Once dubbed the most dangerous gangster in New York, Ellsworth Raymond “Bumpy” Johnson was also a philanthropist and a poet.
For more than 30 years, Bumpy Johnson ruled over Harlem as one of New York City’s most revered — and feared — crime bosses. His wife called him the “Harlem Godfather,” and for good reason.
However, unlike the fiery mobsters that ruled alongside him, such as Lucky Luciano and Dutch Schultz, Johnson was known as a gentlemen, always quick to help out local Harlem women and children. He was a traditional man with a taste for riches, fashion-forward and known to rub elbows with celebrities such as Billie Holiday and Sugar Ray Robinson.
Most importantly, though, he was loved, perhaps even more than he was respected. On his return to New York City from his stone cell in Alcatraz, Johnson was met with an impromptu parade. All of Harlem wanted to welcome the Harlem Godfather back to the neighborhood.
The Early Life Of Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson
Ellsworth Raymond Johnson was born in Charleston, South Carolina on Halloween of 1905. Due to a slight deformation of his skull, he was given the nickname “Bumpy.”
When Johnson was 10 years old, his brother William was accused of killing a white man in Charleston, South Carolina. Fearing a reprisal, Johnson’s parents moved most of their seven children to Harlem, a haven for the black community in the early 20th century. Once there, Johnson moved in with his sister, Margaret.
Because of his bumpy head, thick Southern accent, and short stature, Johnson was immediately picked on by local children. This may be where his efficacy for a life of crime began: Instead of taking the hits and teases, the young Johnson made a name for himself as a fighter that was not to be messed with.
He dropped out of high school, making money by hustling pool, selling newspapers, and sweeping the storefronts of restaurants with his close gang of friends and fellow hoodlums. This is how he met William “Bub” Hewlett, a gangster that took a liking to Johnson when he refused to back off of Bub’s storefront territory. Bub, who saw the boy’s potential and appreciated his boldness, invited him into the business of offering physical protection to the high-profile numbers bankers in Harlem. Johnson soon became one of the most sought-after bodyguards in the neighborhood.
The Gang War Of Harlem
After some arrests and a good amount of jail time in his younger years, Bumpy Johnson left prison in 1932 with no money or occupation. Back on the streets of Harlem, he met Stephanie St. Clair.
St. Clair was the reigning queen of several criminal organizations across Harlem. She was the leader of a local gang, the 40 Thieves, and was also a key investor in the numbers rackets.
The crime-savvy Bumpy Johnson was her perfect partner. She was impressed by his intelligence, and the two quickly became fast friends, despite their 20-year age difference (though some biographers peg her as being only 10 years his senior). He was her personal bodyguard, as well as her numbers runner and bookmaker. While she evaded the Mafia and waged war against German-Jewish mobster Dutch Schultz and his men, the 26-year-old Johnson committed a series of crimes behind the scenes — ranging from murder to burglaries — at her request.
As Johnson’s wife, Mayme, who married Bumpy in 1948, wrote in her biography of the crime boss, “Bumpy and his crew of nine waged a guerrilla war of sorts, and picking off Dutch Schultz’s men was easy since there were few other white men walking around Harlem during the day.”
By the end of the war, 40 people had been kidnapped or killed for their involvement. These crimes did not end because of Johnson and his men, however. Schultz was ultimately killed by orders from Lucky Luciano, the infamous head of the Italian Mafia in New York.
This resulted in Johnson and Luciano making a deal: The Harlem bookmakers could retain their independence from the Italian mob, so long as they sent along a cut of their profits.
As Mayme Johnson wrote, “It wasn’t a perfect solution, and not everyone was happy, but at the same time the people of Harlem realized Bumpy had ended the war with no further losses, and had negotiated a peace with honor….And they realized that for the first time a black man had stood up to the white mob instead of just bowing down and going along to get along.”
After this meeting, Johnson and Luciano met regularly to play chess, sometimes at Luciano’s favorite spot in front of the YMCA on 135th Street. St. Clair, on the other hand, went her own way, steering clear of criminal activity after serving time in prison for the shooting of her con-man husband. However, she is said to have maintained the protection of Johnson until his death.
