Eunice Carter: The Unlikely Hero Who Brought Down the Mob

Eunice Carter at her desk in the Special Prosecutor's office, 1935 | Courtesy of CBS News

New York City in the 1930s was a very different city from the sprawling metropolis we know and love today. At the time, Charles “Lucky” Luciano was one of New York’s most notorious mobsters. Under his leadership, his gang killed off any and all competition, reorganizing crime in New York City under a new and empowered criminal empire. With consolidated power, Luciano was able to bring everyone from politicians and judges to the police under his control. At the same time, seemingly in another world from the newly-formed mob that ran New York City, lived one Eunice Carter. Eunice Carter graduated from law school in 1934 and became the first African American woman to pass the New York State Bar.1 As powerful as Luciano was, Eunice ultimately brought his reign over the New York City underworld to an end through her tireless investigation and pursuit of solid leads generated from her experience as an attorney. Yet, as soon as she had collected enough evidence to lead to Lucky Luciano’s arrest, she was excluded from the prosecuting task force that was selected by her boss to secure Luciano’s conviction—relegating her major role in the arrest to the ever-expanding background of history.2

Charles “Lucky” Luciano at Trial | courtesy of abajournal.com
Lucky Luciano began his accession through the ranks of organized crime in New York City when he first organized bootlegging during prohibition. As his resources grew in number, his ambitions led him to murder two of the biggest crime bosses at the time, Joe “the Boss” Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano. Following their deaths, Luciano reorganized crime in New York City by bringing a sense of peace and equality to the organization. The heads of the major Mafia families would meet periodically to adjudicate disputes, approve murders, make major business decisions, and enforce the general law of the land. Under Luciano’s leadership, organized crime became the biggest business in the United States, with revenues greater than that of any legitimate corporation. Luciano’s enormous organized crime syndicate was only heightened and supported by an army of public servants willing to look the other way.3

Citizens of the Big Apple were getting fed up with the growing criminal activity and the lack of actions taken by their city officials. In 1935, New York City grand jurors took it upon themselves to mobilize public opinion for a thorough investigation of the rackets, which included gambling and the corruption of local police and politicians. It would come to be called the “runaway grand jury” because of their eventual break with then District Attorney William C. Dodge. The grand jury began calling their own witnesses to advance their investigation, and, due to its massive popularity, foreman Lee Thompson Smith eventually took charge of the inquiry and demanded the District Attorney appoint a special prosecutor to the case: one Thomas E. Dewey.4

Dewey took the job, under the condition, namely, that he be allowed to hire his own staff and that his office be separate from the District Attorney’s office. His requests were quickly granted, and his office was set up on the 14th floor of the Woolworth building, and became “an impenetrable fortress with untappable phones, tamper proof filing cabinets, venetian blinds to prevent telescope equipped gangsters from spying on informants, while plainclothes detectives patrolled the lobby 24/7.”5

During his investigation, Dewey received more than his fair share of applicants—many attorneys vied for such an honorable position. Thomas Dewey personally vetted each attorney and conducted each interview himself to prevent any criminal interference in the process. Eunice Carter was one applicant in a line of hundreds, but she had a background that would impress even Dewey. Eunice was a graduate from Smith College and Fordham University Law School, and, in 1934, she was the first African American to gain the Republican Nomination for New York’s 19th district in the State Assembly. Only one year later, she was appointed by Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia as secretary on the “Committee on Conditions” in Harlem.6 Eunice’s extensive credentials appealed to Dewey, who quickly hired her onto his team.

A popular photograph of Eunice Carter, 1942  | courtesy of nytimes.com
Eunice Carter was the tenth lawyer hired by Thomas Dewey to the Special Prosecutors office. She was the first African American woman to be hired within the New York City District Attorney’s office. As one could imagine, her appointment made quite a splash in the papers, providing the office with a great amount of newfound publicity. An article in the Daily News started with the headline “PICKS COLORED WOMAN AS AID IN RACKET QUIZ.” The article went on to state that, “Mrs. Eunice H. Carter, lawyer and one of the most prominent colored women in Harlem, was appointed by special prosecutor Thomas E. Dewey yesterday to his legal staff in the rackets investigation .”7 The entire country was enthralled by the idea of a black woman being exalted to such a highly sought-after position. As a result, Dewey appeared on multiple broadcasts and repeatedly stated that each of his attorneys was hired on merit, not appearance. Within these broadcasts, Dewey would consistently make a plea to the public: “your cooperation is essential. Your confidence will be respected. Your help will be kept secret and your persons protected.”8 Citizens of the city quickly flooded the offices on the 14th floor with phone calls, letters, and even personal appearances. Dewey became frustrated, however, with the fact that the citizens used his offices to do little more than complain about brothels, streetwalkers, and madams. Dewey wanted none of that. After all, his team didn’t exist to quell every minor ethical mishap in the city. Instead, they served a much more important purpose: the conviction and dissolution of “the Boss” and his gang behind the rackets.9 Nevertheless, Dewey needed someone who would listen to their complaints and hold their hands, and there was no better person for that job than Eunice. Eunice had previous experience as a volunteer in Women’s Court dealing with prostitution cases, so Dewey thought her perfect for the job. Letters, calls, and unscheduled visits were routed to her desk and her office quickly became a revolving door of citizens who demanded something be done about prostitution.10

