Bumpy Johnson was one of Harlem’s most notorious crime bosses of the 20th century.
Who Was Bumpy Johnson?
Born in 1905, Bumpy Johnson was an American crime boss in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City, who first came to power under racket boss Stephanie St. Clair, and later did business with Italian mobster Charles “Lucky” Luciano. Johnson would go on to mentor Frank Lucas, who would take over Harlem’s operations and turn it into a haven for drug trafficking.
Early Life and Criminal Beginnings
Ellsworth Raymond “Bumpy” Johnson was born on October 31, 1905, in Charleston, South Carolina. He was given the nickname “Bumpy” due to an abnormal growth on his head.
After his older brother was wanted for the murder of a white man, a 10-year-old Johnson, along with most of his other siblings, was sent to Harlem for safety.
Despite moving up north, there was no avoiding the scourge of racism, and Johnson, with his small frame and thick Southern accent, was a target for bullying. However, Johnson’s bad temper kept him from being a hapless victim, and starting at an early age, he learned how to be a scrappy fighter.
A high school dropout, Johnson worked odd jobs and hung around an unsavory crowd, which brought him to the attention of gangster William “Bub” Hewlett. Through Hewlett, Johnson became a highly regarded bodyguard for high-rolling illegal gamblers in Harlem.
Eventually, Johnson’s extracurricular activities — burglary and pimping, etc. — would land him in prison for the next decade.
Bumpy Johnson and the Queen
By the time he was 30, Johnson had spent half his life in prison. A penchant for causing trouble, he was involved in bribery, thievery and pimping. When he left prison in 1932, he was broke and unemployed. Returning to the streets, he met powerful Harlem crime boss Stephanie St. Clair (a.k.a. “Madam Queen,” “Queen of the Policy Rackets”), who took Johnson under her wing.
With Johnson’s help, St. Clair waged war against many New York crime bosses, most notably Dutch Schultz.
“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,” revealed Johnson’s wife, Mayme Hatcher, in her 2008 biography, Harlem Godfather: The Rap on My Husband, Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson.
Serving as St. Clair’s bodyguard and chief enforcer, Johnson murdered and kidnapped over 40 people during this time, but the duo’s war against the mob was futile: Schultz and his associates had the law on their side and ultimately dominated the illegal gambling operations in Harlem. However, Schultz’s days were numbered due to his deceptive financial practices, which caused bad blood within the mob ranks. Luciano ordered a hit on Schultz, who was shot to death in 1935.
Around the same time, St. Clair — who was in desperate need to lay low and steer clear of authorities — decided to hand over her business to Johnson. Now that Schultz was out of the way, Johnson and Luciano, who were once staunch enemies, made an alliance, allowing 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.
“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….,” wrote Hatcher in Harlem Godfather. “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.”
Godfather of Harlem
Even though the community greatly feared Johnson, they also loved and respected him. Often referred to as Robin Hood, Johnson gave to the most vulnerable among his fellow Harlemites, handing out free turkeys during Thanksgiving and delivering meals and gifts.
In 1951, Johnson received a 15-year prison sentence for conspiring to sell heroin in New York, serving most of his time at Alcatraz Prison in San Francisco Bay, California. He was released from prison in 1963, five years before his death.
With a rap sheet of over 40 arrests in his lifetime, Johnson found himself under the watchful eye of authorities. Enraged by their relentless surveillance, he staged a sit-down strike at a police station in 1965. Although he was charged for refusing to leave the station, he was later acquitted.
While eating soul food at a restaurant in Harlem, Johnson died of a heart attack during the wee hours of July 7, 1968. It was said he was surrounded by confidants and died in the arms of his childhood friend, Junie Byrd.
Movies, TV and Portrayals in Hollywood
With his renegade criminal background, philanthropy and love for flashy clothes and poetry, Johnson was a character that Hollywood couldn’t deny. Among the films that have portrayed him include The Cotton Club (1994), The Hoodlum (1997) and American Gangster (2007).
On the small screen, Johnson is portrayed by Forest Whitaker in the 2019 series The Godfather of Harlem.
Johnson married Hatcher in 1948. Hatcher was born in North Carolina in 1914 (other sources say 1915) and moved to New York in 1938, where she waited tables and later became a hostess. Ten years later, she bumped into Johnson, who had just come out of serving a 10-year stint in prison. The couple took to each other instantly and married three months later. Hatcher died in 2009.