Bumpy Johnson - Mob Boss & Bookmaker
Ellsworth Raymond Johnson, better known as Bumpy Johnson, was an American mob boss and book maker in the Harlem section of New York City.
Johnson is famous for rising from an enforcer under Stephanie Saint Clair, to taking over her operations and becoming the main black man whom the Italian mafia would deal with.
Bumpy became so legendary that, despite passing away in 1968, he's depicted in several modern movies, TV shows, and songs.
Let's continue discussing this famed gangster by looking at his early life, enforcer days, book making, and dealings with the Italian mafia, pop culture references, and a modern controversy involving Frank Lucas.
Bumpy Johnson's Early Life
Although Johnson became famous in New York, his life began over 750 miles away in Charleston, South Carolina.
Born on October 31, 1905, Johnson grew up during the Segregation Era. It's during these early days that he earned the nickname Bumpy after hitting his head and developing a large bump.
Times were tough for Ellsworth and his brother, Willie, since blacks faced racism and oppression, especially in the Deep South.
When Bumpy was 10, Willie was accused of killing a white man. His parents were worried that a lynch mob would kill him before a proper trial, so they sent Willie up north to live with relatives.
Bumpy wasn't far behind because his parents were afraid that he, too, would eventually be persecuted due to his temper and insolence towards whites.
In 1919, Johnson was sent to live with his sister, Mabel, in Harlem - one of the biggest urban areas that blacks poured into to fill labor shortages left by World War I.
From Selling Newspapers to Prison
Arriving in Harlem as a young teenager, Johnson sold newspapers and swept floors to make ends meet.
He also began shooting dice and playing pool for money, which marked Johnson's introduction to gambling.
Bumpy also met friends and future criminal associates in Natt Pettigrew and Bub Hewlett. The latter became one of Johnson's early partners as they charged local stores protection money in typical mafia style.
Over the next decade, Bumpy would spend much of his life behind bars for a number of crimes. But his life would take a huge turn by the age of 32, when he started working for Stephanie St. Clair.
The Queen of Numbers
Known as the Madame, or Queen of Numbers, St. Clair made her early fortune by selling controlled drugs.
She later got into the numbers game, which is an illegal lottery that was especially popular in ghettos during the early and mid-1900s.
The numbers game involves bettors trying to match three digits that will be drawn randomly the following day. The operation was very lucrative for St. Clair, and she made $20,000 per year in the 1920s, approx. $285k today.
This is key to Johnson because he would one day take over St. Clair's operations and assume control of the lucrative numbers game.
But in the beginning, he was brought aboard to provide protection against the notorious gangster Dutch Shultz - a.k.a. the Beer Baron of the Bronx.
Johnson, St. Clair Refuse to Yield to Schultz
When the Prohibition Era ended in the early 1930s, Jewish and Italian American mobs saw their bootlegging profits disappear. This caused some of them to move into the Harlem gambling scene and demand protection money from those running numbers games.
Schultz was the first and most ruthless gangster to move into Harlem, beating and / or killing those who wouldn't pay his protection fees.
While most numbers game operators yielded to the German Jewish American mobster, St. Clair and Bumpy were one of the few Harlem based gangs to refuse.
This sparked a bloody war, where some of St. Clair's allies were murdered by Schultz's mob. She complained about police corruption aiding Schultz to the New York Police Department, but to no avail.
By 1935, after being weakened by Schultz's attacks, St. Clair made desperate moves like attacking storefronts of the businesses that Schultz was supposed to protect. She also tipped police off to his activities, which resulted in the arrest of over a dozen of his men and the seizure of $12 million, or $216 million today.
St. Clair and Johnson received a stroke of luck when Luciano had Schultz assassinated after the latter went against his orders and tried to kill U.S. Attorney Thomas Dewey.
Rather than maintaining the hostility that Schultz had towards St. Clair and Bumpy, Luciano was interested in working with them.
Bumpy Johnson Takes Over Harlem Numbers Game
After struggling with Schultz for years, St. Clair moved away from her illegal operations and handed everything over to Bumpy. Not only was he her loyal enforcer, but the two were involved in a relationship at the time.
