Bumpy Johnson: the Life & Crimes of the Harlem Godfather

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No history of gambling in the United States in general – and New York City in particular – would be complete without a prominent mention of Bumpy Johnson.

Bumpy Johnson
Bumpy Johnson. [Image: Wikipedia]
Gambling, and especially the numbers racket, was central to Johnson’s rise to become one of the city’s most famous, and notorious, crime bosses.

Johnson was a fascinatingly complex character. He was a Black community leader who loved to play chess and was generous towards poorer people in his neighborhood.

But he was also a violent criminal with a string of convictions, a man who went toe-to-toe with the Mafia and refused to back down.

Who Was Bumpy Johnson?

It’s fair to say that Bumpy Johnson was many things to many people during his life.

The most common definition of this complicated and nuanced character is that he was an organized crime boss who ruled Harlem for about 20 years in the mid-20th century.

He rose to prominence thanks to his involvement in the numbers game, the most popular form of illegal gambling in poor neighborhoods between the wars.

To those who crossed him during that time, he was a ruthless and fearsome individual who was happy to use violence to reinforce his power.

To rival criminals, he was a shrewd and strategic opponent who always seemed to be one move ahead of them.

But to many people in Harlem between the 1930s and the 1960s, he was a folk hero, an icon in a beleaguered Black community.

As his goddaughter Verna remembered: “Everybody loved Uncle Bumpy – unless you did something to him. Then he went crazy on you.”

Who was Bumpy Johnson? Let’s look in more detail at the many facets of an extraordinary and memorable life.

Early Life & Criminal Beginnings

Ellsworth Raymond Johnson was born on October 31, 1905, in Charleston, South Carolina, some 800 miles south of Harlem.

He got the nickname “Bumpy” because of an unusual growth on the back of his head. He was either born with this, or developed it following an accident in childhood.

South Carolina, just four decades after the end of the Civil War, was still in the grip of segregation. Racism and inequality were part of life for Black people.

From an early age, Johnson fought back. He later told an interviewer he was involved in regular “running battles with hostile white kids”.

When he was 10, his older brother Willie was accused of killing a white man.

Johnson’s parents feared for the assertive Bumpy’s safety and, at the age of 14, he was sent north to live with his sister Mabel in Harlem.

Johnson took a series of menial jobs – but he also discovered the world of illicit gambling. He played pool for money, and began shooting dice too.

He also earned a tough-guy reputation by working as a bodyguard for some big gamblers in the area.

Johnson had numerous brushes with the law, and was imprisoned several times in his twenties. It was in 1932 that he took his major step up to the criminal big time.

Bumpy Johnson & The Queen

When Bumpy Johnson came back to Harlem in 1932 after a two-and-a-half-year stretch in Sing Sing, he was broke and unemployed.

His fortunes changed when he met Stephanie St. Clair, known as the “Queen of Numbers” in that corner of New York City.

Stephanie St Clair
Stephanie St. Clair. [Image: Pinterest]
She recruited him as her enforcer, and together Bumpy Johnson and the Queen ran the numbers racket in Harlem.

Long before you could wager at the best online gambling sites and many decades before any form of gambling even became legal in New York, the numbers game was hugely popular.

Also known as the Italian lottery, the numbers racket was particularly popular in poorer areas of the city.

Gamblers would wager at a variety of illicit locations on a random three-digit number, which would be announced the next day.

Controlling the numbers game in Harlem equalled power and influence in the area and, with Johnson supplying the muscle, St. Clair maintained her supremacy.

It brought the pair into conflict with both the Mafia and local gangster Dutch Schultz. The battle for supremacy was violent and bloody, but Johnson was happy to stand and fight his corner.

As Bumpy Johnson’s wife Mayme later wrote: “Picking off Dutch Schultz’s men was easy, since there were few other white men walking around Harlem during the day.”

The Godfather of Harlem

Two things happened in the mid-1930s that propelled Bumpy Johnson to his position as the undisputed Godfather of Harlem.

The first was that St. Clair, with whom Johnson was rumored to be more than just friends, stepped away from her illegal operations and handed over control to Johnson.

The second was that the bitter, long-standing feud with Schultz ended in 1935 when the latter was murdered by associates of Mafia boss Charles “Lucky” Luciano.

Rather than continue the bloodshed, Luciano and Johnson came to an agreement that was based on commercial common sense and mutual respect.

Johnson was allowed to control all of the rackets in Harlem, as long as he handed over a slice of the profits to the Mob.

The respect between Johnson and Luciano is illustrated by the fact that they used to play chess with each other in public, outside the old YMCA in 135th Street.

Johnson once said: “If you master the game of chess, you master the game of life.”

The next strategic move he made was to expand his operations to include narcotics.

His control over all forms of organized crime within Harlem was such that no rival gang, even the Mafia, would attempt to do any illegal business in the area without consulting him first.

harlem in 1950s
1950s Harlem. [Image: The New York Public Library/Digital History]

Bumpy Johnson in Alcatraz

As the 1950s dawned, Bumpy Johnson’s power in Harlem was undisputed.

There had been a Black presence in this corner of Upper Manhattan since the 1880s, and this had grown in the decades since.

Migration from the South and from the West Indies ensured Harlem became a predominantly Black area.

It was one of the poorer parts of New York City, and some of its most hard-pressed inhabitants had reason to be grateful to Johnson, who helped with rents and distributed turkeys at Thanksgiving.

However, his illegal activities came home to roost in 1952 when he was indicted for selling heroin.

He lost his appeal against his 15-year sentence, and took up residence in the notorious Alcatraz Prison in 1954.

Johnson was prisoner No.1117 in what was considered the most secure prison in the United States, located as it was on an island in San Francisco Bay.

