Born Dec. 7, 1876, in Christiansted, Holstein of mixed African and Danish descent in St. Croix, Danish West Indies — whose birth name was Egbert Joseph — immigrated to Harlem in 1884 with his mother and went to high school in Brooklyn. His father was a landed person of color who was in turn the son of a Danish officer in the Danish West Indies Colonial militia. Attending high school in Brooklyn, he enlisted in the United States Navy following his graduation. During World War I, he was able to revisit his birthplace while stationed in what had become the United States Virgin Islands. 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.
He was a prominent New York mobster involved in the Harlem “numbers rackets” during the Harlem Renaissance. He, along with his occasional rival Stephanie St. Clair, was responsible for bringing back illegal gambling to the neighborhood after an eight-year absence following the conviction of Peter H. Matthews in 1915.
During this time, he began to become familiar with the stock market and began studying the system and numbers. He was eventually able to devise a lottery system based on those principles. Previously under and before Matthews the number was set by a system in which a set of digits 0 to 9 were drawn out at random and posted in a club house. This however allowed for the organizer to cut losses by fixing the outcome. It also created limitations on disseminating the winning number out to the gamblers. There were unrelated statistical numbers published by the newspapers which Holstein found could be used by an organizer instead. At various times the US Customs House receipts, New York Stock Exchange daily share volume and leading horse race parimutuel betting handle have all been used to set the daily number. This change permitted a larger number of gamblers to play the same game and with reduced fear of fixing. As the Prohibition began, Holstein’s lottery system proved popular and soon Holstein became known as the “Bolita King“, going on to an estimated $2 million from his lotteries.
In 1932 Dixie Davis, the court house attorney who provided service for the runners for many of the numbers operators, decided that he could make more money if he were to take over as central organizer. In order to enforce his seizure of power he brought in Dutch Schultz, who could see that Prohibition which had proved lucrative for him was reaching its end. Rather than accept a back seat however, he decided he wanted the central role. One by one various numbers operators were picked up by Schultz and told they would have to deal with him. Most complied but he was resisted by Madame St. Clair (photo above) was a native of Martinique who spoke with a French accent, she lived in 409 Edgecombe Avenue, and Bumpy Johnson. Holstein saw himself as having a political mission which would be undermined by violence and dropped out of overseeing street collection. He continued as a wholesale lay off gambler for several years but was arrested in 1937.
He donated a great dealof his revenues towards charitable purposes such as building dormitories at Black colleges, as well as financing many of the neighorhood’s artists, writers, and poets during the Harlem Renaissance. He bought the mortgage on the New York hall of the United Negro Improvement Association and allowed it to continue to be used as a Black function hall when the Marcus Garvey organization collapsed. He also helped establish a Baptist school in Liberia and established a hurricane relief fund for his native Virgin Islands. He was a regular contributor of articles to the NAACP newspaper the Crisis.
By the end of the 1920s, Holstein had become a dominant figure among Harlem’s numerous policy operators. Although both he and rival Stephanie St. Clair claimed to have invented the way that “numbers games” choose the winning number, both claims have long been in dispute , he controlled a large scale numbers-running operation, as well as nightclubs and other legitimate business. His income may have been as high as $12,000 a day at its peak, and he was generous with his wealth. According to the New York Times, he was “Harlem’s favorite hero, because of his wealth, his sporting proclivities and his philanthropies among the people of his race.
In 1928, he was kidnapped by five white men who demanded a ransom of $50,000. He was released three days later, insisting that no ransom was paid. The incident was never explained.
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.