Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

BLACK GANGS OF HARLEM : 1920-1939

Queenie and Bumpy

Stephanie St. Clair was a black French woman from Martinique, who immigrated to America in 1912 via Marseilles, France. In 1922, St. Clair took $10,000 of her own money and opened up a numbers bank in Harlem. She became known as Queenie, throughout Manhattan, but the people of Harlem referred to her respectfully as Madame St. Clair.  

Queenie was a tall, abrasive and tough woman, with a seldom-seen gentle side, who ran the famous New York extortion gang known as The Forty Thieves. The Forty Thieves had a reputation of being so tough that even the white gangsters would not interfere with their illegal operations, or attempt to take over their turf. The gang had been around since the 19th Century and was predominantly white. Queenies infiltrating such an established, well-known gang gives credit to her persuasive powers and leadership abilities. It did not take long for her to spin off from the gang and strike out on her own. She utilized her experience and talents to set up operations as a policy banker and recruited some of Harlems blacks to support her and her growing numbers game. Within a year she was worth more than $500,000 with more than 40 runners and 10 comptrollers in her charge.

One of Queenies main recruits was a colorful character from Charleston, S.C., named Ellsworth Raymond Johnson. He had moved to Harlem with his parents when he was a small boy and was given the nickname, Bumpy, because of a large bump on the back of his head. He was a dapper gangster who always made it a point to wear the latest and best clothes and to flash a wad of cash wherever he went. Bumpy was a pimp, burglar and stickup man who possessed a recalcitrant attitude. He always carried a knife and gun, neither of which he was hesitant to use. All too often Bumpy ended up in barroom clashes over the slightest of issues. He feared nobody and did not shy from confrontations. Helen Lawrenson, in her book Stranger at the Party, remarked on Bumpys short fuse and arrogance. He never learned, however, to curb his temper or to bow his head to any man, She wrote. His negative demeanor led to his spending almost half of his life in prisons before he even reached age 30. During his interments he became an avid reader and began writing poetry. Bumpy also proved to be an incorrigible prisoner and spent one-third of a 10-year sentence in solitary confinement. Because of his attitude, he was shuttled from prison to prison until his release in 1932. When he got out he was broke and looking for work.    

Despite his tough-guy reputation, Bumpy Johnson had a soft side. It was common knowledge among Harlemites that he had often helped many of Harlems poor with secret cash donations and gifts. Queenie St. Clair liked what she saw in Bumpy, and offered him a position as henchman in her numbers racket. Always the dandy, looking for better opportunities to make more money, Bumpy joined Queenies ranks and quickly gained her trust. One of his first tasks was to confront the Bub Hewlett gang. It erupted into one of Harlems most violent and bloody gang wars. Eventually, Bumpy gained the edge and defeated Hewlett, temporarily saving the numbers game from the Mobs first takeover attempt.

Lawrence Fishburn played Bumpy Johnson in the movie Hoodlum
Lawrence Fishburn played Bumpy Johnson in the movie Hoodlum
 

The relationship between Queenie and Bumpy was strange from the beginning. Some said they had an ongoing affair and others claimed that the odd couple was only a business partnership. Bumpy never abandoned his pimping and robbery professions, both of which irritated Queenie. Still, it made no difference. Both knew what would make the numbers game a success and began expanding operations. Their expansion efforts did not go unobserved by the powers-at-large.

Categories
Advertisement