If a filmmaker wanted to be loose with the truth, a Bonnie & Clyde movie could easily be concocted from the lives of Italian immigrant Emilio Picariello and his female assistant.
After managing to build a mini-empire as an Italian immigrant to B.C. and Alberta, Emilio Picariello's illegal business running alcohol between BC and Alberta led to his execution, along with his female employee, Florence Lassandro. After a failed sting operation set up by the Alberta Provincial Police, Picariello had a heated argument with Constable Stephen Lawson. Shots were fired and Lawson lost his life.
After a trial, Picariello and Lassandro were hanged in Fort Saskatchewan in 1923, convicted of murder. She was the last woman executed in Alberta. In her study of the man known as "Emperor Pick", The Rise and Fall of Emilio Picariello (Oolichan 2016), Adriana Davies paints a vivid portrait of what life was like at the turn of the 20th century in the Canadian west for Italian immigrants. She revisits the trial as a cold case, suggesting that bigotry had much to do with his demise.
Researcher, writer, editor and poet Adriana Davies also wrote From Realism to Abstraction: The Art of J. B. Taylor (2014, University of Calgary Press) and co-edited The Frontier of Patriotism: Alberta and the First World War (University of Calgary Press, 2016). She was invested in the Order of Canada, in 2010 for her contributions to heritage. In 2015, she was awarded a knighthood (Cavaliere d’Italia) by the Government of Italy.
The Rise and Fall of Emilio Picariello (Oolichan 2016) 978-0-88982-318-1 $19.95
The Rise and Fall of Emilio Picariello by Adriana Davies (Oolichan $19.95)
from BCBW (Autumn 2016)
Review by James Paley
In her portrait of a patriotic bootlegger, researcher Adriana Davies prefers sobering reality to fanciful drama in The Rise and Fall of Emilio Picariello, a thorough investigation of the Sicilian-born British Columbian who had a reputation for being something of a Robin Hood figure.
His is a tragic tale that cries out for a Puccini. In Act One, the Italian immigrant works as an ice cream vendor in Fernie. In Act Two, he becomes a successful bootlegger. In Act Three, he descends to infamy in the gallows of Alberta.
Adriana Davies assiduously paints a clear portrait of the man who was widely known as Emperor Pick; and along the way she discusses the prejudices Italian immigrants had to overcome in B.C. during the early 20th century.
Our rags to riches tale begins when Emilio Picariello of Fernie began to collect bottles. He introduced a policy of allowing children to trade bottles for ice cream. While establishment figures viewed him as a “junk man,” the local breweries found it easier to buy back their bottles from Picariello than buy new ones.
The passage of Prohibition on October 1, 1917 in British Columbia—after it had been passed in Alberta on April 19, 1916—offered an opportunity for expansion that Picariello could not pass up. As well as providing liquor to B.C. citizens high and low, Picariello and his cohorts began running alcohol into Alberta.
“Picariello’s extensive bootlegging business was an open secret,” writes Davies, “known among both the immigrant community and the British elite, who did not socialize with him but who, nevertheless, ordered liquor for weddings and other occasions.”
Along the way, Picariello took pride in community service and philanthropy. “Picariello also had a patriotic streak,” writes Davies, “and contributed to the war effort through the purchase of Victory Bonds. He lent money to needy individuals, as well as the local church and, at the time of the 1918-1919 General Strike, is said to have delivered groceries to those affected.”
In the aftermath of a failed sting operation set up by the Alberta Provincial Police in 1922, during which he learned his eldest son, Steve, had been wounded, Picariello got into a heated argument with Constable Stephen Lawson. They fought, shots were fired. Some say the gunmen were cops. The alleged shootout led to his 1923 execution for the murder of a policeman. Also executed was his female employee, twenty-two-year old Florence Lassandro, who had been with him in his car when the altercation occurred.
When Picariello and Lassandro were hanged in Fort Saskatchewan, convicted of murdering Lawson, she became the last woman executed in Alberta—by which time she was already notorious. The public was not averse to assuming the possibility that Lassandro could have been either the father’s mistress or the son’s sweetheart.
“Very little ink was given to Florence Lassandro, at the time,” writes Davies, “other than observations that she was a “waitress” before her marriage and that she was not Picariello’s “daughter” as some papers had reported. She would later be referred to as his mistress or that of his son Steve, who was five years’ her junior.”
Adriana Davies revisits the trial as a cold case, suggesting that bigotry had much to do with Picariello’s demise. Davies reports that Picariello’s family believe that authorities initially tried to get Picariello to plead guilty to the lesser charge of manslaughter, but he refused, insisting that he was innocent.