For weeks, Eunice sat in her office and empathized with concerned citizens while taking down their complaints. During that time, she was visited by everyone from businessmen to female parolees and sex workers. One parolee, who went unnamed, reported to Eunice that she tried repeatedly to get the police to act on information she had supplied about a violent gang that sold narcotics and procured women. Eunice noted in her memorandum that the woman seemed just as scared of the police as she had of the gang. After a while, Eunice noticed a certain air of similarity between the stories that she was hearing.11 She was consistently hearing from New Yorkers who stated that, despite their visits to the police to file multiple complaints, they simply did nothing about the brothels next door. Madams operated houses with impunity, and the police were being paid off to drive competitors out of town. One Madam, Sally Kaplan, generated numerous complaints to Eunice that Kaplan’s brothel was protected by the local police precinct who shut down her competition. She was asking herself how every brothel in the city could be protected.12

Very quickly, Eunice began to see the bigger picture underlying each complaint. There were too many commonalities in the stories she was hearing to excuse. It was at this time that she recalled an oddity from her time as a volunteer assistant in the Women’s Court, where a lawyer by the name of Abe Karp often showed up on behalf of girls being charged with prostitution. Karp was a high-end lawyer, and he repeatedly represented low-end sex workers who were not capable of affording his services.13 As she looked over transcripts, she saw an unsettling pattern—when put on the stand, all of the women being charged with prostitution would say the same thing, that “they were innocent working girls from out of town visiting old friends at houses whose purpose they were unaware of.” The story was told in exactly the same manner so many times that Eunice was sure it couldn’t be true.14

Using the threads of connection between her experiences, Eunice began to investigate further into the patterns she was seeing. As the confidence in her suspicions grew, Eunice eventually confided them in Murray Gurfien, one of Dewey’s top assistants. She laid out her suspicions to him and together they approached Dewey, who met them with skepticism for two reasons: the first was that Dewey was sure of the fact that it would be impossible for prostitution to be under centralized control—there were too many brothels, too many madams and girls in the business for them to all be run by one syndicate; and second, he worried that if he investigated prostitution, he would not be seen as a gangbuster, but as the morality police.15

Eunice appealed to Dewey by laying out the ways in which prostitution had changed over the past two years. It went from being a trade that women took part in on their own or in a group, to usually being run by a madam who paid the girls a salary. Bookers (pimps) were on the rise and worked with 100 or more girls, and they would move the girls between houses, because customers liked variety. The girls paid part of their earnings to the madam and part to the booker. The summer of 1933 was when prostitution took a turn. Eunice uncovered the fact that in addition to paying the booker and the madam, each girl had to make a payment of $10.00 a week as a bonding fee. This guaranteed that if she was arrested, she would not go to jail. Eunice’s research ultimately showed that the high-end lawyers representing these women never lost a case.16

Still, Dewey’s initial response was to tell his investigators to stop following that trail. However, as things grew more desperate, Gurfein successfully persuaded Dewey to allow Eunice to pursue the lead. Gurfien believed in Eunice, because according to him, “she has interviewed and listened to the complaints of a number of girl prostitutes. She has made reports of what she uncovered and turned those reports into me. I have studied them carefully and as a result I’m inclined to agree with her.” Not only was Eunice allowed to follow her leads with the aid of Gurfein, but Dewey also granted them permission to ask Justice McCook for permission to wiretap the offices of the mob bondsmen. Once the transcripts from the wiretap began to trickle in, Eunice delved in and began reading. She began pursuing a great number of leads with only Gurfein’s assistance, and was still expected to meet with concerned citizens and log their complaints.17

