In the 20th century, one of the most infamous crime leaders to hail from Harlem was named Bumpy Johnson.
Who Was Bumpy Johnson?
Bumpy Johnson was an American crime leader who was born in 1905. He rose to power in the Harlem district of New York City under the racket boss Stephanie St. Clair and eventually conducted business with the Italian mobster Charles “Lucky” Luciano. Johnson would go on to serve as a mentor to Frank Lucas, who would eventually seize control of Harlem’s operations and transform the neighborhood into a sanctuary for the distribution of illegal drugs.
Early Life and Criminal Beginnings
It was on October 31st, 1905 in the city of Charleston, South Carolina that Ellsworth Raymond “Bumpy” Johnson was born. Because of the peculiar growth that developed on his head, people began to call him “Bumpy.”
Johnson, at 10 years old, along with the majority of his other siblings, was relocated to Harlem for their own protection after learning that his elder brother was sought for the murder of a white man.
In spite of relocating farther north, it was impossible to escape the plague of racism, and Johnson, with his short stature and heavy accent from the South, was a target for abuse. But, Johnson’s terrible temper prevented him from being a helpless victim, and beginning at a young age, he learned how to be a scrappy fighter. This enabled him to avoid being a hapless victim.
Johnson, who had dropped out of high school, took odd jobs and socialized with less than admirable people, both of which attracted him to the notice of the notorious criminal William “Bub” Hewlett. Because of Hewlett, Johnson was able to establish himself as a highly respected bodyguard for high-stakes illicit gamblers in the Harlem area.
Johnson’s extracurricular activities, which included burglary, prostitution, and other illegal endeavors, would eventually put him in jail for the next ten years.
Bumpy Johnson and the Queen
When Johnson was thirty years old, he had already spent a third of his life behind bars. He had a propensity for making problems and was involved in activities such as taking bribes, stealing, and prostitution. When he was released from jail in 1932, he was destitute and unable to find work. Once he had returned to the streets, he met Stephanie St. Clair, a powerful crime leader in Harlem who was known as “Madam Queen” and “Queen of the Policy Rackets.” St. Clair took Johnson under her wing and mentored him.
St. Clair waged a battle against several of New York’s most powerful crime leaders, the most notable of which was Dutch Schultz, with Johnson’s assistance.
Mayme Hatcher, the wife of Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson, wrote a biography about her husband in 2008 titled Harlem Godfather: The Rap on My Husband, Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson. In it, she revealed that “Bumpy and his crew of nine waged a guerrilla war of sorts,” and that “picking off Dutch Schultz’s men was easy since there were few other white men walking around Harlem during the day,” which made it simple
During this time, Johnson served as St. Clair’s bodyguard and chief enforcer. During this period, Johnson was responsible for more than 40 homicides and kidnappings. However, the duo’s war against the mob was ultimately unsuccessful because Schultz and his associates had the support of the law and ultimately controlled the illegal gambling operations in Harlem.
Yet, the dishonest business dealings that Schultz engaged in, which produced discord within the ranks of the gang, meant that Schultz’s time was running out. Schultz was murdered in 1935 as a result of an order given by Luciano to have him assassinated.
At about the same time, St. Clair made the decision to turn over management of her company to Johnson. At the time, she was desperately trying to avoid getting caught by the police and lay low. Now that Schultz was out of the way, Johnson and Luciano, who were once staunch enemies, made an alliance.
This alliance allowed Johnson to control all of Harlem’s rackets as an independent operation as long as Luciano’s crew (later identified as the Genovese crime family) would get a slice of the profits. Johnson and Luciano’s alliance lasted for a number of years.
“It wasn’t a flawless settlement, and not everyone was satisfied with it, but at the same time, the people of Harlem knew that Bumpy had stopped the conflict with no additional casualties and had negotiated a peace with honor…., ” “Hatcher, who appeared in Harlem Godfather, said. “And they recognized that for the first first time, a black guy had stood up to the white mob instead of simply bowing down and going along to get along.
Godfather of Harlem
While many in the neighborhood had a healthy amount of respect and affection for Johnson, they also dreaded him. Johnson, who was sometimes referred to as “Robin Hood,” helped those in his community who were the most helpless. He did this by distributing free turkeys around Thanksgiving and by bringing meals and presents.
After being found guilty of conspiring to distribute heroin in New York in 1951, Johnson was sentenced to 15 years in jail. He spent most of his term in Alcatraz Prison, which is located in San Francisco Bay, California. In 1963, just five years before he passed away, he was finally freed from prison.
Johnson found himself under the watchful eye of the authorities as a result of his lengthy criminal record, which included more than 40 arrests during his lifetime. In 1965, he conducted a sit-down protest at a police station after becoming infuriated by the persistent monitoring they were conducting. In spite of the fact that he was accused of refusing to leave the station, he was eventually exonerated of all charges.
Movies, TV, and Portrayals in Hollywood
Johnson was a figure that Hollywood just couldn’t ignore due to his renegade criminal past, his love for philanthropy, as well as his love for flamboyant clothing and poetry. The Cotton Club (1994), American Gangster (1997), and The Hoodlum (1997) are all examples of movies that have featured him in a starring role (2007).
In the 2019 television series The Godfather of Harlem, Forest Whitaker played Johnson in the role that he originated on the small screen.
Johnson suffered a heart attack and passed away in the early morning hours of July 7, 1968, as he was dining at a restaurant in Harlem that served soul cuisine. It was stated that he passed away while being held in the arms of his boyhood friend Junie Byrd, who was surrounded by close confidants.
1948 was the year that Johnson wed Hatcher. Hatcher was born in North Carolina in 1914 (some accounts indicate 1915), and she relocated to New York in 1938. Once there, she worked as a waitress before transitioning into the role of a hostess. After another ten years had passed, she happened to run meet Johnson, who had recently been released from a ten-year jail sentence. The two people hit it off right away and decided to be married after dating for three months. Hatcher died in 2009.