Anthropology Friday: Original Gangster, by Frank Lucas pt. 2

Welcome back to Frank Lucas and Aliya King’s Original Gangster: the real life story of one of America’s most notorious drug lords. (Given that I’d never heard of Frank Lucas before reading this book, I’m not sure how notorious he actually is, but I’ll grant that I can’t name a whole lot of drug lords off the top of my head.)

To recap: at the age of 14, Frank Lucas arrived–penniless and homeless–in NYC. He began stealing food and quickly progressed to drug dealing and armed robbery:

I was crazy. I didn’t care about anything except where my next dollar was coming from and how I was going to spend it… I heard through the grapevine that I had at least five contracts out on my life. From the grocery-store owner to the group of gangsters I’d robbed at the gambling spot,* people were straight up making deals and promising money to anyone who would kill em dead in the street.

*Not a good idea.

I should mention here that I was all of seventeen years old.

I wasn’t afraid to die. More than that, I just didn’t care about dying. I was young, tough, good-looking, and strong. I was prepared to do whatever I had to do to live. If that meant killing anyone who tried to kill me, so be it.

I have a friend who was homeless for many years. During that time, he never held up a liquor store or so much as picked a pocket. He ate at soup kitchens and slept in homeless shelters, and while the food was dull and the environs terrible, he didn’t starve and he is very much still alive. Of course, the charity situation in NYC in the 40s may have been different, but I have not heard of their homeless just starving to death. Theft is not necessary for survival.

On the other hand, Frank Lucas was homeless for a far shorter time than my friend, and ended up with far more money.

For several weeks, I was a wanted man. But if you’d run into me at one of my Harlem hangouts you’d never have known it by looking at me. I was calm, cool. and collected. I woke up every morning ready to kill on sight. …

I continued robbing whoever and wherever, getting my money up, and I was still dating any woman I wanted.

Lack of fear is one of the signs of psychopathy (especially since psychopaths experience low emotional affect in general.) As Wikipedia puts it:

People scoring 25 or higher in the PCL-R, with an associated history of violent behavior, appear on average to have significantly reduced microstructural integrity between the white matter connecting the amygdala and orbitofrontal cortex (such as the uncinate fasciculus). The evidence suggested that the degree of abnormality was significantly related to the degree of psychopathy and may explain the offending behaviors. …

Additionally, the notion of psychopathy being characterized by low fear is consistent with findings of abnormalities in the amygdala, since deficits in aversive conditioning and instrumental learning are thought to result from amygdala dysfunction, potentially compounded by orbitofrontal cortex dysfunction, although the specific reasons are unknown.

Back to Lucas:

I think we need to recap right here before I go any further. I come up to Harlem in the mid-1940s, just barely a teenager. I start robbing and stealing, move on to selling heroin, and within a few years, I’d made and lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. … And I took it straight to the gambling and pool halls throughout my neighborhood and lost every penny.

Here are the 20 items from Robert Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist:

Glib and superficial charm
Grandiose self-estimation
Pathological lying
Cunning and manipulativeness

Need for stimulation
Impulsivity / Irresponsibility
Poor behavioral controls
Lack of (realistic) long-term goals
Many short-term marital relationships / Sexual promiscuity

Lack of remorse or guilt / Lack of empathy
Shallow affect (superficial emotional responsiveness)
Failure to accept responsibility for own actions

Parasitic lifestyle
Early behavioral problems / Juvenile delinquency
Revocation of conditional release
Criminal versatility

Lucas does eventually get married, love his wife, provide for a couple of his many children, and feel remorse for selling the heroin that killed many people. But that’s later. At 17, he was wondering if he could get in on the murder-for-hire business:

I wondered if Icepick needed a little help in the kill-for-hire business. I would have killed someone for twenty-five thousand dollars. … It’s the mind frame I was in at the time. … It was kill or be killed, as far as I was concerned.

Icepick Red was wanted by the police for walking up to people in the streets and sticking icepicks into their chests, presumably in exchange for money. Lucas tries to talk to Icepick, but Icepick (who does not come across as the sanest guy) won’t even acknowledge his presence. (Later in the book, one of Lucas’s wives–upon realizing that he was going to be a terrible father–has an abortion, and Lucas has the temerity to object that killing fetuses is immoral.)

I wanted to find a picture for you of Icepick–or even the original newspaper article about him–but so far nothing specific has come up. I did, however, find an article confirming that icepicks were a popular murder weapon about this time:

Just when it seemed the ice pick served no purpose, a Brooklyn organized-crime syndicate, known as Murder Incorporated, found a deliberately sinister use for the otherwise antiquated tool. Historians estimate that the gangster ring carried out 400 to 1,000 contract killings. In more than a few cases, the victim met with his death at the end of an ice pick.

According to newspaper accounts, two young Brooklyn “underworld characters” were found dead in a vacant lot in New Jersey in 1932. Their bodies, each stabbed at least 20 times with an ice pick, were stuffed into sewn sacks. One victim had only one cent in his pocket.

In 1944, a jury found Jacob Drucker guilty of the murder of Walter Sage, a Brooklyn moneylender whose body was found “riddled with ice-pick holes” and strapped to a slot machine frame.

“Let me put it to you this way,” said a former New York City police detective. “An ice pick stabbed through the temple and through the brains was not uncommon in homicides.”

Back then, mobsters used ice picks not only because the tool was easy to get and did the job … but also because an ice pick instilled fear. It was employed to send a message, said the detective, Thomas D. Nerney, 72, who joined the New York Police Department in 1966 and worked in virtually every homicide squad in the city before retiring in 2002.