As work continued to pile up, her investigation began to reveal some interesting facts. As she poured over the transcripts from the wiretaps, she learned that although attorney Abe Karp was disbarred, he continued doing business for someone they commonly referred to as the “Combination.” She learned plenty about prostitution, but not much more about the mob as a whole. The most important connection she was able to establish was the relationship between the mob and Abe Karp. Although she attempted to take her findings to her Dewey, he was very busy, and wasn’t available to the entire office. His lack of availability led Eunice to draft a letter, stating, “Dear boss, it would seem I can never see you” followed by three pages of what she uncovered from the wiretaps. Eunice had made her point and Dewey took notice of this by immediately scheduling a meeting with her.18

Finally, on January 13, 1936, one of the taps picked up a name—a man nicknamed “Tommy Bull,”  who was known to the police as one Thomas Pennochio. Following his arrest, names began slipping out left and right and everything started to come together. Individually, the names didn’t mean much, but thanks to the wiretap, each name was being intertwined with members of the mob. As days turned to weeks, Eunice realized just how far the mob’s reach went. The connection she pioneered had finally provided proof that the “Combination” ran prostitution in the city, and, if the police could arrest the girls, the girls would give them the madams, who, in turn, would give them the bookers who would lead them Luciano. Dewey had the evidence he needed and Eunice and Gurfien knew exactly how to carry it out: all of the brothels would be raided simultaneously. If everyone was taken into custody at the same time, they would not be able to warn one another. Eunice wagered that if they dragged all the girls in and held them without bail, they would turn against the syndicate and start naming names.19

The raids were scheduled for the first week in February and took place on the night of February 1, 1936. The raids were successful, and over 100 girls were arrested. These girls were accustomed to being seen by their bondsman and lawyer and receiving release, but this time was different. The girls foul attitudes were not directed at Eunice, but at the “Combination.” Eunice enthusiastically used their frustration to her advantage.20

Eunice insisted on having them declared material witnesses, and Dewey eventually set their bail so high that even the “Combination” couldn’t pay it. Eunice interviewed many of the women herself, and gathered tons of useful information in only a couple of days. Most excitedly, Eunice had been on the trail of Madam Sally Kaplan for a while, and now she finally had her in an interview room. After a bit of prodding from Eunice, Kaplan ultimately gave up two names. For weeks, the raids and questioning continued, until the bookers who had originally pinned Luciano as “The Boss” were taken into custody.21

Charles “Lucky” Luciano’s 1936 mugshot | courtesy of Pixels.com

Thanks to Eunice and all of the information she gathered, the police department arrested Luciano and charge him and eight others with compulsory prostitution. This charge garnered Luciano a guilty verdict with a sentence of 30 to 50 years in state prison.22

Eunice, a black woman in 1930s New York, was the amazing prosecutor who identified Luciano as “The Boss.” If it were not for all of the connections she made initially, her hard work in the investigation, her dedication during the raids, and her determination to pursue the matter, Luciano’s arrest simply wouldn’t have occurred. Despite all of her efforts, when the time came for Dewey to choose an attorney to try the case, he looked elsewhere. Instead of honoring the contributions of Eunice, he granted the highly sought-after position to Barent Ten Eyck, a man who had not even been working the prostitution angle with Eunice. Even when Eyck was ordered to choose four deputies to assist him, Eunice was again passed over. The only recognition Eunice got from Dewey came after Luciano’s guilty verdict on June 7, 1936, when he thanked her at the press conference for her contribution to the case. Although Eunice Carter was the women who brought down the biggest mob boss this country had ever seen, her contribution, like the contributions of so many other black Americans, is today only a small footnote in history.23

