January 20, 2021 – HBO’s critically acclaimed cop drama, The Wire, was inspired by the Baltimore Police Department’s quest to dismantle the “Little Melvin” Williams drug empire on the city’s Westside in the 1990s as seen firsthand by newspaper crime reporter turned Hollywood scribe David Simon.
Premiering in 2002, the setting of the show was pushed up into modern day and Little Melvin was reimagined as fictional drug lord Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris). The Barksdale story line ran for the first three seasons of the show, which ended in 2008 and appeared on several Best of the Decade lists for prestige TV.
Avon Barksdale might be a fictional character, but the Barksdale family name is as real as it gets on the streets of Baltimore. Dante (Tater) Barksdale, 46, a one-time Barksdale crew member who had crafted a successful post D-boy career as a community activist in the city’s Safe Streets program, was murdered last weekend in a southeast Baltimore housing project.
Nate (Bodie) Barksdale was a street legend with few equals in the annals of the Baltimore underworld. Bodie Barksdale’s was Tater’s uncle and Little Melvin Williams’ top enforcer. The character of Preston “Bodie” Broadus (J.D. Williams) in The Wire is partially based on Bodie Barksdale
Simon’s brilliant, exquisitely researched five-part investigative series on the Little Melvin phenomenon in West Baltimore, Easy Money: Anatomy of a Drug Empire, ran in the Baltimore Sun in 1987 and eventually served as the source material for The Wire.
Simon’s writing partner is Ed Burns, a former Baltimore Police Department detective responsible for finally bringing the Little Melvin Williams heroin kingdom tumbling down to the ground in 1984. Long retired from his life as a dope boss, Williams had a recurring role on the series as a community religious leader known as “The Deacon.”
Little Melvin Williams died of cancer in December 2015. Bodie Barksdale joined him in gangster heaven a year later.
The mythology of Little Melvin and Bodie Barksdale will never die though. On the streets of West Baltimore, they are revered and their memories hailed and cherished.
The legend of Little Melvin Williams began in the 1960s, with Williams emerging on “The Block,” as a flamboyant pimp, pool hustler and policy lottery lieutenant working for the city of Baltimore’s Jewish mob boss Julius (The Lord) Salisbury. Through Salisbury, Little Melvin met Meyer Lansky and members of the Gambino crime family in New York and saw how the Italians – by way of employing the Jewish Lansky’s blueprint – structured their organization through buffers and secret codes. Little Melvin was used by Salisbury as a messenger and courier to Gambinos in Brooklyn, according to FBI documents.
Salisbury also introduced Little Melvin to the city’s Black racket bosses, men like Joseph (Proposition Joe) Johnson and Charles (Cherry Red) Franklin. The character “Prop Joe” Stewart, played by Robert Chew, on The Wire was based on “Prop Joe” Johnson, the Eastside boss always quick to lay out a proposition to resolve a dispute.
Little Melvin branched off on his own in the 1970s. He teamed up with Lamont (Chin) Farmer in 1979 and the rest was history. Chin Farmer is the real-life “Stringer Bell,” the deliberate, cool-headed and studious right-hand man of Avon Barksdale played by Idris Elba in The Wire. Farmer took college business courses and to build out Little Melvin’s infrastructure and set protocol.
With Farmer masterminding an intricate communication system using pagers and punch-code sequences on payphones as a means of counteracting police surveillance methods and Bodie Barksdale and his partner in crime, Roland (Ronnie Mo) Bell, providing the muscle. Little Melvin took over the whole Westside of Baltimore. The base of operations for Little Melvin’s crew was in the Lexington Terrace housing projects, where he would show up driving his Maserati and wearing a fur coat.
The Baltimore PD and the DEA suspected the Little Melvin Williams drug empire was clearing $1,000,000 in profits per week in 1982 and 1983. Per police surveillance records, he spent most of his days at his hangout, The Underground Club, a seedy drug den and go-go bar.
The beginning of the end for Little Melvin and his crew were a string of revenge slayings, including the headline grabbing murder of a girlfriend of Little Melvin lieutenant Louis (Cookie) Savage, a man who robbed Cookie Savage, the Club Chandelier killings and the Frank Harper hit. Ed Burns and his BPD drug unit, undertaking a painstaking process of analytics and informant development, finally broke Chin Farmer’s communication code after nearly four years. The case dropped in 1984.
Frank Harper was Bodie Barksdale’s mentor in the drug game. Prop Joe Johnson was gunned down in the Club Chandelier double homicide that also took the life of the club’s owner. Club Chandelier was Prop Joe’s headquarters.
Besides just Prop Joe, Bodie Barksdale, Chin Farmer and Little Melvin, other characters in The Wire universe were inspired by the colorful rogue’s gallery of underworld figures that filled the Williams organization from top to bottom.
“Ronnie Mo” became a character. Little Melvin’s close friends, El Dorado Strip Club owner, Kenny (Bird) Jackson and messenger James (Big Head Brother) Carter, got The Wire name checks as well.
Ed Burns’ role in the Williams investigation was portrayed in the series by actor Dominic West as hard-charging Baltimore PD drug-unit cop Jimmy McNulty. The 1999 movie Liberty Heights features a character named Little Melvin played by Orlando Jones based on Williams at the start of his career as a young Baltimore hoodlum pimping and running numbers.
Little Melvin Williams was found guilty at trial in 1985. He was paroled in the 1990s and would go on to do another four-year term in prison for pistol-whipping a debtor. Bodie Barksdale came out of prison in the late 1990s and eventually found his way back to the drug game and ended up returning to the penitentiary to live out his final years.