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Ellsworth Johnson

Updated: Feb 14

Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson was a notorious mobster based out of Harlem, New York from the early 1930s to the late 1960s.

Ellsworth Raymond "Bumpy" Johnson Born: October 31, 1905, Charleston, SC Died: July 7, 1968, Harlem, New York, NY Nicknames: Bumpy Associates: Stephanie Saint-Clair, Charles "Lucky" Luciano

At the young age of 10, Johnson was forced out of his home in Charleston and relocated to Harlem in order to protect himself and his siblings after his older brother was accused of killing a white man. Johnson quickly grew accustomed to the harsh streets of Harlem and by the time he was 30 he had spent the majority of his time in prison.

After being released from prison in 1932, Johnson began looking for quick work. Through this, he landed a major opportunity with the nefarious gambler and numbers racketeer, Stephanie Saint-Clair. The two worked well together, with Johnson quickly becoming her principal lieutenant. Johnson would do most of the dirty work behind-the-scenes (number running, homicides, kidnappings, burglaries, etc.) while Saint-Clair would deal with other mobs and law enforcement.

Johnson and Saint-Clair would eventually organize a war against Dutch Schultz a Jewish German mobster. During the war, approximately 40 people were either murdered or kidnapped. The war was eventually put to a stop, but not by either side. Charles "Lucky" Luciano, the infamous mobster legend, put a hit on Dutch Schultz, ultimately ending the war. This hit was placed on Schultz after he went against orders of the Mafia syndicate to kill Thomas Dewey, a lawyer/politician who convicted Schultz of tax evasion previously. Luciano would let Johnson continue running the Harlem number games as long as the Italian mob got a cut of the profits. Moreover, to sweeten the deal Johnson would have the protection of the Italian mafia.

Johnson’s wife stated that, “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.”

Johnson, with their deal, continued to rule over Harlem until his imprisonment in 1952 for drug (heroin) related crimes. He would be sentenced to 15 years, where he would spend the majority of it at Alcatraz, but would be released early in 1963. Some people suspect that he would aid the famous escape of the three inmates in 1962, however, there is no conclusive evidence to back this up.

After his release, Johnson found Harlem in a completely different state. Drugs plagued the streets worse than they had previously. After being constantly patrolled by the NYPD, Johnson would protest in a police station by sitting and refusing to leave. His charges would later be acquitted. After a long and prosperous life as a gangster, Johnson would die on July 7, 1968, from congestive heart failure at around 2 in the morning. Even after 60 years since his passing many films and television series have taken inspiration from his experiences and attempted to portray his fascinating past.

Some of the most notable references are Ridley Scott’s ​American Gangster (2007) and the television show G​odfather of Harlem​ (2019). Other Film and Television References:

  • ● “In the 1971 film ​Shaft,Moses Gunn portrays "Bumpy Jonas", a character based upon Johnson.

  • ● In the 1972 film ​Come Back Charleston Blue,​ the title character is loosely based on Bumpy Johnson, a criminal who is looked upon as a positive role model among the people.

  • ● In the 1979 film ​Escape from Alcatraz​, Paul Benjamin plays a character based on Bumpy Johnson, "English".

  • ● In the 1984 film ​The Cotton Club,​ Laurence Fishburne plays a character based on Bumpy Johnson, "Bumpy Rhodes".

  • ● In the 1997 film ​Hoodlum,​ Johnson is again portrayed by Fishburne.

  • ● In the 1999 film ​Life​, musician Rick James plays a Harlem gangster, "Spanky Johnson", who was loosely inspired by Bumpy Johnson.” #wikipedia

Written by Sean D. Harless for @MobCity Productions Inc.

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