The 1920s and 30s were a time when organized crime was an unseen hand playing a significant part in urban life across the country. In no city was that more evident than New York. At the time, law enforcement hadn't made the connection between racketeering and petty crime. Then Eunice Hunton Carter came along.
Born in Atlanta in 1899, to activist parents, Carter became a social worker who practiced in New York and New Jersey for several years before earning a law degree from Fordham University Law School, the first black woman to do so. In 1935, she was appointed by New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia to study situations in Harlem. But soon her street smarts and work as a Women's Court prosecutor with knowledge about prostitution cases, and a theory that the streetwalkers were connected to the mob, got her hired as an assistant district attorney under then-special prosecutor Thomas E. Dewey. Her investigative work showed that when prostitutes were arrested, they all seemed to have the same lawyers, bondsmen and alibis, leading her to theorize that prostitution was an organized racket.
As it turns out, the investigation revealed that mob figures were providing these services to the prostitutes in exchange for 50 percent of their take, which brought in millions for the underworld. Dewey ordered raids on 80 brothels, arresting 100 prostitutes. Carter's questioning of several resulted in evidence that led to New York's most powerful mob figure Charles "Lucky" Luciano, who was not found to be directly connected to the brothels, but gave a non-interference nod to its operation. Essentially this meant he was, in fact, a crime boss.
"This was the beginning of the end for organized crime they way it operated," said Peter Kougasian, an assistant Manhattan district attorney. "It showed that they were not invulnerable and it also represented an end for major political corruption as well." The case tried by the famed "Twenty Against The Underworld," as Dewey called his team, and resulted in a 30 to 50-year sentence, for Luciano, although he was paroled and deported to Italy in 1946.
After her role in what had been the largest organized crime prosecution in U.S. history, Dewey (who was elected New York District Attorney in 1937, appointed Carter head of the D.A.'s Special Sessions Bureau. In 1945, she entered private practice and continued her activities in organizations including the National Council of Negro Women, the United Nations and on the national board of the YWCA, on which she remained until her death in 1970.