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Meet Big Tiff, Tampa’s Black, one-armed moonshine kingpin in the mid-1900s

Tales from the Vice Squad | He was so large that U.S. marshals could not find handcuffs that fit him.
A moonshine still in an attic with barrels, bottles, funnels, sugar and tubing in the 1920s.
A moonshine still in an attic with barrels, bottles, funnels, sugar and tubing in the 1920s. [ Courtesy of Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library System ]
Published Jan. 5

When Tampa was a hotbed of organized crime from the late 1800s through mid-1900s, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office charged the Vice Squad with cleaning up what the federal government deemed one of the most corrupt cities in the nation. The Tampa Bay Times has obtained a cache of Vice Squad reports from the 1950s and 1960s, which offer insight into their investigations and what they were up against.

TAMPA — As a child growing up in East Tampa, Delano Stewart knew two Black men missing a portion of an arm.

One, his father, Garland Stewart, was famous.

The other, Edgar Parsons, better known as Big Tiff, was infamous.

Stewart’s father was a civil rights pioneer, beloved educator and respected principal who, as assistant director of Hillsborough County education, helped integrate the school system and became the first Black person with an office in the county courthouse.

As for Big Tiff, “he was a bad man you did not want to cross,” said Stewart, the 86-year-old retired civil rights attorney. “He was who got people moonshine and sold them numbers.”

During the era when organized crime was prevalent throughout the Tampa Bay area, Charlie Wall was considered kingpin in the white and Latino communities, Santo Trafficante Sr. and Jr. were the kingpins among the Italians. The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office Vice Squad considered Big Tiff to be a criminal kingpin of Tampa’s Black community.

His name is sprinkled throughout the cache of Vice Squad reports obtained by the Tampa Bay Times:

  • After breaking up a moonshining distribution business at a Ruskin mechanic shop, the Vice Squad checked the business’ phone records. They found multiple calls to Big Tiff.
  • A man arrested for transporting empty moonshine jugs admitted that he was doing so for Big Tiff.
  • A woman arrested for selling moonshine said Big Tiff was her supplier.
  • And a man arrested for possession of moonshine acknowledged he’d bought it from Big Tiff.

Despite all these mentions, little is known about the man.

He is not mentioned in history books on local organized crime, he’s not as publicly renowned as that era’s other top gangsters. The Times could not find a photograph of him.

There is a reason for that, Stewart said. Big Tiff kept a low profile. “We knew what he did, but no one spoke about it. I had an uncle who played the numbers, and he did that through Big Tiff. That’s the only reason I know of him. We knew not to talk too much and not ask questions.”

Stewart’s father lost his left hand at the age of 12 when it was caught inside a conveyor belt in the Atlanta cookie factory at which he worked.

He cannot remember how much of an arm Big Tiff was missing nor which was damaged, but rumor had it, Stewart said, that it was due to being shot.

“I think it was because he was going outside his realm of power and they wanted him to stop,” Stewart said. “But who knows what is true and what is not.”

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Stewart could only guess why he was nicknamed Big Tiff.

“He was a mountain of a man,” he said. “And he probably liked to fight.”

News archives report that he owned a laundry business and a barbecue restaurant, both of which were called Big Tiff’s and sold numbers, too.

“Well, numbers were sold everywhere back then,” Stewart laughed. “I used to think that every Cuban sandwich came with a number for bolita,” which was the name for Tampa’s illegal lottery, “because it seemed like every Italian grocery store also sold bolita.”

Big Tiff’s first arrest documented in newspapers was in 1936. He was 26 and found guilty of vagrancy. Still, the Tampa Tribune seemed to wonder if Big Tiff was involved in a larger criminal enterprise.

“Vagrant forfeits $25 just like that,” reads the Tampa Tribune headline. The article then begins, “Edgar Parsons, negro, may be listed as a vagrant but he has money to pay his fines.”

That fine was equivalent to $493 today, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s online inflation calculator.

In 1940, newspapers twice reported on Big Tiff being arrested, once for selling moonshine and another time for transporting it.

In 1945, he was arrested for selling numbers out of his Big Tiff’s barbecue on Central Avenue, a Black business district then known as Harlem of the South due to the nationally renowned musicians who performed at its bars and clubs.

The Tampa Times reported that the barbecue was “so carefully guarded by lookouts” that law enforcement had to park blocks away and stealthily approach through an alley.

In the 1950s, newspapers were calling him a “reputed” and “bigtime” moonshine wholesaler who purchased directly from those who operated the stills and then sold it to the Black community.

Stewart said there were also rumors that Big Tiff had law enforcement on his payroll. “He supposedly had police looking out for him.”

Police brought him down anyway.

According to a Tampa Tribune story about his March 1955 trial, the Tampa Police Department received a tip in November 1954 that Nellie Horton, also known as Mama Nellie, “was selling ‘shine as usual.” They found illegal liquor stored in her home and she admitted it was purchased from Big Tiff.

“The police got Mama Nellie to call Tiff and ask for a delivery,” the newspaper reported. “Tiff said he’d bring some over the next morning.”

Big Tiff was arrested when he did.

“Big Tiff, slippery nemesis of beverage agents whose fondest dreams are always to get the big boss, was found guilty of moonshining,” the Tampa Tribune reported in its coverage of the trial. “Law enforcement agents called it a big victory over the king among bootleggers” in the Black community.

He was sentenced to three years. In 1956, the federal government sentenced him to another 18 months for tax evasion.

He was so large, The Tampa Times reported, “U.S. marshals could not find any handcuffs big enough to fit him. The newspaper also wrote that Big Tiff had a “lengthy FBI record.”

Big Tiff died in prison. The year is not specified, but, in 1959, when his wife, Ozzie Warren, was arrested for possession of moonshine, the Tampa Times refers to her as Big Tiff’s widow.

Stewart said he had not thought of Big Tiff since he graduated high school and temporarily left Tampa for college. But Stewart remembered him the moment the Times brought up Big Tiff.

“Of course I know about Big Tiff,” Stewart replied. “You can’t forget a man like that.”

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