History Of The Numbers Biz In MoTown: The Detroit Mafia & Boxing Champ Joe Louis

The Detroit Italian mob’s Corrado crew staged a takeover of the city’s African-American policy racket in the mid-1940s upon the imprisonment of local Black underworld chiefs, Everett (Monk) Watson and Johnny (Big Roxie) Roxborough, for running multi-million dollar numbers lotteries, per Roxborough’s FBI file. At that time, the Corrado crew was headed by regime namesake Pietro (Machine Gun Pete) Corrado, the brother-in-law and top enforcer for Motown’s longtime Godfather Giuseppe (Joe Uno) Zerilli. Roxborough was legendary World Heavyweight Boxing Champion Joe Louis’ mentor and manager, plucking him as a teen out of the Brewster Projects Recreational Center where Roxborough volunteered as a youth sports counselor and molding him into a historic title holder and all-time great pugilist.

Watson was Roxborough’s business partner and co-policy czar in two loosely-connected numbers operations generating 10-to-15 million dollars a year in profits.They both took buyouts from the Italians following their respective releases from behind bars in late 1946, according to state police records regarding Machine Gun Pete’s long list of illegal businesses.

The mafia’s takeover of the numbers was a bloodless coup, the reputation of Corrado and his henchmen like  Dominic (Sparky) Corrado – his first cousin – Joseph (Joe Scarface) Bommarito, Joe (The Whip) Triglia, Frank (The Iceberg) DiMaggio, Salvatore (Tootie) Buffa, Michael (Mike the Killer) Grillo, Peter (Pete the Greek) Katranis, the Vitale brothers (Paul & Pete) and the Giacalone brothers (Tony & Billy) preceded themselves, causing little resistance. Bommarito and Triglia were on loan from the crime family’s Licavoli crew for the sole purpose of helping with the numbers siege

During Joe Louis’ rise to the apex of the prize-fighting profession and the epicenter of pop-culture fame and prestige, he and Roxborough were forced to do business with the mafia. In Detroit, like in many American metropolises throughout most of the Twentieth Century, the pro boxing scene was controlled by the mob and if you were intending to make a living in the industry, you at the very least, couldn’t help but rub elbows with Italian Mafiosi. Louis, flanked by Roxborough, was observed dining with Zerilli, Corrado and their gangland partner, Vito (Black Bill) Tocco by Michigan State Police surveillance teams.

The Motor City Boxing Gym was owned by and acted as the headquarters for Detroit mob captain Salvatore (Little Sammy) Finazzo, the region’s overlord of the sport – if you wanted to book fights in Detroit, a hub of pro prize-fighting in the country for years, you had to go through Finazzo. It was Finazzo, per state police records, that the Corrado crew used to act as a go-between with Watson and Roxborough’s representatives on the street when they began moving into the city’s Paradise Valley neighborhood. Watson managed and staked local pro boxers, too.

Johnny Roxborough (far left) & his protégé Joe Louis (second from right)

Johnny Roxborough (far left) & his protégé Joe Louis (second from right)

Paradise Valley, aka, “Black Bottom,” was the central entertainment district for Detroit’ African-American population from Prohibition up until the 1960s, home to nearly two dozen nightclubs, taverns and after-hours establishments. Watson and Roxborough could often be found holding court at the area’s always-happening Gotham Hotel, an artistic and cultural hotbed for minorities in the 1940s and 50s. The Gotham Hotel was also a high-stakes gambling den, raided by authorities in 1962 and shut down a year later.The Norwood Hotel was another popular spot for Paradise Valley hoodlums to congregate and run numbers out of.

The Corrado crew headquartered its activities out of the primary downtown entertainment district based around Monroe Street known as Greektown at the Corrado family-owned Grecian Gardens Italian Restaurant. The crew’s nerve center would eventually move several blocks north to the St. Antoinette Coffee Shop, leaving Greektown to the Vitale brothers, the on-site shot callers at Grecian Gardens.

Machine Gun Pete Corrado died of a sudden heart attack in 1957, but his son Anthony (Tony the Bull) Corrado and his grandson, Paul (Big Paulie) Corrado were at the center of the groundbreaking Operation GameTax indictment, which was filed in federal court in Michigan in March 1996 and celebrates its 20-year anniversary this month. The bust, a first of its kind in the region, ensnared 17 people and the bulk of the crime family’s then-hierarchy. Sixteen of the 17 co-defendants were convicted and jailed, headlined by boss and underboss Giacomo (Black Jack) Tocco and Anthony (Tony Z) Zerilli, the sons of Black Bill and Joe Uno.

The gargantuan-sized, gregarious, yet quite fearsome and capable Tony the Bull Corrado, a capo who tipped the scales at well over 300 pounds and had taken command of his family’s regime upon the death of his big brother Dominic (Fats) Corrado of cancer in 1985, still held interests in the local numbers business, at the time Operation GameTax dropped 20 years ago. The once-robust numbers rackets was severely undercut by the legalization of state lotteries across the country in the 1980s, however in auto-industry driven Detroit the racket has remained prominent in the area’s 24-hour car and parts-manufacturing factories.

Tony the Bull died in prison in 2002. Big Paulie Corrado, a foot soldier, Fats Corrado’s son and Tony the Bull’s nephew, was in charge of overseeing street-level shakedowns for a faction of the Detroit mafia in the early-to-mid 1990s, including the extortion of the various strip clubs that dot the city’s famous 8 Mile Road corridor. Convicted alongside his uncle at trial in 1998, he did 12 years in prison and is alleged to have since “gone legit.”

