Growing up in Fernie rumours were rampant about Emilio Picariello and tunnels under Victoria Avenue connecting businesses for the purpose of Rum Running during prohibition. Walking gingerly on iron vents on sidewalks further invoked visions of Emilio Picariello, secret meetings and illicit goings on underneath the pavement. Years later although one business did have a tunnel that went from the main building across the alleyway secret tunnels have yet to be verified as true.
To this day the illusion lives on as during the prohibition years that Fernie was not immune to legislation enforcement of those involved in moving prohibited liquor from one place to another. It was well known at the time that several local businessmen were linked with the transportation of liquor to Alberta and Montana. In an interview I conducted with Dr. Alberto Aiello we touched on this topic. Dr. Aiello was celebrating a 100th birthday in 2003 and was mentally sharp with clear memories from growing up in Fernie. “Dad always said he wasn’t a bootlegger, he said he had a licence. The chief of police had a cache of booze in his house, and he sold the booze to dad, but dad had to get it out of his house so he devised a plan that his wife and sister could help with. They would take their babies out in their double Decker buggies, every day those babies got a ride, on the way back the false bottom was filled with booze, baby bootleggers. Dad said lots of booze in basements of hotels, there were two trains going east and west daily, in Hillcrest one person would fill his brown suitcase with booze, stay in town until the train came through to take him home”. His father Joe Aiello had a clothing business in town for decades next to Amantea shoes in the building that is now the Arts Coop.
Much has been written about prohibition and the life of Emilio Picariello, who moved from the United States to Fernie in 1911. The story of Emilio Picariello and Florence Lassandro has been methodically studied by Adriana A. Davies with a subsequent book. Another publication is by Gisele Amantea, as well as numerous articles and an opera have been written.
In her book “The Rise and Fall of Emilio Picariello” Davies writes, “It is important to note that arrests of Italians in the period 1912 to 1921 were minimal and, until these liquor related offences, were to do with disputes domestic or with neighbors or vagrancy charges. Overall arrests would likely total less than 1% if that. The largest number of offenders was of British descent. The fact that Lawson was targeting Italians in particular Carosella suggests that racism may have been a factor, Lawson was the Police chief of Ferne, his arrests were meticulously recorded in court records”.
Davies’ account caught my attention due to precise study of this issue as a “Cold Case” that led her to “return to the research and to make a range of new discoveries.” She performed a deep dive into a variety of material including documents of the lead defence attorney J. McKinley Cameron and the Provincial Archives of Alberta trial materials, the Picariello will, APP records and Glenbow archives in Calgary, BC archives, Crowsnest Archives and Galt archives in Lethbridge, private sources as well as reading many articles from local, provincial, national media and gathered information from the family of Picarello.
I knew of Carmine Picariello and his wife Bunty Sweeney who I worked with at the Tom Uphill Home when she was the manager and although their daughters Kathleen and Mary Ellen and I had attended the same school I didn’t know that the family was related to Emilio. On learning this it held a mysterious Fernie connection to it that I sought to know more about.
The story garnered much attention at the time of happening and then again when it was brought forward in the CrowsNest Pass with an opera written and performed to rave reviews. It was then that I learned more about the incident of Lawson being shot and Picariello and Florence Lasandro, the woman accompanying him on that fatal day, accused and both hung to death.
This past August my husband handed me a note with the name and phone number of someone called Barb who wanted to know if I knew anything about the Florence Lasandro’s remains being exhumed to be reinterred, I did not. The next day I read in the Church bulletin that a Florence Costanzo was to be reinterred at St. Margaret’s cemetery after a mass being held for her soul in Holy Family Parish Church. I knew instinctively that this was Florence Lasandro and I decided that I would attend the funeral mass. From what I had read in the past there was many discrepancies in the accusations made against her and Picariello and it was written that even with the rope around her neck and her head covered in a hood, she professed her innocence until the platform gave way and she expired.
I know that Italian immigrants weren’t always treated fairly and at this point I quote from Davies’s book, “A deposition dated October 8/19/22 by Philip Martin Christophers, member of the Legislative Assembly and resident of Blairmore stated, I am very well acquainted with all the prominent residents throughout all the mining towns and camps for the Crows Nest Pass. I have been and served as president of district #18 of the United mine workers of America which said district #18 includes all the mining camps in southwestern Alberta and which are situated in the McLeod district and by reason of my position in occupation I necessarily come in contact with a great number of the residents of this part of the same said McLeod Judicial District and have since the 21st day of September 1922 had conversations with upwards of 200 people residing in this Judicial District regarding the death or killing of the late constable Stephen O. Lawson and by reason of my political position I have keenly observed the attitude of mind of the people throughout that part of the Judicial District regarding the said killing, there is almost a universal, keen feeling of hostility and prejudice in what appears to me to be a personal resentment in the minds of nearly all the people in this district against the accused persons and especially against the accused Picarello”.
