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

Movies

  • 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.

Music

  • 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.

TV

  • 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.

Conclusion

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.