  1. Christie Smith, “Eunice Hunton Carter (1899-1970),” Blackpast.org, November 6 2013, https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/eunice-hunton-carter-1899-1970/.
  2. Stephen L. Carter, Invisible (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2018), 150.
  3. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, 2018, s.v. “Lucky Luciano,” by John L. Mclean.
  4. Richard Younger, “Grand Jury Under Attack, Part III,” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 46 (1955): 7-9.
  5. Infamous New York, “Gangbusting at the Woolworth Building,” December 11, 2013, https://infamousnewyork.com/2013/12/11/gangbusting-the-woolworth-building-headquarters-of-special-prosecutor-thomas-e-dewey/.
  6. Christie Smith, “Eunice Hunton Carter (1899-1970),” Blackpast.org, November 6, 2013, https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/eunice-hunton-carter-1899-1970/.
  7. John Kass, “A Black History Month Story that Shouldn’t be Forgotten,” Chicago Tribune, February 23, 2012.
  8. Stephen L. Carter, Invisible (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2018), 110.
  9. Stephen L. Carter, Invisible (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2018), 112-113.
  10. Stephen L. Carter, Invisible (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2018), 114.
  11. Stephen L. Carter, Invisible (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2018), 116.
  12. Stephen L. Carter, Invisible (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2018), 117.
  13. Stephen L. Carter, Invisible (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2018), 119.
  14. Stephen L. Carter, Invisible (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2018), 120.
  15. Stephen L. Carter, Invisible (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2018), 120.
  16. Stephen L. Carter, Invisible (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2018), 124-125.
  17. Stephen L. Carter, Invisible (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2018), 126.
  18. Stephen L. Carter, Invisible (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2018), 127.
  19. Stephen L. Carter, Invisible (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2018), 128.
  20. Stephen L. Carter, Invisible (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2018), 129.
  21. Stephen L. Carter, Invisible (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2018), 135.
  22. Russ Symontowne, “Luciano and Eight Guilty, Face Life as Vice Lords,” Daily News, June 8, 1936.
  23. Stephen L. Carter, Invisible (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2018), 145.
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50 Comments

  • I absolutely loved this article! Crime cases such as this one always interest me because of crime shows I love to binge watch. The article was very well structured and was just written so good. It’s frustrating how the press gave Carter such a hard time due to her skin color, but I’m glad she was able to overcome what was being said about her and prosecute him!

  • Congrats on your nomination! I remember learning about mob history in high school, especially learning about mob bosses like Capone and Luciano; those names always ring a bell when I hear them. I am surprised my history teacher never once mentioned Carter when he was covering this particular topic. She is very much inspirational and it was heartbreaking to read that she was passed up on being in the case despite all her hard work.

  • Wow, the fact that you chose to write about Eunice Carter is amazing because in a society where influential powerful women of color are cast aside and not recognized you created an article that gave her story an opportunity to be read by so many. Carter time and time again broke boundaries that so many could only dream of in that time period and for her efforts and hard work to have been claimed by men who really did little to nothing is infuriating. It is important to remember that even though this happened in the past it is still something that SO MANY women of color experience in present day society, and we should never stop breaking boundaries.

  • Wow great article and topic. I am so glad that Eunice Carter is receiving the recognition that she didn’t receive at the time. I had never heard of her because I had never heard the story about this mob being brought down in general, but it’s sad to think that it would have been very unlikely for me to hear about her even if I had known about the mob take-down. There are so many injustices in the article, I don’t know which is worse – being a mobster or being a sexist racist.

  • The resilience that women of history hold and the amount of hard work that they put into their careers is astounding! It is already impressive that Eunice Carter was the first woman to pass the New York Bar Exam, but to have cracked and brought down an empire of crime is beyond anything imaginable. I love how this article not only explained Carter’s efforts, but also described how bad the crime in New York City was. I really enjoyed this article in its entirety and congratulations on the nomination!

  • This article was an interesting topic despite the fact that I didn’t know who Eunice Carter was. But, after reading this article it was evident how strong this woman was. She was such an important person of the crime case who proved that Charles Luciano was the criminal. This should be an inspirational story because with her dedication and hard work with intelligence and studies all went together to help her succeed.

  • I had no idea who Eunice Carter was before this article. She was so passionate about this case and its saddening that she wasn’t given the recognition that she deserved. She did so much work for this case and twice she wasn’t picked to participate. Its sad that just based on the fact she was a women she wasn’t given a chance.

  • Congrats on your nomination ! this was a great read ! The introduction was very well written ! I have been reading about inspirational women all day. I learned about what one woman can do when she is trying to do whats best for her community. She made a difference in the world as a lawyer. Eunice Carter is a name to not forget. Thank you for such a great read there was alot of research that went into this article I could tell.

  • I love this article so much. Eunice Carter was clearly a hardworking and dedicated prosecutor. It is an absolute shame that after the time and effort she put into solving the case and getting the evidence needed for conviction, she was passed over twice to be on the team for trial. I am really glad that the author chose this topic, because it was great to read about Eunice’s and her accomplishments.

  • This is a very interesting article! Most stories on crimes do not mention the attorneys and what they do but you do and I think this is exciting. Eunice Carter is very accomplished woman and I admire her work. It is so fascinating to read about how she was able to catch Luciano by seeing the similarities in her cases and looking for who they had in common. This is a great article and congratulations on your nomination.

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