owning a team called the New York Cubans and supporting the Negro National League, before becoming a scout for the Giants and a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Stephanie St Clair, under arrest for shooting her husband, 1938 (Corbis)

Stephanie St Clair was the leading, and perhaps only, numbers queen. A native of Martinique who spoke with a French accent, she lived in 409 Edgecombe Avenue, an address favored by civil rights luminaries and other members of Harlem society.  St Clair took the leading role in the fight against the takeover of numbers by white gangster Dutch Schultz, pushing her case in the black press as well as through violence.

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6 thoughts on “Bankers, Kings and Queens”

  1. Why is it that history, always portrayed Black folk as “bumbling baffoons, the numbers racket in Harlem, was always shown to be caucasian run. The reality was that white folk saw, after prohibition, they needed to diversify, and they assumed they could intimidate and “muscle in” on the underground business of Harlem!

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