When native Virgin Islander Casper Holstein died in April 1944, the New York Times ran his obituary, summarizing a complex man’s life in five short paragraphs under the headline “Former ‘Policy King’ in Harlem Dies Broke.”
A few days later, more than 2,000 people attended his funeral at Harlem’s Memorial Baptist Church.
The headline paints a simple picture of wealth lost which, while a good story on its own, is only a piece of a bigger picture of a much larger man. Among the most widely famous native Virgin Islanders of the 20th century, Casper Holstein was regarded in some circles as a wealthy black businessman in a day when that was very rare, difficult and dangerous, in others as a tireless, politically engaged reformer and philanthropist, and others as a gangster, a racketeer.
There is some truth to all of these images. Holstein led a complicated life, where nothing is simply what it is and the meanings change depending on who is looking, and when.
Born Dec. 7, 1876, in Christiansted, Holstein — whose birth name was Egbert Joseph — immigrated to Harlem in 1884 with his mother and went to high school in Brooklyn. In 1898, the year of the Spanish-American War, he enlisted in the Navy and served on the U.S.S. Saratoga. Afterwards he worked as a bellhop and porter at a Wall Street brokerage firm.
Playing the Numbers
It was at this time he devised a numbers game, related to the Spanish game bolito. This game was a private lottery, where players would pick a three-number combination. Holstein paid out 600 to one, while the real odds of any number were 999 to one. So he raked in a steady profit and became a wealthy man, called the “Bolito King” or “Policy King” by newspapers.
Some authors say he had upwards of $2 million at one point. In his obituary, the New York Times estimated his peak wealth at $500,000. Both estimates may be wrong.
Whatever the real number, for decades Holstein was a major figure in Harlem society and in Harlem’s illegal gambling industry, and was a very wealthy man for a time. But while he made much of his wealth — providing the same illegal gambling services the mob provided — and lived well, he used his resources to help those around him in New York, back home in the Virgin Islands and around the world.
He is recognized as one of the major patrons of the Harlem Renaissance, helping out writers, artists and others. Every year, for decades, he donated food baskets to the needy. He gave cash to the Democratic Party and helped fund Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association. He supported students, helping with tuition, letters of recommendation and the like. In an effort to foster creative literary expression among black writers, he created an annual Holstein writing prize through the Urban League’s magazine, Opportunity, which awarded $1,000 to the winner. He built dormitories at black colleges, supported a Baptist school in Liberia and funded a home for delinquent girls in India and gave to Howard and Fisk universities.
Holstein founded the Monarch Lodge No. 45 of the International Benevolent Order of Elks in 1907, and ran the mutual-aid society for decades.
Keeping V.I. Ties
While he moved to New York when barely in elementary school, Holstein stayed deeply involved with the Virgin Islands. In New York he was president of the New York V.I. Association, raising money for the territory. After hurricanes in 1924 and 1928, he established relief funds, and on one occasion personally chartered a steamship to bring supplies to the territory.
He spent more than $250,000 on St. Croix, buying up large tracts of land, particularly on the South Shore, where the Hovensa refinery is today.
On the political front, Holstein joined the V.I. Congressional Council in 1920 and made it an influential force for getting the attention of the U.S. Congress and the island’s governors. Anselmo Jackson founded VICC, and Holstein later became president.
Under Holstein’s leadership, the VICC became a thorn in the side of naval officials. As a one-man campaigner, the Crucian fought the naval regime and stressed, in the spirit of self-determination, civilian rule as the rightful and progressive government for the U.S. Virgin Islands. Through VICC, writing articles in the Washington Post and other outlets, he successfully lobbied for the end of naval rule in the territory.
While doing all this, he continued to lead a dual life as a colorful, semi-criminal character in New York. While not legal, for many years numbers games were more or less ignored by the police in New York, treated as a minor, victimless crime. It was only when the mob or mafia took over the business in the 1930s that the police began seriously prosecuting gambling cases. Holstein’s name cropped up in newspapers many times over the decades, and the gambling operations were mentioned openly in the press, with little suggestion of scandal.
The N.Y. Times first printed the name Casper Holstein in 1905, reporting he was arrested on charges of operating an illegal gambling house. But the article makes clear the police came only because someone complained they were robbed when the lights went out. That was at the beginning of his career. Three decades later, after World War I, after the roaring twenties, after prohibition was put into the constitution and after it was repealed, on Dec. 23, 1935, Holstein was arrested once again on much the same charges, and after being convicted in 1936, served three years in prison.
During the intervening decades, he was a major figure in Harlem. For years, Holstein owned and ran The Turf Club, described in news stories as the single leading organization in Harlem. The Turf Club occupied a five-story, elaborately equipped brownstone building, decorated with vivid horse-racing prints, photos of major jockeys and shined brass bits. Most wealthy black New Yorkers were members of the club in its day.
Held for Ransom
In 1928, at the peak of his wealth and success, Holstein was kidnapped and beaten by five white men who demanded $50,000 ransom. After three days they released him, allegedly without any ransom paid. Police caught the men, but Holstein would not identify them. He later told newsmen he was able to identify them but couldn’t, for business reasons.
White mobsters had always played a role in the Harlem numbers rackets, and just a couple of years later famed mobster Arthur “Dutch Schultz” Flegenheimer took complete control over the rackets, forcing black operators to either work for them, stop working or get beaten or killed. Corrupt police aided Dutch Schultz by targeting his competitors for arrest. Holstein was largely forced out of his own numbers business, several years before his arrest. Dutch Schultz was gunned down by fellow mobsters in 1935.
That same year, the Times reported on Holstein three times. On one occasion the paper called him a “benefactor of Negro Equality” and reported on his efforts to get V.I. Gov. Paul Pearson recalled. The other two occasions were reports on his gambling arrest.
Holstein maintained his innocence after his arrest, during his trial and throughout his incarceration.
“I own the Turf Club building, but I don’t own the policy bank,” he told police and the press after his arrest.
There is no way to be certain, and it hardly matters now, but what he said — that he owned the building but not the numbers operation — is consistent with Dutch Schultz’s widely reported and documented takeover of the Harlem numbers games. Holstein may have been telling the truth; he may have run the building while the mob ran the games. Or he could have still had a small operation. No one knows.
“Government Can Hear Us Cry”
Geraldo Guirty’s 1989 book Harlem’s Danish American West Indies, 1899-1964, has a passage from Holstein on the last page.
“We cannot enjoy half slavery and half freedom. We want it all or nothing.
We don’t want to be revolutionists; we don’t want to be communists, we don’t wish to be branded against organized government. We want to be the same as every member of this American nation, and we are entitled to that privilege. I am told you cannot oppose government, but by God government can hear us cry, and must hear us protest and we are going to protest until we get the form of government we wish.”
Holstein wrote that in 1935, the year he was arrested. When he got out of prison, World War II was beginning. Holstein passed away from a long illness before the war ended.
This article was originally published Feb. 7, 2008.