The Rise and Fall of Emilio Picariello

by Adriana A. Davies

By Aritha van Herk

Oolichan books
2016/$19.95/128 pp.

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.

Davies’s careful unpacking of the pertinent and available facts is methodical and persuasive. She addresses the social, legal and circumstantial evidence with unsensational dispassion, and if all these years later it is still unclear whether Picariello or Lassandro—or someone else—shot Lawson, it is clear that this unforgettable story unfolds as a paradigm for early Alberta’s pattern of cause and effect, blame and retribution.

A wonderful historical inquiry, The Rise and Fall of Emilio Picariello is compelling and effective. If it has a flaw, it is that the publication’s images are blurry and undersized; they could be sharper and larger. But like the blurred traces of the past, this is still a significant chronicle of a key moment in Alberta’s history, one that contributed to the repeal of Prohibition and to a new awareness of the limitations of conventional British law.

Aritha van Herk’s new book is Stampede and the Westness of West.

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