Johnson's first order of business was to negotiate a deal with Luciano. They struck a pact where numbers operators would remain independent as long as they participated in the Italian mafia's central gambling pool and paid tributes.
The deal instantly increased Johnson's respect in Harlem because prior to him, black men had little success negotiating with the mafia.
Bumpy would continue running St. Clair's lottery operation while also expanding into the illegal narcotics trade. The gang grew under his command and he eventually became the kingpin of Harlem.
Whether it was the Italian mafia or smaller gangs wanting to do illegal business in Harlem, everybody now had to come through Johnson first.
Becoming a Celebrity & Marriage
With his numbers game, reputation, and net worth growing, Johnson became increasingly popular throughout Harlem.
This led to friendships with other famous Harlemites, including Cab Calloway, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Bojangles Robinson, and Sugar Ray Robinson.
In 1948, he met 34 year old Mayme Hatcher at Frasier's Restaurant. Bumpy quickly fell in love with Hatcher and they got married in an impromptu civil ceremony.
"In October that year we were driving past 116th and St. Nicholas Avenue in his Cadillac when he suddenly turned to me and said, 'Mayme, I think you and I should go ahead and get married,'" recalled Hatcher. "I was stunned, but I kept my composure. I said simply, 'Is that right?'" -Mayme Hatcher
Being the wife of the richest gangster in Harlem not only meant enjoying the finer things, but also dealing with rivals who loved Bumpy.
"Before long I was known as Bumpy's girl. It was a good title to possess. It meant I could get in anywhere I wanted to go, I was treated as queen wherever I went, and I was showered with gifts and jewelry on a steady basis," she explained.
"It also meant that I was constantly accosted by other women who were in love with Bumpy and wanted me out of the way. At first I was upset, but then I pretty much learned to ignore them."
Mayme remained married to Johnson until he died of a heart attack in 1968.
Bumpy Sentenced to Alcatraz Prison
In the summer of 1952, Jet, a weekly magazine aimed at African American readers, began profiling Bumpy and his lavish lifestyle.
Unfortunately, 1952 also saw Johnson indicted for selling heroin. Bumpy argued that he was framed, but he was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Jet reported that Johnson lost his appeal and was sentenced to 15 years at Alcatraz Prison in San Francisco Bay.
Listed as inmate No. 1117, Bumpy's term would last from 1954 to 63. He was sent to Alcatraz because, with its island location, strong currents, and cold waters, it was considered American's most secure prison.
Despite this fact, unconfirmed reports suggest that Bumpy helped three fellow inmates escape by arranging for a boat to pick them up once they escaped the prison walls and reached San Francisco Bay.
This would be an incredible feat considering that, of the 36 men who tried to escape Alcatraz, 31 were caught, shot, or drowned.
Johnson is depicted by a character named English in the 1979 Clint Eastwood film Escape from Alcatraz.
Johnson was released from Alcatraz in 1963 and greeted with a parade upon his return to Harlem.
In 1965, Bumpy arranged a sit down strike at a local police station to protest their continued surveillance of his activities. Johnson was charged with "refusal to leave a police station," but was later acquitted.
Bumpy Johnson's Death
By 1968, Johnson was under indictment again for drug related crimes. But he would never go to court because he passed away due to congestive heart failure on July 7 at age 62.
His final moments were spent in Harlem's Wells Restaurant, where the waitress had just brought one of his favorite meals - chicken legs, hominy grits, and coffee.
He was clutching his chest when childhood friend Finley Hoskins ran to the Rhythm Club to get another friend, Junie Byrd. When Byrd arrived, he held Johnson in his arms, and Bumpy opened his eyes and smiled before going unconscious.
He was pronounced dead at Harlem Hospital and buried in the Bronx's Woodlawn Commentary.
Bumpy Johnson Depictions in Pop Culture
- 1971 movie Shaft, portrayed by Moses Gunn as Bumpy Jones, a Harlem gangster who needs Shaft's help in saving his kidnapped daughter.