Davies has eschewed any notion that Picariello and Lassandro were intimate. Instead we learn that Florence Lassandro became deeply depressed during her incarceration, on the verge of collapse. The Fernie Free Press described her as “a pale, weak little creature, the object of hundreds of curious eyes.” Ostensibly the promise of an afterlife and Christ’s forgiveness provided comfort.
During the trial she recounted that there was a struggle between Picariello and Lawson for a gun. She saw the flash of a gunshot going past her leg and also of shots in the alley. She asserted that she only cared for Picariello’s son Steve as a brother—i.e. there were no sexual entanglements—and that she had not had the gun in her hands. She was somehow convicted of murder nonetheless.
One theory for the bizarre conviction is that, on the morning of her arrest, Lassandro had agreed “that it would be best for me to take the responsibility and say that I did it as women don’t hang in Canada and he would get off.”
Regardless of what really happened, the double execution of Picariello and Lassandro made them into legendary fodder for art.
In Aritha van Herk’s feminist essay, “Driving Towards Death,” published in 1977, Lassandro first gained victim status. Sharon Pollock also wrote about bootlegging in the Crowsnest Pass in her 1983 play, Whiskey Six Cadenza, performed by Theatre Calgary.
“Both Pollock and van Herk,” writes Davies, “reinterpret the story of Picariello and Lassandro in the context of the 1980s and early 1990s academic criticism dealing with sexual politics and post-colonialism.”
John Estacio and John Murrell’s Filumena is an operatic recounting of the Picariello/Lassandro story developed as a collaboration between the Banff Centre, where Murrell worked, and the Calgary Opera Company, where Estacio was composer in residence. The opera was performed in February 2003 in Calgary and at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa in 2005.
“In literature,” Davies concludes, “women are frequently either madonnas or whores. This, sadly, is also true in life. Lassandro started as a whore in the media at the time of the trial and, in the more recent accounts, she is somehow sanctified.”
Prohibition in Canada started in Prince Edward Island in 1901. Manitoba and Ontario followed suit in 1916. Next came British Columbia and New Brunswick in 1917. Federal legislation was enacted by an Order-in-Council on April 1, 1918. It became a part of the War Measures Act. Thou Shalt Not Sell Booze. Quebec passed anti-booze laws in 1919; followed by Nova Scotia in 1921.
Quebec was the first province to repeal Prohibition in 1919 (yes, that’s the same year it was enacted), followed by B.C. and Manitoba in 1921, Ontario in 1923, Alberta in 1924, Saskatchewan in 1925, New Brunswick in 1927, and Nova Scotia in 1929. PEI, the first province with Prohibition, was the last province to revoke the legislation in 1948.
James Paley is a Vancouver writer.
The Rise and Fall of Emilio Picariello
by Lynne Bowen
When authorities charged Emilio Picariello and Filumena Lassandro with the murder of Alberta Provincial Police Constable Stephen Lawson on 21 September 1922 in the Crowsnest Pass town of Coleman, Alberta, the cards were stacked against the two not because they were guilty, although they may have been, but because they were Italians. Adriana A. Davies makes this point on several occasions in her thoroughly researched book The Rise and Fall of Emilio Picariello.
Italians had been the victims of racism and stereotyping in Europe as far back as the sixteenth century when the Reformation divided the continent into two camps and northern Protestant nations had deemed Roman Catholic Italy as corrupt.
Italy was not a unified nation at that time, but even after unification in the mid-nineteenth century, political misrule and agricultural misuse left Italian peasants so poor that they were forced to emigrate in numbers that would eventually make the nation the largest exporter of its citizens per capita of any country in the world.
So desperate were Italian immigrants in the New World that they were more likely to become strikebreakers, which did little to endear them to fledgling unionists. Adding to their unpopularity in Canada was the fact that successive federal governments had declared Italians to be “non-preferred” immigrants.
But Italians knew how to work hard. And Emilio Picariello was a good example of how successful a hard worker could become. By the time he arrived in Fernie, British Columbia, via Eastern Canada with his wife and children in 1911, he had learned to speak English fluently and already owned two businesses.
Although Fernie was barely a decade old in 1911, the city had been destroyed twice by fire and had suffered two catastrophic coalmine explosions. But Picariello saw opportunity everywhere he looked. In the course of the next few years he established a grocery, manufactured and sold ice and cigars, bought and sold produce, and dealt in hay.
