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.
He ruled the neighborhood and dispatched any who dared challenge him in brutal fashion. One rival named Ulysses Rollins caught the business end of Johnson’s switchblade 36 times in a single streetfight. During another confrontation, Johnson saw Rollins in a dinner club and pounced on him with a blade, quickly leaving his eyeball dangling from its socket before he returned to his table and proclaimed that he suddenly had a craving for spaghetti and meatballs.
However, Johnson was also known as a gentlemen who was always quick to help out fellow Harlem residents. Meanwhile, he was a fashionable man about town who was known to rub elbows with celebrities like Billie Holiday and Sugar Ray Robinson.
Whether it was celebrities — and even historical luminaries like Malcolm X — or everyday Harlemites, Bumpy Johnson was beloved, perhaps even more than he was feared. Upon his return to New York City in 1963 after serving time in Alcatraz, Johnson was met with an impromptu parade. The whole neighborhood wanted to welcome the Harlem Godfather back home.
The Early Life Of Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson
Ellsworth Raymond Johnson was born in Charleston, South Carolina on Halloween 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.
Because of his bumpy head, thick Southern accent, and short stature, Johnson was immediately picked on by local children. But this may be how his skills for a life of crime first developed: Instead of taking the hits and taunts, the young Johnson made a name for himself as a fighter who was not to be messed with.
He soon 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 Wars Of Harlem
Bumpy Johnson’s criminal career soon flourished further as he graduated to armed robbery, extortion, and pimping. But he wasn’t able to avoid punishment for such crimes and was in and out of reform schools and prisons for much of his 20s.
After serving two and a half years on a grand larceny charge, Bumpy Johnson got out of prison in 1932 with no money or occupation. But once he was 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 him 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 passed 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.
With St. Clair out of the game, Bumpy Johnson was now the one and only true Godfather of Harlem.
Bumpy Johnson’s Reign As The Godfather Of Harlem
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.”
And if anyone didn’t come see Bumpy first, they paid the price. Perhaps few paid that price as dearly as local rival Ulysses Rollins. As one chilling excerpt from Johnson’s biography reads, describing an encounter between the two rivals:
“Bumpy spotted Rollins. He pulled out a knife and jumped on Rollins, and the two men rolled around on the floor for a few moments before Bumpy stood up and straightened his tie. Rollins remained on the floor, his face and body badly gashed, and one of his eyeballs hanging from the socket by ligaments. Bumpy calmly stepped over the man, picked up a menu and said he suddenly had a taste for spaghetti and meatballs.”
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.”
“If you wanted to do anything in Harlem, anything at all, you’d better stop and see Bumpy because he ran the place.”
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.”
Behind Bars At Alcatraz, Then Back Home To Harlem
No matter how legitimately he ran his crime business, however, Johnson still spent his fair share of time in the joint. In 1951, he received his longest sentence, a 15-year term for selling heroin that eventually saw him sent to the notorious Alcatraz.
In fact, the Harlem Godfather was eight years into a prison sentence in Alcatraz 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 them because of his desire to be a free man, rather than a fugitive.
And free he was — for a few years, at least.
The Godfather Of Harlem And Malcolm X
Bumpy Johnson returned to Harlem following his release in 1963. And while he may still have had the love and respect of the neighborhood, it was no longer the same place that it was when he left it.
The neighborhood had largely fallen into disrepair as drugs had flooded the area (mostly thanks to the Mafia leaders with whom Johnson had cooperated in years past). In hopes of rehabilitating the neighborhood and advocating for its black citizens, politicians and civil rights leaders drew attention to Harlem’s struggles. These leaders included Representative Adam Clayton Powell and Johnson’s old friend Malcolm X.
Johnson and Malcolm X had been friends since the 1940s, when the latter was still a street hustler. But now a powerful community leader, Malcolm X called upon the newly-released Johnson to provide protection for him as his enemies in the Nation of Islam, with which he’d just split, stalked him.
Malcolm X soon decided, however, that he shouldn’t be associating with a known criminal like Johnson and had him ask his guards to stand down. But just weeks later, Malcolm X was assassinated by his enemies in Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom.
Meanwhile, Bumpy Johnson’s time was running short too.
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.
The Enduring Legacy Of Bumpy Johnson
So, despite his power and influence, why has the “Godfather of Harlem” stayed out of the national public consciousness in ways that other infamous gangsters have not? Probably because he was a powerful black man ruling an entire neighborhood of New York City during the mid-1900s.
Nevertheless, in recent decades, Johnson’s reputation has started to reach more people thanks to film and television.
Laurence Fishburne played a Johnson-inspired character in The Cotton Club, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, and Bumpy 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 (played by Forest Whitaker) after he returned to Harlem from Alcatraz and lived out his final years in the neighborhood he once ruled.