Per state police documents related to the history of the policy lottery in Detroit, a Missouri-native named Frank (St. Louis Geech) Loftis, was the town’s first big numbers kingpin, reigning during Prohibition. Monk Watson was Loftis’ No. 1 lieutenant. Roxborough, a former aspiring pro athlete-turned-racketeer, businessman and boxing impresario, got his start in the Paradise Valley policy game working for Loftis. When Loftis retired and left the state in the 1930s, he passed the torch of his numbers empire to Watson and Roxborough.

Watson ran a policy bank he called “The Yellow Dog House,” and spent time at his Cherokee Farms vacation estate in Grass Lake, near Jackson, Michigan, where he would host decadent, star-studded weekend getaways attended by the likes of African-American high-society luminaries Joe Louis, Jesse Owens, Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Louie Armstrong, Langston Hughes, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. Roxborough headed a policy operation called “The Big Four Mutual,” using a series of real estate endeavors and Great Lakes Mutual Insurance Company and Superior Life Insurance Society of Michigan as his fronts. Sometimes Roxborough’s policy bank was referred to as the “Great Lakes Numbers Bank.”

Policy slip from Monk Watson's Yellow Dog numbers bank

Policy slip from Monk Watson’s Yellow Dog numbers bank

Together, Watson and Roxborough co-owned the Waiter’s and Bellmen’s Club, a social club, dice and card hall and underworld hangout, the site of a 1935 meeting of African-American hoodlums to discuss consolidation efforts and methods of keeping the Italian mob element out of Paradise Valley, according to Watson’s FBI jacket. Whatever methods they chose to try and employ, they only lasted for so long.

The first shoe to drop in Watson’s and Roxborough’s downfall came as the result of a suicide. On August 5, 1939, a woman named Janet McDonald killed herself and her daughter by carbon monoxide poisoning after a fight with her boyfriend, Bill McBride, a Detroit gangster bagman and payoff specialist. McDonald left a suicide note behind implicating McBride and a number of high-profile politicians and law enforcement officials in wrongdoing. In 1940, 135 people were charged in the so-called Ferguson Grand Jury Investigation undertaken by a one-man panel made up of Judge Homer Ferguson alone. Watson, Roxborough, a former Mayor of Detroit (Richard Reading, whose embroilment in the scandal led to his landslide loss in the next election), Wayne County Sheriff and DPD Superintendent were all convicted of graft in a highly-publicized trial in December 1941.

Almost immediately after Watson and Roxborough were sent away to prison in 1944, the Italians moved in and swooped up their gambling territory and merged the multiple numbers businesses run by numerous Black policy bosses under Watson’s and Roxborough’s banner into one ran by the Corrado crew, according to state police records. Unlike in other cities, such as New York and Chicago, the Italian mob’s seizure of the African-American policy racket in Michigan was pulled off with little-to-no strife, bloodshed or bucking by the Black hoodlums who were for all intents and purposes being colonized.

Watson’s Yellow Dog numbers bank became the Corrado crew-operated Murphy House policy pad, Roxborough’s Great Lakes Bank was rechristened the White Star House and given to then Detroit mafia consigliere Giovanni (Papa John) Priziola in what was pretty much a seamless transition of leadership. Priziola used the syndicate’s tie-in to Paradise Valley to develop drug-pushing contacts that he could feed with heroin to sell for him in the city’s neighborhoods in and around Black Bottom. Priziola’s right-hand man, Raffaele (Jimmy Q) Quasarano, was partners with Little Sammy Finazzo in the Motor City Boxing Gym and in staking a number of fighters, not to mention the lucrative narcotics transactions they engaged in together with Papa John, per state police files.

The Corrados’ point man in the post-takeover Detroit numbers industry and the Black community in general was Edward (Big Foot Eddie) Wingate, a policy boss, card shark, bookie, record-label owner, confidant of Motown founder Berry Gordy and the owner of the Twenty Grand Super Club, a restaurant, lounge and performance venue located down the street from Motown’s studios and offices and frequently used by Gordy as a place to break-in his young music acts before taking them national. Wingate died in retirement in Las Vegas in 2006. Gordy bought Wingate out of his interests in the recording industry in 1966 with his purchase of Wingate’s Golden World Records.

Living out his final years on his Cherokee Farms estate, Monk Watson passed away in 1960. Roxborough lasted until 1975.

As a young man, Roxborough played semi-pro basketball. On his way up the underworld latter in the numbers game, he worked as a volunteer athletic instructor inside the Brewster Projects. It was in that capacity in 1931 that he discovered a 16-year old Joe Louis. The following year, with Roxborough and Roxborough’s fellow numbers man and boxing promotor Julian Black from Chicago by his side as his managers, he began his fighting career.

Louis turned pro in 1934 and never looked back. He quickly became the face of Black America. His title reign between 1937 and 1949 is the longest in heavyweight history. Some experts consider Louis the best fighter of all-time. Roxborough’s brother Charles was a Michigan state senator.

Late in his life, Louis was hired by mob associate and gangland gambling figure Irving (Ash) Resnick, employed at that time at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, as a greeter at the hotel and casino. Resnick once worked at the Aladdin Hotel and Casino, a betting palace silently owned and controlled by the Detroit mob in the 1970s. Financially destitute, his health riddled by drug abuse, Louis died of a heart attack in 1981.

Detroit mobster Tony Tocco & Joe Louis c. 1947

Detroit mobster Tony Tocco & Joe Louis c. 1946

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