Picariello hired women to make ice cream and men to deliver it to places as far east as Coleman and Blairmore in Alberta. He established a garage to service his delivery vehicles and hired an Italian mechanic to do the repairs. He collected empty bottles and sold them to breweries. And he sold homemade liquor, which he had distilled under the garage and stored in tunnels dug for the purpose.
With a fleet of delivery vehicles and a network of customers as far away as Alberta, Idaho, and Montana, Picariello was ready to take his legitimate business activities to the shady side when Alberta (1916) and British Columbia (1917) passed laws prohibiting the sale of liquor, and the United States followed suit in 1919.
In 1921, when British Columbia repealed prohibition, it became legal again for Picariello to sell liquor, but he was on the wrong side of the law as soon as he took the booze across any borders. And Fernie was in the landlocked East Kootenay, readily accessible to Alberta, Montana, and Idaho.
At this time Fernie became the source of alcohol for the Crowsnest Pass, southern Alberta, and adjacent American states. The three kingpins in the manufacture and transportation of illegal liquor were Picariello and the colourfully-named Mr. Big (Jack Wilson) in Fernie and Mr. R. (Mark Rogers, “the King of the Bootleggers”) in Lethbridge.
They hid their hooch in railway coal cars or in powerful automobiles and moved it by rail or on rough back roads. Picariello’s cars were McLaughlin Sixes, well-built and fast, but his competitors were harassing his suppliers. He and his men began to carry guns on liquor delivery runs. As the threat of violence escalated, municipal and national police forces on both sides of the provincial border attempted to pin something on Picariello.
Nonetheless the Italian bootlegger was a popular man in the Crowsnest Pass. He was well known in Fernie for his philanthropy. His businesses employed several Italians; his illegal liquor business was an open secret in the immigrant community. And he was not the only bootlegger in town.
His Achilles heel was his son, Steve (Stefano). On a tragic day in September of 1922, he thought that Steve, who had been shot in the wrist, had possibly been killed. Filumena Lassandro, a Fernie coal miner’s daughter who was working as a maid or nanny for the family, happened to be with Picariello when he encountered and shot Constable Lawson.
Author Adrianna Davies makes a convincing case for the possibility that anti-Italian sentiment was a factor in the events leading up to the murder and that Picariello’s chief rivals in the bootlegging business were probably helping the police as they attempted to catch him red-handed. She writes, “It would appear that the ‘heavyweights’ in the bootlegging racket were mostly of British descent and resented an immigrant upstart who had prospered to an amazing extent in his adoptive country.”
The arrest and conviction of Picariello and Lassandro, their subsequent unsuccessful court appeals, and their ultimate executions by hanging at Fort Saskatchewan makes for a lively and tragic story. Davies tells it in much more detail than has been possible in previous books because of her access to the defence counsel’s papers and her interviews with the Picariello family.
But as so often happens when research material is abundant, Davies has sacrificed story for excessive detail. Researchers and genealogists will delight in the detail and the inclusion in the text of actual letters and documents; casual readers will find that this detail is sometimes repetitious and slows down the pace of the story. They will wish that Davies had used her knowledge of the material to summarize much of it and quoted directly only occasionally for extra effect.
Even after the two defendants had been executed, rumours continued to fly, including the charge that they had been members of an Italian murder society like the Black Hand. Defence counsel John Cameron dismissed the charge as “the crowning absurdity in a case fraught with misapprehension and mistakes.”
Adriana Davies has done much to lessen that misapprehension. “In a very real sense,” she concludes, “each generation reinvents history based on their vision of today [and] I hope that I’ve provided a more complex, and yet balanced, view of events.”
Her thorough research has indeed clarified the circumstances of the murder of Lawson, the trial of Picariello and Lassandro, and the character of the brief prohibition era in B.C.
Lynne Bowen is the author of seven books: Boss Whistle, The Coal Miners of Vancouver Island Remember; Three Dollar Dreams; Muddling Through, The Remarkable Story of the Barr Colonists; Those Lake People, Stories of Cowichan Lake; Robert Dunsmuir, Laird of the Mines, Whoever Gives Us Bread, The Story of Italians in British Columbia and Those Island People. Among the awards her books have won are the Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize, the Lieutenant-Governor’s Prize for Writing British Columbia History and the F.G. Bressani Literary Prize. Her other writing includes video scripts, magazine articles and the column “Those Island People” for the Times Colonist in Victoria. She was the Rogers Communications Co-Chair of Creative Non-Fiction Writing at the University of British Columbia for fourteen years from 1992 to 2006.
[Ormsby Review 2016]