BOOTLEGGING TALE - The main street in Blairmore

BOOTLEGGING TALE - The main street in Blairmore

A story of rum running in our province

Red Deer historian offers details of the 88th anniversary of the St. Valentine's Day massacre

Yesterday, Feb. 14th, was the 88th anniversary of the St. Valentine’s Day massacre. That gruesome event has become an iconic image of the incredible criminality and violence which followed the Prohibition of the sale and consumption of alcohol across North America.

The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre took place in 1929 in Chicago.

The seven victims were members of the north side gang headed by Bugs Moran. The gunmen were believed to be connected with the infamous Al Capone. However, as is often the case with gang warfare, very little was actually ever proven.

Alberta joined in the implementation of Prohibition in 1916. As time went on, the illicit sale of alcohol became an increasing problem. However, Alberta never experienced the growth of organized crime and violence found in the United States.

One exception occurred in the early 1920s in the Crowsnest Pass area of southwestern Alberta.

Emilio Picariello, often nicknamed the Emperor Pic, had emigrated to southeastern B.C. and then to Alberta from Sicily. He was a shrewd businessman and entrepreneur. He had enjoyed a fair bit of success with such things as selling cigars, manufacturing ice cream and running bottle collection depots.

After the imposition of Prohibition, he saw the opportunity to make some really big money.

He was ideally located by being close to both the B.C. and Montana borders. Emperor Pic bought a hotel at Blairmore. A large underground storeroom, connected to the hotel by tunnels, allowed him to ship liquor throughout the area and into the U.S.

Meanwhile, Picariello hired Carlo Sanfidele, a.k.a. Charles Lassandro, to work for him. In 1915, Lassandro married Filumena Costanzo, who had also emigrated from Italy. Filumena, who generally went by the name Florence, was not yet 15 years old.

Not surprisingly, the Lassandro marriage was not a ‘love story’.

Hence, Filumena spent a lot of time with Emilio and Maria Picariello, who she considered to be her adoptive parents. There were also widespread rumours that she became involved with the eldest Picariello son, Stephano or Steve.

On Sept. 21st, 1922, the Alberta Provincial Police attempted to intercept a convoy of illegal booze being brought in from B.C. The rum runners were tipped off.

Steve Picariello raced back towards B.C. with the contraband. A.P.P. Const. Steve Lawson tried to stop him at Coleman. Lawson fired shots at the car and slightly wounded the younger Picariello.

When Emperor Pic heard the news, he was enraged.

He set off with Filumena to confront Lawson. The confrontation quickly escalated into violence. Although it was never clearly proven who had fired the shots, the unarmed Lawson was fatally wounded in front of the A.P.P. office and residence in Coleman. Lawson’s nine-year-old daughter, Pearl, was the main witness to the shooting.

A posse of A.P.P. and RCMP officers were quickly sent out.

They soon found and arrested Picariello, and later, Lassandro. Both were charged with the murder of Lawson.

The preliminary hearing was held in the Opera House in Coleman as that was the only building big enough to hold the crowds of spectators. The trial was then moved to Calgary.

Filumena initially confessed to the murder.

However, she then changed her story. She claimed that she had been trying to cover up for Picariello since women were almost never executed for capital crimes and she would therefore get a lesser punishment.

The judge ruled it did not matter who fired the fatal shots. Both of the accused were convicted and sentenced to death. Appeals were unsuccessful as were attempts to reduce Lassandro’s sentence to life imprisonment.

On May 3rd, 1923, both Emilio Picariello and Filumena Lassandro were hanged at the Fort Saskatchewan penitentiary. Filumena insisted on her innocence to the end. Her last words were, ‘I forgive you’.

She is the only woman in the history of Alberta to be hanged.