“Murder is not only to take somebody’s life away, but to terrorize,” Mr. Nerney said. …”That was the message that went out to the people who didn’t comply with the rules of the Mafia.”

Ellsworth Raymond “Bumpy” Johnson (10/31/1905 – 7/7/1968)

A little later, Lucas and Icepick Red got into a tense situation over a game of pool, when Bumpy Johnson stepped in (and, according to Lucas, saved his life):

I’d never seen him before. But anyone living in Harlem knew the name Bumpy Johnson. I’d read his name in the paper a few time and I knew that if anyone in Harlem wanted to do any kind of big business, he had to come see Bumpy Johnson first. Or die. …

I only knew the basics about Bumpy stuff I’d heard in the streets. He was from South Carolina. And I’d heard that he wasn’t a typical gangster. He worked the streets but he wasn’t of the streets. He was refined and classy, more like a businessman with a legitimate career than most people in the underworld. I could tell by looking at him that he was a lot different than most people I saw in the streets. …

From that day until the day he died, my place was at the right side of Bumpy Johnson. I went where he went. I did whatever he told me to do. I listened, I observed, and I learned. I didn’t ask questions. I only followed commands and order. And I learned everything about how the King of Harlem ran his enterprises.

Stephanie St. Clair

There’s some debate over how much Lucas actually worked for Bumpy. Bumpy’s wife, Mayme, tells the story differently. (Here’s an interesting story about Bumpy from Mayme’s POV.)

I’m not sure if Icepick Red was a real person, or multiple people rolled into one character, but Bumpy was definitely real. He moved to Harlem in 1919, and became an enforcer for Stephanie St. Clair, herself, fascinating. St. Clair, born in 1886 in Martinique of French and African parentage, became one of Harlem’s only female mob bosses. According to Wikipedia:

After the end of Prohibition, Jewish and Italian-American crime families saw a decrease in profits and decided to move in on the Harlem gambling scene. Bronx-based mob boss Dutch Schultz was the first to move in, beating and killing numbers operators who would not pay him protection.

Saint-Clair and her chief enforcer Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson refused to pay protection to Schultz, despite the violence and intimidation by police they faced. St. Clair responded by attacking the storefronts of businesses that ran Dutch Schultz’s betting operations and tipping off the police about him. This resulted in the police raiding his house, arresting more than a dozen of his employees and seizing approximately $12 million (about $216 million in 2016 currency). Saint-Clair never submitted to Dutch Schultz like many others in Harlem eventually did.

After Saint-Clair’s struggles with Schultz, she had to keep clean and away from police, so she handed off her business to “Bumpy” Johnson. Eventually her former enforcer negotiated with Lucky Luciano, and Lucky took over Schultz’s spots, with a percentage going to “Bumpy”. The Italians then had to go to “Bumpy” first if they had any problems in Harlem.

Luciano realized that the struggle with the Five Families was hurting their business, so Schultz was assassinated in 1935 on the orders of The Commission. Saint-Clair sent an insulting telegram to his hospital bed as the gangster lay dying. By the 1940s, “Bumpy” Johnson had become the reigning king in Harlem, while Saint-Clair became less and less involved in the numbers game.

Let’s return to Lucas’s account:

If you wanted to do business in Harlem, you went through Bumpy. And you paid him a percentage of your profits for the benefits of being in business in the neighborhood. It was like property tax–hazard insurance. If you didn’t want your hardware store, beauty salon, or grocery to go up in flames in the dead of night, you collected your fee every month and passed it off to one of Bumpy’s associates…

I saw a variety of celebrities come into his brownstone to visit. I saw the actor Sidney Poitier in the sitting room one afternoon, talking with Bumpy. On other occasions, I saw people like Billy Daniels and Billy Eckstine in the formal dining room for dinner. Of course, I never had conversation with these people. That wasn’t my place…

years later, I’d hear about how Bumpy Johnson was supposedly a big time drug dealer. I put my life on this statement right here: I didn’t know nothing about Bumpy and drugs. He never whispered a word to me about it and I was with him from first thing in the morning till late at night. I’m not saying he wasn’t. I’m just saying that if he was, he did it all without me hearing a word about it. …

Bumpy didn’t just shake down businesses in Harlem. If anyone made any money doing anything illegal, Bumpy was owed a piece of that, too. Soon after I started working for him, some guys from Harlem pulled a job off out in the Midwest, robbed some diamonds from somewhere. And they sent Bumpy his share of the heist. That kind of thing happened quite often.

The story of Icepick Red comes to an end after Icepick murders one of Bumpy’s associates and rapes the deceased’s wife. Bumpy sends Lucas and some of his other men to do what the police couldn’t: bring Icepick in. Bumpy proceeds to chain Icepick to a pipe and sic a couple of jars of fire ants on him. Icepick is eaten alive.

(Despite Icepick’s crimes, Lucas expresses horror at the nature of his murder, noting that he wishes he had just shot Icepick when they cornered him.)

Whether Icepick was real or a composite, I still wonder it took someone like Bumpy–not the police–to bring him down. Was it only in the 90s that the police got serious about stopping criminals, instead of occasionally beating them up and then returning them to the streets?

I’m running low on time, so that’s all for today. See you next Friday!


5 thoughts on “Anthropology Friday: Original Gangster, by Frank Lucas pt. 2

    • I was walking through the bookstore the other day and noticed that almost every single book in there seemed to be overstating its own case. There’s just so much competition in the book market, I think sellers feel like they have to make the books sound extra exciting and sensational just to sell any.


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