Crowsnest Pass would have been an exciting place to be during the early 1920s. It was in its heyday then and there was always something going on, in one way or another. There was plenty of hustle and bustle in each of the towns, with people constantly coming and going from one place to another. The Pass also had its share of interesting characters back then. One such person was Emilio Picariello, proprietor of the Blairmore Hotel. Among most residents of the area, he was known simply as, “Emperor Pick.”
The years leading up to the Roaring Twenties were good for the Emperor. He had become a successful and respected businessman in his own right, but it would all come to a sad and tragic end shortly after 7:00 pm on Thursday, September 21, 1922.
Emilio Picariello came to New York from Italy in 1899, at the age of 20. He went to Boston and worked as a labourer building houses. In 1902, he moved to Toronto and found employment as an electrician’s helper. Emilio worked hard and saved his money until he was able to purchase a small grocery store. Within a couple of years, he opened another business, a confectionary and cigar store in Montréal. About this time, Emilio met his future wife, Maria Marucci. She had also immigrated to the U.S. from Italy, before moving to Toronto, where she found work in a boarding house. The couple married in 1904, and in time they would have seven children.
In 1911, the Picariello family moved west, to Fernie, British Columbia, where Emilio managed a macaroni factory. By 1916, he had started a number of businesses in town, including a confectionary and tobacco store, a cigar-making operation, and a bake shop where Maria sold her pastries. Emilio also went into the ice-cream-making business and opened an ice cream parlour. He hired boys to sell ice cream cones on the streets of Fernie, using a push cart and horse-drawn wagon.
Picariello started collecting empty liquor bottles, selling some to local breweries to be reused, and saving others for personal use. He would often allow children to trade bottles for ice cream, and at one point had collected some 27,000 bottles. Yet another venture he went into was the wholesale grocery business when he opened the Fernie Export Company. Emilio’s fleet of trucks would deliver produce and other goods to local grocery stores, hotels, and cafés. His territory would expand into southern Alberta, Montana, and Idaho. Business was booming for the Emperor!
A Dry Province
Then came Prohibition. The law prohibiting the consumption of alcohol was enacted in Alberta on July 1, 1916. Although the majority of Albertans had voted to become dry, the citizens of Crowsnest Pass voted to remain wet. In the end, the new law passed, regardless. British Columbia followed with Prohibition on October 5, 1917.
In early February of 1918, Emilio purchased the Alberta Hotel in Blairmore from Fritz Sick of the Lethbridge Brewing Company. He became the brewery’s sole agent in Crowsnest Pass for selling their Temperance beer, or near-beer. By law, this beverage could not be more than 2% proof.
Renovations were made to the hotel’s second floor and the Picariello family moved into their new Blairmore home. Emilio was still in the bottle-collection business and didn’t waste any time advertising for them in the local newspaper. The Bottle King would soon have a use for his collection of empty bottles.
By this time, automobiles were quickly replacing horses and buggies as a means of transportation on the main roads and backroads leading in and out of Crowsnest Pass. Emilio became very familiar with all these routes and owned a fleet of cars, made up of a half dozen McLaughlin Sixes. He had hired a mechanic, Jack McAlpine, to maintain and keep them in tip-top shape. The powerful, speedy McLaughlins were vital to Picariello’s new business. You see, along with owning the Blairmore Hotel, he was also running a bootlegging operation. Rum-running was a lucrative but dangerous occupation in those days, as Emilio Picariello would eventually discover.
Everyone in town knew what Emperor Pick was up to, including the authorities. Although he had faced liquor charges and was fined on several occasions in the past, the Alberta Provincial Police (APP) wanted to bring him to justice, once and for all. Picariello was not the only known bootlegger around, but he was certainly one of the most wanted by the police.
The APP used informants, or stool pigeons, as they were called, to gather information on anyone who might be bootlegging or purchasing booze. They also had undercover agents, who would visit businesses suspected of selling liquor. In 1920, one of these agents patronized the Coleman Hotel, where he was served whiskey. The owner of the hotel, Jack Johnson, was charged with violating the Prohibition Liquor Act. Mr. Johnson was also the mayor of Coleman at the time. In addition to the surveillance of people of interest, and their frequent sting operations, the APP conducted regular checkstops throughout Crowsnest Pass, in order to search vehicles for contraband liquor.
