The Downfall of Emilio Picariello

Emilio Picariello, "Emperor Pic," Source: University of Calgary (public domain).

While the earliest wave of Italian immigration to Alberta between 1896 and 1914 largely comprised labourers, there were skilled individuals among them. Italy had an established trade apprenticeship system, and skilled craftsmen such as carpenters, masons, metalsmiths, tailors, shoemakers, jewellers, watchmakers and others had standing in the community denied to unskilled labourers. In fact, mastro (master) was an honorary address. In all eras of immigration, individuals used their trade as a tool for economic improvement. But it was not just tradesmen who started businesses; there were entrepreneurial individuals who despite limited education and skills prospered. These businesses did not necessarily continue into future generations; in some instances, this gave credence to the old adage that the first generation made the money, and the second or third generations spent it. A more significant reason for businesses not surviving was the value placed on higher education that resulted in children and grandchildren entering the professions. Others did not survive because of economic forces, for example, the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Initially, small businesses provided services within the Italian community, but success built on success, and many ended up serving the larger community. The family-run grocery store (described by Italians as generi alimentari) became a staple in many communities, as did the bakery and shoe, tailor and barber shops. Other immigrants set up construction companies, manufacturing establishments and other services. Such ventures expedited movement into the mainstream.

The first example of the rise to prominence of an Italian entrepreneur ended in tragedy. The so-called “race” card had everything to do with the downfall of Emilio Picariello, a prominent shopkeeper and hotelier in the Elk Valley and Crowsnest Pass regions. Emilio is not remembered for his hard work and enterprising nature but rather as the convicted murderer of Alberta Provincial Police Constable Stephen Lawson, as a result of a Prohibition “sting” operation gone wrong. Emilio’s crime reinforced the belief that Italians were not to be trusted because of their innate “criminal” instincts noted by Rev Woodsworth in Strangers Within Our Gates. Although Picariello was born in Capriglia, Avellino, Campania, on November 27, 1879, in the bootlegging literature he is said to be Sicilian because of that region’s association with the Mafia.

Picariello’s father, Modestino, was a tenant farmer who believed in education. His sons were taught to read and write at the local convent. Members of the extended Picariello family were established in the United States and were encouraging the oldest son, Pellegrino, to immigrate. Because he had a sweetheart, he was not interested, so Emilio went in his place around 1899-1900.

He arrived at Ellis Island and settled in the Allentown district of Buffalo, New York. Unable to find his uncles, he found work as a labourer and also attended English classes. A poster advertising the position of electrician’s helper with the Guelph Radial Railway brought him to Canada in September 1902. He lived in a boarding house and saved money during the fall so he could afford to buy a run-down store in Toronto. He fixed it up and opened for business on Christmas 1903. Subsequently he opened another confectionery in Montreal.

Maria Marucci (born 1883), whose family had emigrated from San Marco, D’Cavotti, Calabria, to Pennsylvania, was visiting her brother Antonio and wife Anna in Toronto, and went to the store. Picariello asked for permission to court her and the couple married in April 1904 in Arlington, New Jersey, at the home of her brother, Joseph. Mariannina (“little Mary”) assisted him in the Toronto store, which flourished. Son Stefano (Steve) was born in 1905 and Angelina Rose (Julie), in 1907.

Picariello made friends with Frank Celli, an agent for Italian food suppliers, who encouraged him to go to Fernie, British Columbia, to take over management of the Columbian Macaroni Factory. An article titled “Off to a Good Start” in the Fernie Free Press of May 26, 1910, provides a glowing overview of the block-long, two-storey brick structure with a fire-proof roof to be built by the Marinaro Bros, as well as a two-storey duplex residence. In 1911, Picariello sold his stores and the family moved to Fernie.

When the Marinaros left to set up another factory in Lethbridge, Picariello purchased the business and duplex. Picariello went on to open a cigar factory, ice cream plant and other food retail outlets, as well as purchasing a small farm in the Spokane Valley from which he trucked produce. The success of the businesses placed him above the miners, and he became known for his generosity, particularly during strikes. Around 1914, Picariello became the Fernie representative of the Pollock Wine Company and collected and bought used bottles for re-sale to brewers and distillers. This led to a monopoly and, in 1916, he advertised in the Free Press as “E. Pick, the Bottle King.” He hired Carlo (Charlie) Sanfidele, and a mechanic, Jack McAlpine, to help him. Stephen and Julie helped to roll cigars, and Steve operated the horse-drawn ice cream cart that Emilio built to sell cones around the city. In advertisements, Picariello invited the public to come to the Macaroni Factory to watch ice cream being made and also offered free cones to children in exchange for bottles. It took Prohibition becoming law in Alberta on July 1, 1916 and, in BC, on October 1, 1917, that presented a business opportunity that he could not pass up and that would set the course of the remainder of his life.

In spring 1918, Picariello purchased the Alberta Hotel in Blairmore from Frits Sick, a founder of the Fernie-Fort Steele Brewery who had moved to Lethbridge to set up the Lethbridge Brewing and Malting Company. Picariello became the brewery’s sole agent in the Crowsnest Pass, selling their Temperance beer with 2.5 percent alcohol content. The family moved into the second floor of the hotel. During the Spanish Influenza outbreak of 1918, it is said that Emilio allowed the hotel to be used for the care of victims. He also bought war bonds.

