Alberta Views reviews The Rise and Fall of Emilio Picariello

By Aritha van Herk

Emilio Picariello, or “Emperor Pic” as he was known, has garnered fascination since he was hanged, along with Florence Lassandro, at Fort Saskatchewan Gaol on May 2, 1923. He has, as this illustrated history points out, been depicted in essays and books, both historical and fanciful, a play (Sharon Pollock’s Whiskey Six Cadenza), an opera (John Estacio and John Murrell’s Filumena) and a visual narrative (by Gisele Amantea). He and Lassandro continue to intrigue, both for their lives and for their regrettable ends.

Adriana Davies, a respected Alberta historian, sets out here to provide a thorough and balanced investigation of the Picariello story—from his birth in Italy to his immigration to the US to his move to Toronto and then west to Fernie and Blairmore. An entrepreneur who built a small empire of businesses in the Crowsnest Pass, Picariello owned a hotel, an ice cream wagon, a garage, a trucking business and a cigar-making enterprise, the ne plus ultra of a successful immigrant, generous to his community and loyal to his family.

Davies argues his success coupled with an unpopular Prohibition Act brought Picariello to the point of facing harsh retribution. He was clearly an energetic and redoubtable man for whom bootlegging was a business opportunity, and customers were easy to find: “It was not just poor miners who drank; it was also a vice of the ruling elites, including politicians, policemen and lawyers.” The conjunction of Prohibition, Picariello and the zealous Alberta Provincial Police came to a head in September of 1922 with the shooting death of constable Stephen Lawson and with Picariello and Lassandro charged with murder. Their trial was conducted with exactly the kind of justice not inclined to be lenient to an upstart “foreigner,” a parvenu in a hierarchical society. The outcome was predictable.

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