Many local residents regarded Emilio Picariello as a modern-day Robin Hood. He was generous, giving money and food to the needy and poor at Christmas. During a miner’s strike in 1918-1919, he supplied food to workers’ families. He was a respected citizen and had even been elected to sit on the Town Council of Blairmore.
A Tragic Ending
On September 21, 1922, the police in Coleman received a tip that Emperor Pick and his son, Steve, were bringing a carload of whiskey into Blairmore from Fernie. They were met by the police outside the Blairmore Hotel. Steve attempted to escape with the cargo, by making a hasty retreat in his father’s McLaughlin Six.
In the ensuing chase through Coleman, shots were fired by Constable Stephen Lawson in an attempt to stop the car. The young Picariello suffered a wound to his hand but was not seriously injured. Emilio received word that his son had been shot by Lawson. Later that evening, he drove to Coleman, accompanied by his housekeeper, Florence “Filumena” Lassandro, and confronted the constable in front of the APP Barracks. An altercation occurred, shots were fired, and Constable Stephen Oldacres Lawson was dead.
Emilio Picariello and Florence Lassandro were tried together and convicted of the murder of a police officer. They were sentenced to death by hanging and went to the gallows at the Fort Saskatchewan Prison on May 2, 1923. Emilio was 43 years of age and Florence was 22. They were buried next to each other, in unmarked graves, in an Edmonton cemetery. Florence Lassandro became the first and only woman to be hanged in Alberta.
A plebiscite held in Alberta on November 5, 1923, just six months after the execution of Picariello and Lassandro, ended Prohibition in this province.
It’s impossible to cover everything that happened leading up to, and following, the shooting of Constable Lawson, in one blog post. This story has been the topic of several books and countless articles over the years. Detailed information about the case is available in print and online. There was even an opera, “Filumena,” written and produced, based on the life and death of Florence Lassandro. It premiered in Calgary, Alberta on February 1, 2003.
Hollywood movies, television shows, and crime-story paperbacks have always depicted the bootlegging lifestyle as one of riches and fame, with larger-than-life characters. In reality, there is nothing romantic or glamorous about any of this. In Crowsnest Pass, three people died and the lives of their families were forever changed, as a result of what occurred that fateful day in September of 1922.
APP Barracks Restoration Project
The APP Barracks have recently been restored by the Crowsnest Historical Society and are opening to the public during the upcoming Canada Day Weekend. The barracks are located at 7809 – 18th Avenue in Coleman beside the former Miner’s Union Hospital, two doors down from the Crowsnest Museum. The new museum and exhibit walks you through Alberta’s prohibition heritage, the stories surrounding the Alberta Provincial Police, and the local history surrounding the shooting of Constable Steven Lawson by Florence Lassandro and Emilio Picariello. A Grand Opening celebration is scheduled for the afternoon of June 29th. For more information or to make a donation to the APP Barracks Restoration Project, please visit the Crowsnest Museum website. Click here for a list of some of the Canada 150 events scheduled for Crowsnest Pass, including the opening of the APP Barracks.
Article References & Credits
The Rise & Fall of Emilio Picariello by Adriana A. Davies
The Bootlegger’s Bride by Jock Carpenter
Crowsnest and It’s People – Crowsnest Pass Historical Society
The University of Alberta – Peel’s Prairie Provinces (The Blairmore Enterprise)
Emilio Picariello (first image)
Emilio Picariello Family
Constable Stephen O. Lawson
APP Barracks – Crime Scene
Alberta Provincial Archives:
APP Checkstop – Coleman, Alberta
APP motorcycle & sidecar
Constable Stephen Lawson funeral
Glenbow Museum Archives:
Emilio Picariello – 1922 (NA-3281-1)
Florence Lassandro – September, 1922 (NA-3282-2)
Crowsnest Pass Prohibition Era Bottles: