There was a time in Western Canada when vanilla extract could only be obtained from a specially licensed druggist. This was because the spirit content of flavour extracts averaged 77% which was well over the 2.5% allowed by the infamous Prohibition Act passed in Alberta on July 1, 1916. The Act effectively shut down all beer parlours and liquor houses in Alberta and led to an exploitation of loopholes, and an illicit booze trade known affectionately as “Rum Running.” It was an era of illegal clandestine operations, high speed chases and riots by outraged soldiers and thirsty miners.
On the BC side of the Crowsnest Pass, a Sicilian-born man by the name of Emilio Picariello began exporting and bootlegging, and he soon became the most renowned figure to emerge on the prohibition scene. “Emperor Pic,” as he became known, recognized the business possibilities of running liquor across the border, and the residents of Southern Alberta were most supportive. His first contraband shipments were made with Model T Fords with front bumpers of piping filled with concrete for running Barriers.
On July 1st, 1919, prohibition came to the United States, and Montana and Utah found themselves quite dry. This was a blessing for rum runners as it effectively doubled their market. The wonderful sources of supply that Pic and his two counterparts, Mr. Big and Mr. R, had built up now proved to be useful as outlets. He expanded his business and purchased two Mclaughlin Six Specials, Buicks that could outrun just about anything else on the road. These cars were commonly referred to as “Whisky Sixes” and anyone who owned one was eyed with suspicion.
By the end of 1919, the ban on importation had been lifted, the export houses re-opened and the breweries began to run full tilt again. Pressure immediately mounted from such groups as the Social Service League of Alberta to hold another plebiscite on importation and although the Pass again voted wet, the bible belt gave prohibitionists another decided majority.
On February 1st, 1921, importation again officially ceased. With this ban came a serious increase in illicit traffic. Stills sprang up everywhere, vendors were broken into and freight trains were looted in transit. Bootleggers and stills were operating in every city, town and village in Alberta. With increased abuse came increased demands to tighten police control and enforce the Liquor Act.
Pic, meanwhile, carried on despite the new competition and continual Alberta Provincial Police harassment. His McLaughlin Sixes were replaced with even faster Sevens. Finally, in the fall of 1922, events unfolded that ended Pic’s illustrious career and eventually his life. On one of their runs from BC, Pic and his son Steve were confronted by the A.P.P. who wanted to catch them with the goods. Steve made a run for the BC border and when he passed through Coleman at high speed, he was wounded in the hand by a constable named Steve Lawson who made an unsuccessful attempt to stop him. Lawson was Fernie’s Chief of Police from 1920 to 1922.
On learning that his son was wounded, arrested and being held in Michel, Pic drove to Coleman. Later that same evening, accompanied by Florence Losandro (Constanzo), he confronted Constable Lawson at his home. In the argument that ensued shots were fired and Lawson died in the street in front of his wife and daughter.Picariello and Florence sped away and were caught the next day. They were charged with murder. What followed was a long series of trials and appeals that ended with their convictions being upheld. On May 3, 1923, in a Fort Saskatchewan jail, the saga of Emilio Picariello ended in what many consider a harsh and unforgiving manner; he was hung.
On May 10, 1924, prohibition came to an end in Alberta by government proclamation and the era of rum running and bootlegging dwindled away to a scant few, now regarded as not so respectable.
Author: John Kinnear
In Fernie, a relic of the rum running days still stands. It is the old dairy on 1st Avenue, now Total Attraction Hair Design, which was at one time an export house that supplied Picariello’s counterpart the elusive Mr. Big, for many years.