Who was Bumpy Johnson? How real-life gangster's story inspired Epix series 'Godfather of Harlem'

'Godfather of Harlem' follows the crime syndicate in neighborhood of Harlem. However, the EPIX series is based on a real-life story of the gangster Bumpy Johnson


                            Who was Bumpy Johnson? How real-life gangster's story inspired Epix series 'Godfather of Harlem'
Bumpy Johnson (real life) and Forest Whitaker as Bumpy in 'Godfather of Harlem' (Wikipedia/EPIX)

‘Godfather of Harlem’ is undoubtedly one of the finest shows on television right now and features a lot of engaging characters. The show revolves around crime boss Bumpy Johnson (Forest Whitaker) and how he wants to rule Harlem once again after being in prison for 10 years. The show is a collision of the criminal underworld and the civil rights movement during one of the most tumultuous times in American history.

Season 1 of the Epix crime drama received universal acclaim and has received nominations at the Golden Globes and NAACP Images Awards. But not a lot of people know that the main protagonist of the show is actually inspired by a real-life gangster. The 10-episode series picks up in 1963, immediately after his 11-year sentence in Alcatraz on a drug conspiracy charge. Let’s take a closer look at who was Bumpy Johnson and how he inspired the Epix crime drama.

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Who was Bumpy Johnson?

Born on October 31, 1905, in Charleston, South Carolina, Ellsworth Raymond “Bumpy” Johnson received the nickname “bumpy” because of a bump on the back of his head. His family moved north when he was just 10 to avoid a lynch mob when his older brother was accused of killing a White man. He was really short-tempered and did not like White people. After seeing his insolence towards Whites, his family decided to send him to Harlem to live with his sister. However, it was just the beginning of his life of crime.

Gangster Bumpy Johnson (Wikipedia)


Johnson dropped out of high school and began working intractable jobs. One of the gangsters, William Hewett, began noticing Johnson and decided to hire him. He started working for Hewett and started to make his name in the crime syndicate. He spent much of his 20s in and out of prison, but truly made a name for himself in the 1930s when he was recruited by the Harlem mob boss Stephanie St. Claire, aka “The Queen of Numbers.”

He quickly became Stephanie’s right hand and started to overlook all the illegal gambling business. People from other gangs wanted to kill him and believed that if he is dead, Stephanie’s empire might fall. Johnson was never worried about his life and was at the forefront of the turf wars against Dutch Shultz, the Jewish mobster.

Stephanie St. Clair, aka 'The Queen of Numbers' (Wikipedia)

After the death of Shultz, Johnson formed an alliance with the Italian mafia and became one of the first Black gangsters to work with the Italian mob. The alliance would go on to last for decades. The alliance helped him in expanding the illegal narcotics business and also made him the kingpin of Harlem.

Apart from being crowned the kingpin of Harlem, he also attained celebrity status in the entire country. In 1952, he was also featured in the celebrity section of one of the country’s leading magazines.

Johnson’s personal life

The gangster from Harlem married Mayme Hatcher just six months from their first time meeting each other. They were married in October 1948. Johnson had two daughters, Ruthie and Elease, the latter of whom was from another relationship.

His real-life friendship with Malcolm X

World-renowned human rights activist Malcolm X and Johnson met in the 1940s and shared a strong friendship. According to Time, Johnson also provided Malcolm X with protection when he decided to separate himself from the leaders of the Nation of Islam in 1964.

Malcolm X (Getty Images)


It is believed that Malcolm X told Johnson that they should not remain friends as their friendship might damage his reputation. Johnson removed his guards and two weeks later, the human rights activist was assassinated by fellow members of the Nation of the Islam.

Johnson’s time at the Alcatraz and his return to Harlem

Johnson was quickly becoming a big name in the underworld. Apart from doing illegal business, he was also a stone-cold killer and showed no mercy to his enemies. In 1952, Johnson was sentenced to 15 years in prison for a drug conspiracy conviction related to heroin. The infamous crime boss spent his time at the Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary in California.

Bumpy Johnson (YouTube)


He served the majority of that sentence as inmate No.1117 and was released in 1963 on parole. He returned to Harlem and once again started reigning the neighborhood. However, he faced a lot of challenges from the other mob families this time around. Johnson was arrested more than 40 times and served two prison terms for narcotics-related charges. 

He died of congestive heart failure on July 7, 1968, at the age of 62.

“Godfather of Harlem’ returns to Epix with Season 2 on Sunday, April 18.

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