Mob bosses get away with murder. They are the godfathers of the underworld. All of them play a lead role in their criminal enterprises. Some are overt in their leadership while others play a smoke and mirrors game to hide their true intentions. Their histories were bathed in blood. That some of them were black was a surprise to some who equate organized crime with the Mafia.
Nicky Barnes was one of the more prominent narcotics dealers in New York for most of the ’70s. Rising from a street-level drug peddler and addicted to heroin at a young age, he overcame these early setbacks to become the head of “The Council”, a group of seven African-American drug dealers that held sway over Harlem. He was sent to prison in 1978 reportedly after President Jimmy Carter saw an article about him published in the New York Times with the heading “Mr. Untouchable”. He turned state witness while and was instrumental in the conviction of sixteen heroin traffickers. He died in 2012 in anonymous circumstances under a new identity provided to him by the Federal Witness Protection Program.
Felix Wayne Mitchell Jr. was another one of the kingpins of the California narcotics trade. He organized his criminal gang, the “69 Mob” while still a teenager. He was infamous for using children as drug carriers. He was murdered at Leavenworth Prison in 1986.
A life of violence leads to perdition. Nicky Barnes and Felix Mitchell found this out when it was too late.
Moonshiners and bootleggers are part and parcel of America’s storied history and culture. Moonshiners produced bottles of illegal whiskey or rum from their illegal distilleries. Bootleggers bring the merchandise to their intended buyers and partakers of the best liquor in the world. Sometimes, they are one and the same. With unmatched bravado, what lies between the bootlegger from start to finish of his run is the devil and the deep blue sea. They have to evade the law-state agencies and the US Department of Justice with modified stock cars laboring under a heavy load of bootleg whiskey.
What made these bootleggers tick? Robert Glenn Johnson Jr., who hailed from North California, was born to a family of bootleggers. He had no choice but to become one. So successful was he at bootlegging that he used this as a springboard to win 50 NASCAR races in his career as a NASCAR driver. Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton, a native of Maggie Valley, North Carolina, had a long line of ancestors who were bootleggers themselves. Brought up into the life of one, he became famous because of his self-published guide on moonshine.
A life of danger and crime defined the bootleggers. In the case of Junior Johnson, it ended up well. He was able to extricate himself from the untenable position that he found himself caught up in. For the others like Popcorn Sutton, violence marked their demise. What is undeniable, however, is they have become folk heroes like so many others before them.
Crime does not pay, so it is said. Organized criminal gangs are led by ruthless mob bosses, like Al Capone and Bugsy Siegel. However, once in a while, a woman takes the reigns. These rare women criminals play a big part inside the gang’s leadership matrix. They keep themselves hidden and do their scheming in the background. We call them the matriarchs.
One of these matriarchs is Stephanie St. Clair who was born in Moule Grandterre in the French West Indies. This woman of French and African descent came to New York from Montreal in 1912. She became well known for developing a lottery game or numbers rackets in New York with another mobster, Bumpy Johnson, as her partner. The numbers game became popular with the black community and made Madame St. Clair rich. The lucrative returns from the numbers game caught the attention of mobster Dutch Schultz who dispossessed her of control. She fought Schultz for a while but had to give in to his superior force.
Virginia Hill, who held the moniker “The Flamingo”, was another woman who made her mark in the criminal underworld. Widely recognized as the girlfriend of Bugsy Siegel, a mob boss based in Brooklyn, she was initiated into the workings of the mob as an accountant to Al Capone. She was, later on, linked to the death of Siegel in her Beverly Hills home.
There is always a woman behind every successful mobster. That is what matriarchs like St. Clair and Hill epitomized.