It was well known Picariello had become very successful with his business activities, and it was understood by those in the know that wealthy business competitors like the not so mysterious “Mr. Big” that Picariello had to be stopped from continuing this success.
Wanting to pay respects to the woman that had ties to Fernie and who I believed to have been unfairly vilified I wanted to attend the funeral but on arrival at the church I was refused entrance because an invitation was required. I returned to my vehicle and as I sat there I noticed a petite woman walking by recognizing her as Kathleen Picariello. Aware of the mass and internment she drove from Calgary to Fernie to attend but was turned away because she did not have an invitation. A few minutes later her cousins from the CrowsNest Pass arrived and were refused entrance so we decided to meet at a local restaurant to talk.
Fighting tears Kathleen spoke about her grand father Emilio and remembered how people who had known him told her they owed him a debt of thanks for the many times he had helped them often providing baskets of food. She said many comments like that were told to her. She also recalled meeting with Florence’s family in Calgary at the opera Filomena. She said Florence’s husband was an employee at the Blairmore hotel that her grandfather owned. She spoke about how after her grand father and Florence were hung it was rumored that they had been buried at Fort Saskatchewan, but it was always a mystery. The executor of her grandfather’s will and testament left money for grave markers. Connelly in Edmonton was contacted, and gravestones placed there. “He left the money because he believed they were innocent”. Kathleen added that had her family known many would have come to honor Florence. Emilio’s family who was present, Kathleen Picariello Bjorndahen, cousins Barb Kelley and Arlene Fiedler agreed that being turned away was harsh. Kathleen burst into tears several times during our conversation. She had come not knowing the mass was private as it stated no such information in the bulletin. There was no answer to why the Picariello family was left out of the service.
Later from one attendee it was commented that it was “a regular funeral service with a small casket, with red and white roses and readings by family members. At the cemetery the casket was placed on a stand of two boxes covered in white, two people placed the casket down, red roses across both sides adorned the plot”. At the end of the service in church and cemetery a lunch reception was held for about 125 people in the Family Center.
I was told later that invited guests were sworn to secrecy regarding the reinternment for that reason it was surprising to see a lengthy obituary in the September 7, 2023 edition of the Free Press. Although upon reading it I understood in part as to why this was only for family and close friends of the descendants of Florence Costanzo, many who still call Fernie home.
I quote from the obituary, “We cannot imagine or comprehend the shock, grief, and sorrow you and your family suffered when Florence, a young married lady was put to death by hanging on May 2, 1923. The sinister trial she encountered did not harm her morally or spiritually but brought a platter full of shame of humiliation and of dishonor for your family to endure for decades. It didn’t help with reporters, writers, authors, artists, and others who took latitude of interpretation and opinion to injure Florence’s character for personal gratification. Nonna, Nonno we know your family was subjected to name calling, bias, bigotry, and daily challenges but you soldiered on. We know you took time to enjoy your customs and suffered ridicule. We know you worked hard and suffered racism. We know you cried and suffered one of our country’s greatest injustices. Today 100 years later, the hour of reunion with Mama and Papa has arrived. Nonna Angelina, Nonno Vincent your generational grandchildren and Florence’s generational nieces and nephews are so proud to bring your loving daughter home.”
The emotional words in the obituary show sorrow and heartache felt over 100 years. Even now generational family members hold the pain and shame of what happened but indicating blame is not on Florence but on others who used the situation to their own advantage.
I heard comments expressing that the tone of the obituary was mistaken to emphasize shame and dishonour felt by the family and that focus needed to be stronger on the injustice perpetrated on Florence and Emilio.
Italians are passionate people, as daughter of Italian immigrants, I understand the feeling of shame and dishonor that Italian families felt at anything that hinted of impropriety and illegality. Being honest and law abiding was crucial especially in a new country. Having Emilio Picariello and Florence Costanzo Lasandro accused and hung would have been devastating to the family. It also advanced the belief that southern Italians were of less intelligence and thus of lesser value and so expendable. Had Florence been born with a Smith or Jones surname would she have been so quickly crucified by the media and the law? Kathleen, Barb, Arlene and I believe the response to this question is no, she would not have been.
There was disappointment, sadness and tears from Emilio’s family not allowed to attend the mass to pay respects to Florence. But thanks to the work of Adriana A. Davies and others the perceived truth about Emilio Picariello and Florence Lasandro is available for all to read and to ponder on about the injustice done to these two people. In the meantime, Florence’s soul is surely at peace, home at last after 100 years and loved greatly by her generational family. Sincere Condolences to all.
By Mary Giuliano
Mary arrived in Fernie in May of 1953 and has lived here ever since, by choice, because she loves the Elk Valley and everything it stands for. Read more from Mary here.
Storyboards provided by: Crowsnest Museum