Alcatraz prison
Image: Wikimedia Commons

It was rumored that he played a part in one of the very few successful breakouts, immortalized in the film Escape From Alcatraz.

Unconfirmed reports suggest that he used his underworld contacts to arrange for a boat to pick up the three escapees once they made it outside the walls.

Johnson returned from California to Harlem in 1963 upon his release, and was greeted by a parade through the streets of Harlem.

Bumpy Johnson’s Family

Bumpy Johnson and his wife met in 1948, when he was 43.

Soon after meeting Mayme Hatcher at Frasier’s Restaurant, the couple married in a civil ceremony.

mayme hatcher
Bumpy Johnson’s Wife, Mayme Hatcher. [Image: Back Then]
While she faced some unwanted attention from women who envied her position, being Bumpy Johnson’s wife brought with it some considerable advantages.

Mayme wrote: “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.”

The couple remained together until Bumpy’s death in 1968, and Mayme lived until 2009. The year before her death, she wrote the book Harlem Godfather, which told the story of Johnson’s life.

Bumpy Johnson’s daughter Elise, whose name is sometimes remembered as Elease, was the only child he had with Mayme.

He had another daughter, Ruthie, from another relationship. Both of Bumpy Johnson’s daughters died in the same year, 2006.

Relationship with Malcolm X

Bumpy Johnson’s status as the Godfather of Harlem brought him into contact with a host of famous people of his time.

Among his celebrity friends were sportsmen such as Sugar Ray Robinson and singers including Billie Holiday and Cab Calloway.

When he returned home from Alcatraz in 1963, however, he found his long absence had inevitably eroded his status among the people of Harlem.

However, showing that chess-like knack for strategy that had always characterized his approach, he forged a new link with one of the biggest names in the Black civil rights movement, Malcolm X.

malcolm x
Malcolm X. [Image: NBC News]
Bumpy Johnson and Malcolm X had known each other since the 1940s, and their new link-up brought Johnson close to the civil rights cause while giving Malcolm the protection he needed.

Malcolm had recently split with the Nation of Islam and feared reprisals. However, he soon decided he shouldn’t be associated with a criminal as notorious as Johnson.

Malcolm X and Bumpy Johnson duly went their separate ways – and Malcolm was assassinated in Harlem just a few weeks later.

How Did Bumpy Johnson Die?

You might not expect someone with a story as extraordinary as Bumpy Johnson’s to die an ordinary death. But that is exactly what happened.

Johnson, by now aged 62, was at Wells Restaurant in Harlem at 2am on July 7, 1968. A waitress brought him one of his favorite meals: a chicken leg, hominy grits, and coffee.

Suddenly he clutched his chest and collapsed. He had suffered a cardiac arrest. Bumpy Johnson died in the arms of one of his oldest friends, Junie Byrd.

The circumstances of his death caused controversy when they were depicted in the movie American Gangster.

In the movie, after the collapse of Bumpy Johnson, Frank Lucas cradles him as he dies. Lucas is depicted as Johnson’s right-hand man, which angered Bumpy’s widow Mayme.

She said: “Frank wasn’t nothing but a flunky, and one that Bumpy never did really trust…Frank Lucas is a damned liar, and I want the world to know it.”

Thousands attended the funeral of Bumpy Johnson, which was held at St Martin’s Episcopal Church in Manhattan, a focal point of the African-American community in the area. He is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx.

At the time of his funeral, Bumpy Johnson’s net worth was estimated to be about $50 million – though there are some suggestions that it might have been as high as $100 million.

Bumpy Johnson in Popular Culture

One of the reasons why people still know the name Bumpy Johnson is that he has been depicted in so many films and TV shows.

The first was just three years after his death, when a character called Bumpy Jones helps the title character in the movie Shaft.

Laurence Fishburne has played Johnson on screen twice, the first time in the 1984 film The Cotton Club and then in the 1997 Bumpy Johnson movie Hoodlum.

hoodlum
Image: IMDB

The most famous recent portrayal of Johnson was by Clarence Williams III, who played him in the 2007 Ridley Scott classic, American Gangster.

Although, as we have seen, Johnson’s widow took exception to the plot of the film, particularly around the depiction of Bumpy’s death.

Bumpy Johnson: a Lasting Legacy

Anybody who plays one of today’s – strictly legal – numbers games in the New York Lottery is engaging in an activity that Bumpy Johnson helped to bring to hundreds of thousands in Harlem – strictly illegally.

While Johnson was a prominent figure in the illicit gambling market that thrived across the Five Boroughs, he is remembered more for his exploits in wider organized crime.

Some, aware of his kindness to the poor, have depicted him as a modern Robin Hood.

But that’s too simplistic a description of a violent criminal who was arrested more than 40 times and incarcerated on numerous occasions.

Nevertheless, he fostered a sense of responsibility to the Harlem community among the criminal fraternity that was undoubtedly lost after his passing.

Bumpy Johnson was a complex man, but one aspect of his character that deserves praise is that he stood up for Black people at a time when it was not easy to do so.

The modern world may not respect him for the crimes he committed, but it may for the resistance he displayed against prejudice and oppression.

Martin Booth
Sports & Casino Expert
Martin Booth
Sports & Casino Expert

Martin brings extensive experience from the gambling industry to the task of writing about global online sports betting and casino operations. He spent more than two decades in senior roles on the sports desks of UK national newspapers, then moved on to work in a B2C and B2B capacity for major gambling firms. He now runs an award-winning copywriting consultancy and has written extensively for sites such as Gambling.com, Bookies.com, Casino.org and Horseracing.co.uk. Martin has been interested in gambling for more than 50 years, ever since he had two shillings each way on Red Rum in the 1973 Grand National.