- 1972 movie Come Back Charleston Blue, portrayed by Godfrey Cambridge as Charleston Blue, a vigilante who tries to help Harlem by killing criminals with a straight razor. He disappears after setting out to kill Dutch Schultz with his razor.
- 1984 movie The Cotton Club, portrayed by Laurence Fishburne as Bumpy Rhodes, who intervenes based on the cruel treatment of performers at Schultz's Cotton Club.
- 1997 movie Hoodlum, Fishburne again plays Johnson, who is embroiled in a bloody war with the psychotic Schultz.
- 2007 movie American Gangster, Clarence Williams III portrays Johnson, who serves as a mentor to Harlem gangster Frank Lucas. This film sees Bumpy die in a store during the day time, rather than in Wells Restaurant during the night time.
- Mentioned in the Lupe Fiasco song Failure: "I'm Bumpy Johnson I stick to the streets."
- Mentioned in the Mac Dre song Genie of the Lamp: "I'm Samuel and Denzel in one body and Bumpy faced Johnson, I'll kill somebody."
- Mentioned in the Nas and Damian Marley song Leaders: "Ellsworth Bumpy Johnsons, the Harlemites and Garveyites, black as the credit card we swipe."
- Prodigy released his first full album in 2011 under the name The Ellsworth Bumpy Johnson EP.
- An episode of Unsolved Mysteries explores the report that Bumpy helped three inmates escape Alcatraz and get to the shores of San Francisco. The episode claims that Johnson arranged for a boat to pick the three men up at San Francisco Bay, where it then dropped them off at Pier 13 in the city's Hunters Point District.
- An episode of HBO's The Wire called "All Due Respect" sees Tree reference Bumpy right before killing Jelly over a dog fight. The men were talking about how a legend where Bumpy attacked a police station by himself.
Frank Lucas Controversy
After seeing the release of American Gangster in 2007, Mayme Johnson took exception to how the film misrepresented her late husband and Frank Lucas' relationship.
Portrayed by Denzel Washington, Lucas is shown to be Bumpy's second in command, before Johnson dies of a heart attack in his arms.
"Frank wasn't nothing but a flunky, and one that Bumpy never did really trust," said Mayme. "Bumpy would let Frank drive him around, but you'd better believe that he was never in any important meetings or anything. He would say, you can trust a thief quicker than a liar, because a thief steals money because he needs money, but a liar lies for the hell of it!" -Mayme
Mayme was especially angry after hearing Lucas' account that her husband died in his arms, noting that he probably thought the lie would stand because it happened back in 1968.
"Junie Byrd's gone, Nat Pettigrew's gone, Sonny Chance is gone, and Finley Hoskin's gone," said Johnson.
"Frank would never have said any garbage like that if one of them were alive because he'd know they'd come after him. I bet he thought I was gone, too, but I'm not. I'm 93, and I don't have Alzheimer's or dementia, and I'm not senile. Frank Lucas is a damn liar and I want the world to know it."
Mayme implied that if Lucas lied about Bumpy dying in his arms and their overall relationship, then he probably lied about other elements of the American Gangster story too.
From warring with one of the most feared mobsters of all time to helping men escape from Alcatraz, Ellsworth Bumpy Johnson is a true legend.
His life started humbly in the deep South, but quickly changed when his parents sent him to Harlem. It's here where he started providing protection for storefronts and eventually began working for Stephanie St. Clair - a.k.a. the Queen of Numbers.
Following a bloody war with Schultz, Johnson furthered his legend by making a deal with Lucky Luciano and taking over St. Clair's illegal lottery.
Eventually, Bumpy became so rich and famous that he earned celebrity friends, was profiled in magazines, and married Mayme - the love of his life.
Unfortunately, his life was also met with struggles, including being arrested 40 different times and doing three lengthy stints in prison.
By 1963, he had done his last prison stint in the notorious Alcatraz prison. He was facing more prison time while under indictment in 1968, but he passed away before the trial.
Updated: January 2017
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