Johnson’s Reign As A Crime Lord
Nothing happened in the crime world of Harlem unless Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson gave the word.
As Mayme Johnson wrote, “If you wanted to do anything in Harlem, anything at all, you’d better stop and see Bumpy because he ran the place. Want to open a number spot on the Avenue? Go see Bumpy. Thinking about converting your brownstone into a speakeasy? Check with Bumpy first.”
However, he also had a soft side. Some even compared him to Robin Hood because of the way he used his power and fortune to help the impoverished communities in his neighborhood. He delivered gifts and meals to the Harlem community, even supplying turkey dinners on Thanksgiving and hosting an annual Christmas party.
As his wife noted, he was known to lecture younger generations about studying academics instead of crime — although he “always maintained a sense of humor about his brushes with the law.”
He was also a man of the Harlem Renaissance, fashionable and well-spoken. He was a poet, and some of his poems were published in Harlem magazines. He had affairs with prominent New York celebrities, such as the editor of Vanity Fair, Helen Lawrenson, and the singer and actress Lena Horne.
“He wasn’t a typical gangster,” wrote Frank Lucas, a notorious drug trafficker in New York City in the 1960s and 70s. “He worked in the streets but he wasn’t of the streets. He was refined and classy, more like a businessman with a legitimate career than most people in the underworld. I could tell by looking at him that he was a lot different from the people I saw in the streets.”
No matter how legitimately he ran his crime business, however, Johnson still spent his fair share of time in the joint. In fact, the Harlem Godfather was eight years into a prison sentence in Alcatraz Prison on June 11, 1962, when Frank Morris and Clarence and John Anglin made the only successful escape from the institution.
Some suspect Johnson had something to do with the escape. Unconfirmed reports allege that he used his mob connections to help the escapees secure a boat to San Francisco. His wife theorized that he himself didn’t escape alongside of them because of his desire to be a free man, rather than a fugitive.
And free he was — for a few years, at least.
Only five years after being released from the infamous prison — and ruling Harlem once more after more than a decade away — Bumpy Johnson died of a heart attack during the early hours of July 7, 1968. He lay in the arms of one of his closest friends, Junie Byrd — not the aforementioned Frank Lucas, despite the drug trafficker’s claims — as he breathed his last breath.
“Bumpy’s life may have been a violent and turbulent one, but his death was one that any Harlem sporting man would pray for — eating fried chicken at Wells Restaurant in the wee hours of the morning surrounded by childhood friends. It just can’t get better than that,” wrote Mayme.
Thousands of people attended Johnson’s funeral, including the dozens of uniformed police officers that were stationed on surrounding rooftops, shotguns in hand. “They must have thought that Bumpy was going to get up from the casket and start raising Hell,” Mayme wrote.
Bumpy Johnson In Hollywood
So why has this black “Godfather” stayed out of the national public consciousness? Probably because he was a powerful black man ruling an entire neighborhood of New York City during the 1930s.
Laurence Fishburne played a Johnson-inspired character in The Cotton Club, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, and Johnson himself in Hoodlum, “a goofy, historically suspect biopic in which the male lead delivered an even more inert performance,” according to writer Joe Queenan.
Most famously, perhaps, is the crime boss’s appearance in American Gangster — a film that Mayme Johnson refused to see. According to her, Denzel Washington’s Frank Lucas was more fiction than fact. The younger gangster was not Johnson’s driver for more than a decade, and he was not present at the crime lord’s death. Lucas and Johnson actually had a falling out before he was sent to Alcatraz.
As Mayme Johnson wrote, “That’s why we need more black people writing books to tell the real history. I’m glad, at 93, to do my part.”
But Bumpy Johnson’s day in the limelight may be upon us. Chris Brancato and Paul Eckstein have created a new series for Epix called Godfather of Harlem, which tells the story of the crime boss after he returned to Harlem from Alcatraz. Johnson is played by Forest Whitaker, and the series focuses on his short-term friendship with Malcolm X.
Now that you know more about the Harlem Godfather Bumpy Johnson, check out these 41 images of the Harlem Renaissance. Then learn about Salvatore Maranzano, the man who created the American Mafia.‘