It is a freezing night in February 1936 in New York. The snow lies thick. Much of the city is empty, but one spot in midtown Manhattan is strangely crowded.
In one of the tallest skyscrapers, the elevator goes up and down to the unoccupied 13th floor. When the doors open, women dressed in evening gowns come out.
The elevator keeps going up and down until, at midnight, there is no room left.
But the women keep coming, until they fill another floor.
They are sex workers, and waiting on that 14th floor is an investigative team of 20 lawyers who have spent more than six months trying to put together a case against organized crime in the city.
In the center of this bustling office is a lawyer who hasn’t slept in two days.
Her name is Eunice Carter.
She is the only woman on the team; the only black member and the secret weapon in the war against the mafia.
In 1935 the mafia controlled almost all illicit activities in the United States and one of the capos was the Italian-American Charles “Lucky” Luciano.
“He had realized that there were many turf wars between gangsters,” the CNBC journalist tells the BBC Marilyn Greenwald, co-author of the biography “Eunice Hunton Carter: A Lifelong Struggle for Social Justice.”
“He thought that if they really wanted to go big and make even more money, they had to work together instead of against each other”
“He proposed a new structure in which different groups of gangsters worked under the same umbrella” and created the Mafia Board of Directors which was called “The Commission”.
As part of the dome, he enjoyed an extravagant lifestyle and did not seem to fear the law at all.
But the governor of New York decided to crack down on organized crime and appointed a special prosecutor to lead an investigation: Thomas Dewey, a 30-year-old lawyer.
Since he couldn’t risk any mole infiltrating the investigation, Dewey negotiated the right to be independent of the governor and hire his own team.
Outside his office, a line of applicants formed, winding its way down the hallway. Some accounts say that more than 2,000 lawyers applied, including someone who would change the course of the investigation: Eunice Carter.
“Not only did she receive bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Smith College in 1921, and was, briefly, a social worker, but in 1932 she became the first black woman to receive a law degree from Fordham University and later she was the first African-American woman to pass the New York State Bar.
“This is an incredible achievement,” said sociologist Tsedale M. Melaku, author of “You Don’t Look Like a Lawyer: Black Women and Systemic Gender Racism.”
Carter came to Dewey’s office as a 36-year-old woman who had made a name for herself doing incredible work for the Harlem Riot Commission, a biracial panel appointed by the mayor to investigate the causes of race riots in that Upper Harlem neighborhood. Manhattan in 1935.
She became the secretary of the group and gathered a large amount of evidence that led to the conclusion that the situation in Harlem was linked to systemic racism.
His work was widely admired, and was praised by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia.
Dewey was also impressed and hired her, along with 19 other attorneys, all male and white.
“That shows that Carter was exceptionally talented,” notes Yun Li, co-author of the Carter book with Marilyn Greenwald.
“She was the first African-American to work in the New York County District Attorney’s Office. That’s breaking a lot of barriers!”
On your marks…
Dewey stationed his legal team on the 14th floor of the Woolworth Building in Manhattan, and broadcast an appeal to the public and the press.
“He talked about how organized crime in New York City had undermined everyone’s safety and daily life,” notes Yun Li.
At the end of his speech, he asked the press to give his investigation privacy and urged the public to cooperate: his team was ready for leads and guaranteed secrecy.
“After the radio address, the office received hundreds of tips from the public about suspicious activity.”
Carter was given the task of dealing with complaints that mentioned prostitution, but at the time such cases were not considered a matter of organized crime.
There are divergent historical accounts as to why he was commissioned to do so.
Some say it was because she was good at it, as evidenced by her work on the Riot Commission. But others think that reflected her place at the bottom of the team’s pecking order as a woman and black.
Carter, however, was clearly a difficult person to underestimate, as his academic achievements showed.
And he came from a remarkable family.
His grandfather had escaped slavery three times, then bought his freedom. His father founded the Black Division of the YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association), and his mother was a social worker, activist, writer, political organizer, and educator.
“Eunice wrote frequently about the value of role models throughout her life,” says Marilyn Greenwald, who wrote the biography with Yun Li and is an emeritus professor of journalism at Ohio University in the US.
“He said every pioneer was ‘a milestone on the path of progress leading to the goal of unrestricted opportunity‘”.
Without lowering your head
Meticulous and methodical, Carter used her training and experience to find connections where others saw only reams of paperwork.
He responded to every letter and call, inviting members of the public into the office and interviewing them to try to get as much evidence as possible.
“While working day and night, reviewing tons of cases, noticed a vital connection, a pattern in the different cases of prostitution in New Yorksays sociologist Tsedale M. Melaku.
“The detained women were represented by the same lawyers and had the same guarantors.”
He found that the stories repeated themselves. Charges against prostitutes never got off the ground; the brothels seemed untouchable. The bondsmen were always the same, as were the lawyers who represented them, who were also high-profile and very expensive.
Everything seemed to indicate that a powerful entity was pulling the strings.
Although most of his colleagues believed that the “oldest profession in the world” was too widespread to be controlled in such a way, Carter convinced prosecutor Murray Gurfein that the evidence pointed to possible mob oversight.
And all roads led to one person.
Carter’s brilliant theory linking the mob to prostitution did not initially convince prosecutor Dewey.
He was reluctant to pursue that line of inquiry, as he feared that being seen as a “moral crusader” would negatively affect his political dreams
But Carter “continued to present him with more detailed evidence, until Dewey ordered wiretaps on some of the biggest agents in the prostitution ring.”
“They also hired detectives to follow mob lawyers and pimps and gather more information.”
When they had enough evidence, Carter and Gurfein decided to raid all the brothels they had identified.
Knowing that mobsters depended on bribed cops to tip them off whenever a raid was planned, they changed their strategy.
On that icy February night in 1936, hundreds of New York police officers were scattered throughout the city in groups of twos and threes. They waited on different corners, wondering why they were there.
“Each small squad was given a sealed envelope with the instruction that once they arrived at the location, they were to open the envelope. That’s how they realized they were in a house of prostitution.”
“They arrested more than 100 sex workers and about 10 men.”
Payment for protection
Many of the women and men present that night became key witnesses against Lucky Luciano.
But that was achieved thanks to the intervention of Carter, who spoke to the women with respect and warmth, unlike other researchers on Dewey’s team, whose attitude was harsh and threatening.
So he gathered evidence that they were controlled by something called “the combination.”
The combination was a kind of syndicate that guaranteed them that they would not go to jail if they were arrested, in exchange for paying a high percentage of their profits.
And everything was controlled by Lucky Luciano who, in effect, was profiting from prostitution.
In the spring of 1936, Lucky Luciano and nine co-defendants were found guilty of forced pimping and running a prostitution ring.
He was sentenced to between 30 and 50 years, but was released 11 years later in exchange for helping the military protect US ports during World War II.
Eunice Carter returned to work with the Harlem Commission on Race Riots and also continued to work with Dewey and the District Attorney’s Office until 1945, when she entered private practice.
Before her death in 1970, she worked with the United Nations, the National Council of Negro Women, the International Council of Women, and the YWCA.
Despite all that, it is difficult to find accounts of its history.
Although his race and gender drew attention when he was part of the group known as “The Twenty Against the Underworld,” mobster Lucky Luciano and prosecutor-turned-politician Dewey are much more present, even in popular culture.
But nevertheless, it was she who found a way to bring down a gangster who was terrorizing people of all colors and genders.
“Perhaps the lesson is that when we harness the ideas of all members of society unhindered by arbitrary barriers and prejudice, society as a whole wins.” presenter Matthew Syed in the BBC series “Sideways” episode ‘The Woman Who Took Down the Mob’.
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