Born October 31, 1905, in Charleston, South Carolina, Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson would go on notoriety as an enforcer and kingpin in Harlem’s underworld. At an early age his older brother Willie was sent from South Carolina after he was said to have killed a White man.
Johnson himself would be sent to Harlem in 1919 to stay with his sister. This is because of the possibility that his temper and disdain for White people could get him killed. Little did they know that young Bumpy Johnson would end up in a violent world regardless.
Working Under Madame St. Clair
During his early years in Harlem, Johnson did legit odd jobs and gambled. It wasn’t until his involvement with a small-timer named Bub Hewlett that became an enforcer. This line of work landed in him in jail for lengthy stretches multiple times.
He came into the association of Madame St. Clair in the late 1920s working as her main enforcer. Johnson went to prison for a period before returning to Harlem in 1932. He would find himself in the middle of a looming war over the gambling rackets as Bronx-based boss Dutch Schultz rolled in. He had made his fortune during Prohibition but with restrictions lifted, Schultz and other mobsters lost money.
Moving in on Harlem, he managed to scoop up the business of Casper Holstein and others but Madame St. Clair wouldn’t be bought or bend. She had the backing of Bumpy Johnson who led the assault on several Schultz businesses after St. Clair’s were attacked.
King of Harlem
By 1935, Schultz was out of commission, assassinated by Lucky Luciano and The Commission. This effectively ended the rackets war in Harlem. Madame St. Clair handed the reigns of her operation over to Bumpy Johnson. He would in turn strike up a deal with Lucky Luciano to keep Black-operated rackets independent while kicking payments to the Mafia.
Johnson had close associations with many Black celebrities of the time and remained close to Madame St. Clair. It is also said that he was the mentor of future crime boss Frank Lucas. While most answered to Johnson, he had an ongoing feud with an extremely violent mob boss named Red Dillard. This ended with Dillard going to jail for several year in 1950.
Retirement and Death
Bumpy Johnson would be arrested in 1952 for conspiracy to sell heroin. Originally sentenced to 15 years at Alcatraz, this was the last of his three stints on drug-related charges. He was released in 1963 and spent his last years living with Madame St. Clair.
By the late 1960s, Harlem’s underworld had shifted more towards the drug trade and would see a dramatic change in how business was done in the following decade. Johnson passed on July 7, 1968 as a result of heart failure. At the time of his death he was in the midst of another drug-related indictment.
His life and those of his contemporaries have been depicted in films such as Hoodlum, The Cotton Club, and American Gangster.