Ellsworth ‘Bumpy’ Johnson. (Photo by Wikimedia Images).
Since the beginning of time, crime has always been sensational. Authors, filmmakers, and news reporters alike have profited off of the public’s love for thrilling crime tales. However, the man who seems to take the cake in terms of sensational crime is Bumpy Johnson. He has been at the center of a number of films and television shows… although, the extent of his story is hardly known. Yet, Bumpy Johnson was an incredible criminal, and most of his massive, flick-worthy crimes flew right under people’s noses. And during his time, his crimes were too haunting for the public to adore his chaos. From his petty-theft formative days to the murders and kidnappings of his adulthood, this is the tale of the infamous, widely-feared gangster, Bumpy Johnson.
The upbringing of Bumpy Johnson
On October 31st, 1905, Ellsworth Raymond Johnson was born in Charleston, South Carolina. In his youth, he coined the nickname “Bumpy” thanks to a large bump his forehead. With a nickname like that, he was already off to a rocky start. As a child, Bumpy seemed to quickly develop a short temper, aggressive tendencies, and a crummy attitude towards the world. And his brother’s story, coupled with the racist times, didn’t exactly support a stable upbringing.
Unfortunately, when Bumpy was just 10 years old, his brother, Willie, was accused of killing a white man in Charleston. Since South Carolina was far from progressive and lynchings weren’t out of the question, his parents feared for the safety of little Bumpy. So, they shipped Johnson off to live with his sister in Harlem. The sudden move didn’t stop him from getting in trouble, though; if anything, it contributed to the crime boss that Bumpy would become. As he developed a powerful hatred for white people and general discontent with society, Bumpy gradually began to grow into a criminal.
Bumpy’s chaotic plummet into crime
During his boyhood in Harlem, Bumpy committed plenty of disturbing, adult crimes. Whether it was thieving, pimping, or otherwise, he seemed incapable of engaging in childhood activities or getting into boyish trouble. Instead, he seemed riddled with a desire to cause extreme, detrimental chaos. Unsurprisingly, his actions almost always eventually caught up with him. He ended up in the slammer a copious amount of times. At the age of thirty, he had halved his time in the real world and in prison.
Considering the corruption of prisons, especially in the early 1900s, it’s not surprising that they did little to reform Bumpy. Instead, he continued to engage in criminal behaviors behind bars. From fighting with guards to thieving from other inmates, his criminal tendencies couldn’t be shaken. And while he developed a love for poetry and published some of his work in the Harlem Renaissance, he left prison in 1932 completely alone. He had no money, no occupation, and no direction…until Stephanie St. Clair walked into his life.
Talk about a power couple…
Truthfully, the reason that Bumpy isn’t a household name for his crimes was that he wasn’t the one in the spotlight. While he worked behind the scenes to commit many heinous crimes, he did so in a powerful woman’s shadow: Stephanie St. Clair. While Bumpy pulled off significant murders, kidnappings, and burglaries, Stephanie was the true face of terror. She was the head of a number of criminal enterprises throughout Harlem. She was incredibly empowered, resisting merging with the Mafia for the entirety of her reign. And for a crime-savvy man like Bumpy, she seemed to be his perfect match.
Rather than snagging a job coming out of prison, Bumpy did what he knew best: turned back to crime. He did so with the help of Stephanie, who seemed to immediately develop confidence in Bumpy. While some dispute that they were romantically involved, the nature of their personal relationship is still unclear. However, their criminal relationship quickly turned them into a powerful, widely-feared duo. And they wreaked plenty of havoc in the lives of their enemies.
When Bumpy came into Stephanie’s life, she had plenty of beef with other crime leaders. Linking up with her, Bumpy helped to wage wars against other crime bosses in the New York area, specifically Dutch Schultz. It wasn’t a bloodless battle. By the end of the feud, 40 people had been kidnapped or killed for their involvement. Bumpy orchestrated many of these murders and kidnappings behind the scenes, often committing his crimes with smooth, quiet precision. Of course, he couldn’t always evade the law…or even often. By the end of Bumpy’s life, he’d spent nearly half his life in Alcatraz, being arrested a remarkable 40 times. However, Bumpy was more than just a cold-hearted, stone-faced criminal. Despite his notorious name, he wasn’t all evil.
No, he wasn’t entirely terrible
Truthfully, Bumpy’s story stemmed from a fairly tragic place. Considering he was a victim of extreme racism from an early age, it’s hard to deny that his anger was justified. However, his life of crime certainly didn’t erase his emotions. He seemed to be aware of the conditions that seemed to set him on a path of criminal activity. While his violent influence mainly stayed in bounds of Harlem, yet he tried to be more than a vicious presence in his own community. In fact, he often went out of his way to support the underdogs of Harlem and wider New York.
With his powerful status, Bumpy Johnson often served as a sort of Robin Hood in impoverished African-American communities. He was known to deliver gifts, meals, and other essentials to these communities, including an incredible spread of turkeys on Thanksgiving. However, even those that he tried to support feared him, as the crimes he was associated with were too notorious to be ignored. As a result, even the amends that Bumpy seemed to hope to make didn’t do much to add positivity to his name. Eventually, in 1968, he died suddenly from a heart attack… though was said to have been smiling as he passed.