When I was growing up, I always made time to watch “The Untouchables,” a television program narrated by Walter Winchell about G-man Elliott Ness bringing down Chicago mob kingpin “Big Al” Capone.
I was disappointed later to learn that Ness had nothing to do with sending Capone to the “Rock” or Alcatraz. Capone was sentenced to the “Rock” after being convicted of income tax evasion. Capone later died from syphilis of the brain. The so-called Chicago typewriter, or submachine gun, didn’t write his epitaph.
In one of the “Untouchables” episodes, Capone met with Charles “Lucky” Luciano, the country’s most-powerful mobster. He was even more powerful than Capone. Luciano headed the “Commission,” which controlled organized crime throughout the country. Capone met Luciano in Cook County Jail. As a joke, Capone sat in an electric chair, wearing an expensive robe and pajamas. He asked Luciano, who was standing, if he wanted something to drink? It was the era of prohibition but getting a drink in jail was no problem.
What I didn’t know until I read “Invisible,” by Stephen L. Carter was that Eunice Hunton Carter, Stephen’s grandmother, an assistant special prosecutor in the office of Thomas E. Dewey, put together the plan that led to Luciano’s arrest and eventual conviction.
The book’s complete title is “Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster.”
Eunice Carter’s story couldn’t be forgotten because most us never knew anything about her. Eunice Carter was one 20 attorneys working for Special Prosecutor Thomas E. Dewey, who would later become New York governor and Republican presidential candidate in 1948, losing to Democrat Harry S. Truman in an election that embarrassed The Chicago Tribune and most other newspapers. Remember the Tribune headline “Dewey Beats Truman.”
Nineteen of the special prosecutors were white men except Eunice Carter. Dewey’s job was to bring down the mob.
Dutch Schultz, a Jewish-American gangster based in New York, saw the threat Dewey posed, and Schultz wanted him rubbed out.
Luciano said no, but Schultz ignored him. Gunmen believed to have been dispatched by Luciano shot to death Schultz on October 24, 1935 in Newark, New Jersey. Luciano believed that rubbing out Dewey would put a lot of heat on the mob. Plus, he wanted Schultz’s territory, which included Harlem’s lucrative numbers racket.
Under Dewey, Eunice Carter was assigned cases involving women who were prostitutes, something Dewey didn’t want to hear about because he considered those matters vice cases that had nothing to do with organized crime. He believed individual women opened houses of prostitution. Through her investigations, however, Carter learned that the mob controlled prostitution, but convincing Dewey of that took some doing.
When she finally did enlighten Dewey, Luciano was arrested and convicted after a long trial for extortion and prostitution in 1936 and sentenced to 30 to 50 years in prison.
Sadly, Eunice Carter did not get to the argue the case in court. She faced a much tougher obstacle than the mob-the old boy network. Dewey argued the case against Luciano, assisted by other white male prosecutors while Carter watched from the sidelines.
Nevertheless, the black press, or Negro press, as it was referred to then, published article after article about her.
Although Eunice Carter earned considerable money for the time, she never achieved what she wanted. Dewey passed her over for judge. She eventually quit the prosecutor’s office and opened a private law office, one of the few women to do so. She also did not become head of the National Council of Negro Women. She fell out with Mary McCloud Bethune, the organization’s founder and her mentor.
Carter also split with Alphaeus, her brother, a former Howard University professor and a member of the Communist Party. Alphaeus was sentenced to prison with writer Dashiell Hammett for refusing to divulge the names of individuals who donated bail money to the American leaders of the Communist Party. After Alphaeus was released from prison, no one would hire him despite his degrees from Harvard and New York University. He moved to Ghana to work with W.E.B. Du Bois to complete work on The Encyclopedia Africana. He never returned to the United States.
This is not a book about poor blacks. The characters are well educated, and they traveled throughout the world. Eunice Carter graduated from Smith College and Fordham Law School. She spoke French and German. Carter and her dentist husband lived in Harlem’s most-exclusive neighborhood. Their neighbor was Thurgood Marshall. The black women who controlled the neighborhood’s important social comings and goings were called Czarinas after the empress in Russia before 1917.
Toward the end of her life, Carter spoke about how gender inequality limited the aspirations of women. She and her brother both hit the brick wall of race.
This book does not have a happy ending, but it is well worth reading.
Stephen Carter is a professor of law at Yale University.