He was considered a genius; a compassionate man who gave freely to the poor. But Caspar Holstein made his fortune in the Harlem numbers policy game, which he helped invent.
Casper Holstein was born on December 7, 1876, in St. Croix, Danish West Indies. His parents were of mixed African and Danish descent, and his father’s father was a Danish officer in the Danish West Indies Colonial militia. The Holstein family moved to New York City in 1894. Holstein, an extremely bright boy, graduated from high school in Brooklyn, which was no mean accomplishment for a black man before the turn of the century. After graduation, he enlisted in the Navy, and during World Ward I, he visited his homeland, which by then was known as the West Virgin Islands.
When Holstein was discharged from the Navy, he worked at various odd jobs, including being a doorman in an Upper East Side building. He also became a personal assistant to a wealthy white couple, and years later after he made his fortune, and they had lost theirs, Holstein supported this couple, then paid for their funeral.
Looking to better himself, Holstein wandered down to Wall Street, where he got a job, first as a messenger, then head messenger, for a commodities brokerage firm on Wall Street. Holstein became enamored of gambling, especially the horses, but he also dabbled in the stock market, perusing daily figures from the Boston and the New York City Clearing Houses. One day, an idea came to Holstein that would improve his lot dramatically. He knew that people in black neighborhoods, such as Harlem, loved to gamble, but most didn’t have enough spare cash to do so. When he had saved enough money to start his endeavor, Holstein devised a scheme where people could bet as little as a dime on a random set of three digits numbers, that would appear daily in the New York City newspapers.
Using the Boston and New York City Clearing House figures, Holstein took two middle digits from the New York number and one middle digit from the Boston number. So if the two clearing house totals were 9,456,131 and 7, 456,253 respectively, the winning number would be 566; the “56” being the two digits before the last comma of the first figure, and the “6” being the last digit before the last comma of the second figure. This system was so random, it could not be manipulated, like it would be later, when gangster Dutch Schultz muscled in on the Harlem numbers racket, and began using race track figures, which indeed he did manipulate. By the early 1920’s, Holstein’s system was the rage in Harlem. Holstein became known as the “Bolita King”, earning an estimated $5000 a day.
Using his newfound wealth, Holstein contributed generously to worthwhile causes. He gave huge amounts of cash to the the St. Vincent Sanitarium, the nationalist Garvey Movement, and he funded prizes for Opportunity Magazine’s literary awards, which discovered much of Harlem’s young talent. Holstein built dormitories at black colleges, and he financed many of Harlem’s artists, writers and poets. He also helped start a Baptist school in Liberia and he established a hurricane relief fund for his native Virgin Islands. The New York Times said that Holstein was, “Harlem’s favorite hero, because of his wealth, his sporting proclivities and his philanthropies among the people of his race.”
Seeing how Holstein and Stephanie St. Clair had turned Harlem into a financial bonanza due to their numbers rackets, gangster Dutch Schultz barged in and took over their games. Just like that. Schultz had big politicians, including the disgraced Jimmy Himes in his back pocket. Schultz also bought off the cops, and killed black numbers runners in droves. Schultz eventually forced St. Clair to work for him, but Holstein refused Schultz’ offers to consolidate their number rackets.
In 1928, Holstein was kidnapped for $50,000 ransom, by five white gangsters, whom were presumed by the Harlem public to be goons sent by Schultz. The news of Holstein’s kidnapping made national headlines. The New York Times reported that Holstein had been seen at Belmont Racetrack just days before his abduction, betting more that $30,000 on the ponies. Holstein was released after three days in custody, insisting he had paid no ransom. His explanation was that his captors had felt sorry for him and had released him with $3 cab fare.
Yet Holstein’s tale carried little weight, when he soon cut down on his policy activities. A few years later, Holstein completely stopped his street operations and operated only as a lay-off better. In 1935, despite the fact that he was barely in the game, Holstein was arrested for illegal gambling. He was tried and convicted, and spent one year in prison. Holstein claimed he was framed, possibly by Schultz, but he did his time in jail uneventfully. When he was released from prison, Holstein got involved in the real estate business, and he provided mortgages for people in Harlem, whom the regular banks shunned.
Casper Holstein died on April 5, 1944, at the age of 68. More than 2,000 people attended his funeral at Harlem’s Memorial Baptist Church. A scholarship at the University of the Virgin Islands and a housing development in St. Croix are named in Holstein’s memory.