Florence Lassandro (or Filumena Losandro), accomplice in Picariello murder case. Source: University of Calgary (public domain).

Around 1920, Picariello set up the Crowsnest Pass Clothing Company on the ground floor of the hotel in partnership with John Bannatyne Risk, a former Alberta Provincial Police officer. He invested $11,000 in the business, which was run by Risk, and they shared profits 50/50. Charlie Sanfidele, who had married Filumena (Florence) Costanzo, the daughter of a Fernie miner in 1915, continued to work for him, as did McAlpine. Charlie and Florence went on a honeymoon trip to the US and, on returning to Fernie, Charlie assumed a new name – Lassandro (Losandro) – ostensibly because he had entered the US illegally. (Jock Carpenter, in her fictionalized account – Bootlegger’s Bride – of Florence Lassandro’s life ascribes another motive, stating that Charlie was involved in crime in the US and also used Florence for purposes of prostitution. There is no proof of this.)  Both men assisted Picariello in bootlegging as did Italian friends in the Crowsnest Pass, Fernie and the Elk Valley. The Lassandros, for a time, also resided in the hotel and Florence helped Mariannina with care of the children.

In 1921, the Prohibition Act was repealed in British Columbia, which led to a proliferation of liquor warehouses in Fernie. Liquor could be bought legally in BC but could not be transported across provincial lines to Alberta, or state lines to the Pacific Northwest. In addition, a range of import/export liquor companies straddling the two provinces were set up to facilitate the trade. The Brown Export Co, Blairmore, which represented the Pollock Wine Co, Ltd, Fernie, Carosella Liquor Co, Fernie, and the Michel Liquor Co, Natal, BC, was one example; the Fernie Liquor Exporters, which partnered with the King’s Exporting Agency, Limited, Lethbridge, was another. The individual behind the latter was Mark Rogers, an American from Massachusetts who settled near Lethbridge.

Since both the Elk Valley and the Crowsnest Pass had voted against Prohibition, there was no stigma attached to making money in this way. The majority of warehouses were run by men of British or American ancestry. The owners of the dozen or so hotels in Fernie were also involved in the liquor trade, not only selling Prohibition beer in their bars but also operating liquor warehouses. Italians were, thus, in the minority among the ranks of professional bootleggers in The Pass, and Picariello became an object of jealousy.

Cases of liquor were hidden in coal cars, and many railroad workers made money aiding professional bootleggers. The extensive railway network linking BC with Alberta and the two provinces with the Pacific Northwest, and beyond to Eastern Canada and the US, was just too large to police. Bootleggers also hid cases of liquor in the trunks of speedy vehicles, in particular, the McLaughlin-Buick. A typical run involved three vehicles, two to serve as lookouts and the third to carry the liquor. The convoy would pick up liquor in Fernie and transport it through the Crowsnest communities of Coleman and Blairmore to Lethbridge, and then south via the “Whiskey Gap” to Montana. The pass was used to bring liquor into Alberta from the US but, after 1919 (because of Prohibition in the US), the flow was reversed to satisfy liquor-starved Americans.

Picariello’s bootlegging business prospered and he bribed local politicians and provincial MLAs. Some local mayors even ran liquor themselves. The coming to power of the United Farmers of Alberta on August 13, 1921, was to have an enormous impact on the enforcement of Prohibition. Premier Herbert Greenfield came under fire from the media and the party’s grass roots, the majority of which supported passage of Prohibition. In response, the Alberta Provincial Police, in April 1922, appointed a new superintendent, W. C. (Teddy) Bryan, a former North-West Mounted Police officer. Bryan added 50 more men to the force, and many were deployed in the Crowsnest Pass and Lethbridge regions.

Picariello became the target of the new team of officers in The Pass, which included sergeants James O. Scott and John James Nicholson, and Constable Stephen Lawson, hired in spring 1922. Lawson was the former police chief of Fernie and had first-hand knowledge of Picariello. A “sting” operation was set up with the support of two of Picariello’s rivals: Mark Rogers, an established Lethbridge businessman, and Jack Wilson, a recent immigrant from Ireland to whom Picariello had lent a thousand dollars to set up in the liquor trade in Fernie. The former was known as “Mr. R” and the latter as “Mr. Big.”

In a book titled The Rise and Fall of Emilio Picariello, I make the case that a liquor order placed by Rogers with Picariello as the delivery agent is what initiated the sting that occurred on September 21, 1922. (This is demonstrated by proof I found among the papers of his lawyer, J. McKinley Cameron, Picariello/Lassandro Trial, Fonds, Glenbow Archives M 6840, NA 4691.) The APP and local police tracked Picariello, McAlpine and Steve as they drove from Blairmore to Fernie to pick up liquor and then returned to the Blairmore Hotel. Steve’s taking part in the run was unusual – his mother refused to have him involved in the liquor trade. When challenged by police, Picariello motioned to Steve, who was carrying the load, to make a run for Fernie. Steve drove through Coleman where Constable Lawson was on the lookout and, when told to stop, continued driving; Lawson fired and wounded him in the hand. Steve arrived in Natal where he met a BC Provincial Police officer and asked for medical help, and later telephoned his father to let him know he was alright.

