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Criminal 'queenpin' ruled with a dramatic flair

Odessa Madre was arrested 37 times -- but her record would've been longer had it not been for her police protectors: people she had grown up with.
Odessa Madre was arrested 37 times -- but her record would've been longer had it not been for her police protectors: people she had grown up with. (D.c. Police Department)

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By John Kelly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 9, 2010

I'm curious if you could give some background on Odessa Madre, the notorious -- but now forgotten -- African American "queenpin" whose criminal career spanned nearly 70 years in Washington. And is it true that she was the only African American allowed, due to her wealth, to shop in segregated department stores back then?

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-- Steve Gibson, Laurel

After Odessa Marie Madre succumbed to kidney failure in 1990, her body lay in the District morgue for weeks, unclaimed because she'd died penniless, unable to afford her own funeral. In the end, crime didn't pay.

But in the beginning and the middle, it sure did. In her heyday, Washington's "female Al Capone" owned her own nightclub and hobnobbed with the likes of Moms Mabley, Count Basie and boxer Joe Louis. She rode around town in a chauffeured limousine, flush with the proceeds of her numbers games and bawdy houses.

Such a life was probably not what Madre's parents -- solid members of the black middle class -- expected. Her mother was a seamstress and her father a barber. Madre was born in 1907 and grew up on upper Georgia Avenue NW in a neighborhood called Cowtown. She counted among her playmates the Irish American children who lived on the other side of the street, an unofficial color line.

"Negroes and Irishmen got along real well," Madre told The Post's Courtland Milloy for an article published in 1980. "We were like one big happy family."

Some said Madre's remarkable ability to keep from being jailed had its origins in Cowtown: Her former playmates had become police officers.

Why the turn to crime?

"You wonder what made me choose the life I did?" she asked Courtland. "I wonder, too, sometimes. I just figure that I didn't want to be like them -- them yella gals."

Dark-skinned and generously proportioned, Madre said she was ostracized by lighter-skinned students at Dunbar, the prestigious high school she attended. "There was only three blacks at Dunbar back then -- I mean black like me," she told Courtland. "I had good diction, I knew the gestures, but they always made fun of me."


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