Later that evening, Sergeant Scott told Picariello to bring his son in otherwise there would be trouble. Picariello, accompanied by Florence Lassandro, went to the APP barracks in Coleman where he confronted Lawson. The only witness was Lawson’s nine-year-old daughter Pearlie, who was playing behind Picariello’s vehicle. She testified that she saw her father standing on the running board of the car hugging “Mr. Pick” and then heard a shot and saw her father fall. After the shooting, Picariello drove back to Blairmore where he dropped Lassandro off at a friend’s place and then returned to the Alberta Hotel. Here he heard that Lawson had died, and he went into hiding at a friend’s home in “Italian town.”

A police manhunt resulted in his arrest at 4:30 pm the afternoon of September 22; Florence turned herself in. The APP then continued their catalogue of errors, led by Sergeant Scott who did not take any notes of the interviews with the two accused. Picariello and Lassandro were charged with murder. A preliminary hearing was held in the Coleman Opera House on October 2-3, 1922, and the couple was bound over for trial. After a sensational trial in Calgary, lasting from November 27 to December 2, 1922, in which the accused were tried jointly and defended by John McKinley Cameron, a bastion of Calgary’s legal establishment, they were found guilty of murder. The entire trial was attended by Alberta’s Attorney General, John E. Brownlee (another violation of accepted trial practice). The press reportage pitted the Anglo-establishment against the immigrant community.

Cameron’s defence was lacklustre and focused on trying to discredit police with respect to what today would be described as violating the rights of the accused, and procedural matters, including the fact that Scott had intimidated Lassandro into confessing that she had murdered Lawson. She had been carrying a firearm and had fired it in self-defence when she heard gunshots, while Lawson was grappling with Picariello seated behind the steering wheel of the car. A bullet hole was found in the dash and the windshield of the Picariello vehicle was shattered. The fact that the majority of glass debris was found inside the vehicle supported Picariello’s claim that there was a shooter in the alley.

Lassandro could not have shot Lawson from inside the vehicle because Picariello blocked her view of him and, in addition, he was shot in the back, again corroborating Picariello’s claim of innocence. It is unlikely that Lawson, in the middle of a tussle with Picariello, would have turned his back to run away, thereby providing an excellent target. Cameron did not call any witnesses, not even a Red Deer lawyer who claimed that he had evidence of police corruption with respect to other Prohibition cases. It was likely that Cameron believed that it was a trial that he could not win. He did, however, bring up what he described as the “race card,” suggesting that Picariello was being pilloried for being Italian.

Extensive correspondence in Cameron’s files reveals that he believed in his clients’ innocence. Picariello told his lawyers that his rivals – Wilson and Rogers – were in the Pass at the time. The collusion between the APP and rival bootleggers was supported by the discovery made by his supporting counsel, prominent Fernie lawyer Sherwood Herchmer, that Rogers drove Sergeant Nicholson and other members of the APP and the RCMP from Lethbridge to Blairmore for the manhunt. Rogers also drove the police team and Picariello to jail in Lethbridge. An appeal to the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of Alberta succeeded; however, there was one dissenting opinion that allowed an additional appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada.  This failed and Picariello and Lassandro were hung on May 2, 1923, at the Fort Saskatchewan Gaol. Picariello’s fall, while tragic for the protagonists and their families, served as an abject lesson to other immigrants about the importance of keeping a low profile, learning English and assimilating as quickly as possible.

Emilio Picariello, “Emperor Pic,” and family. Source: University of Calgary (public domain).

Picariello and Lassandro’s story has featured in bootlegging literature as well as artistic productions. John Estacio and John Murrell’s opera Filumena is based on the premise of Picariello’s guilt and Lassandro’s innocence. The opera enjoyed public success when it was premiered in Calgary by the Calgary Opera Company in 2003 and, again, in 2005, as part of Alberta Scene, the arts tribute to Alberta’s centenary at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. In February 2017, the opera was COC’s tribute to Canada’s 150th anniversary and Canada Post issued a commemorative stamp. The company brought in the “Rise and Fall of Emilio Picariello” exhibit from the Fernie Museum, which I curated. It was set up in the lobby of the Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium. Visual artist Gisele Amantea created 14 black and white panels, including cartoons dealing with the Picariello/Lassandro story in the communities of Fernie and Coleman. The exhibit, titled “Reading History Backwards,” was featured in 2002 at the Dunlop Art Gallery, Regina Public Library. In 2007, these were published in book form as The King v. Picariello and Lassandro by Gisele Amantea.

Excerpt from Sojourners to Citizens, Alberta’s Italian History by Adriana A Davies (Guernica 2021).

Adriana A Davies was born in Grimaldi, Cosenza, Italy and grew up in Canada. She received BA and MA degrees from the University of Alberta, and a PhD from the University of London (England). For more than 40 years, she has worked as a researcher, writer, editor, lecture, executive director and curator in England and Canada.

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