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Monday, June 7, 2021

Murder and Mayhem in the Crowsnest Pass by Elizabeth Clements

            Coal mining was not the only activity thriving in the Crowsnest Pass of the Canadian Rocky Mountains in the early 1900s. The enforcement of prohibition in Alberta from 1916 to 1923 escalated another industry: bootlegging. The whiskey and rum-running trade along the Canada/U.S. border had kept the North West Mounted Police (NWMP) busy in the previous century.  Prohibition, WWI, and the departure of the Royal Northwest Mounted Police (NWMP) from the prairie provinces left a gap in police enforcement to handle the heightened criminal bootlegging activity thriving in southwestern Alberta. Thus, the Alberta Provincial Police (APP) was hastily created on March 1, 1917, to fill that need. The APP operated until 1932 when it was disbanded due to tight financial times created by the Great Depression.

            In 1916 Alberta was mandated dry but not British Columbia, thus making the Crowsnest Pass and its dense forests and mountainous terrain a tempting hot bed of illegal liquor smuggling for entrepreneurs.  And one man knew all the tricks to protect his lucrative new sideline.


Emilio Picariello was born in Capriglia Irpina, Italy in 1879 (or 1877) and at age 20, immigrated to the United States in 1899. The next year he met and married Maria Marucci, a housekeeper at a boarding house where he lived. Two years later they moved to Toronto, Canada where he worked at being a laborer and an electrician, saved his money and purchased an Italian grocery. It is unclear from my research what prompted Emilio in 1911 to move his family across Canada to Fernie, British Columbia (B.C.), where he found work at a macaroni factory. When the owner relocated to Alberta, Emelio rented the building and hired women to roll cigars.

Always the entrepreneur, the larger-than-life Emelio began manufacturing ice cream. In the summer of 1916 he sold ice cream from his wagon. His frozen treat became so popular that he expanded his operation by establishing ice cream parlors in Trail and in Blairmore, Alberta. At one time he manufactured ice cream at an incredible rate of 400 imperial gallons per day. When people couldn’t afford to pay, he accepted empty bottles, which he resold to bottlers in British Columbia. He became known as “The Bottle King” and even advertised in newspapers that he’d pay top prices to buy bottles. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

About this same time, prohibition was mandated in Alberta in 1916, although alcohol could still be legally imported. Never one to miss an opportunity, Emelio used two Ford Model T’s to begin transporting alcohol from B.C. to the small Alberta mining communities in the Crowsnest Pass, and even as far as Lethbridge. Then when British Columbia also entered prohibition in 1917, Emelio moved his operation to Blairmore, Alberta, because of its proximity to Montana, a state that did not ban the sale of alcohol. This location was also close to the distilleries in B.C. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Emelio bought the Alberta Hotel in Blairmore and made it the base of his rum-running operation. As luck would have it, Alberta banned the importation of alcohol in 1918. So, much like Al Capone’s secretive tunnel operations through the train station in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, Picariello went underground, literally, by excavating a hidden room under his hotel. A tunnel was dug out to a road where the smugglers could park, unobserved, and tote the alcohol through the tunnel. In case any noise should filter up into the hotel, Emelio hired a pianist to play in the hotel’s lounge.

By 1918, Picariello’s operations had grown to such an extent that he needed more vehicles and replaced his Ford Model T’s with three larger McLaughlins (numbering six by 1922). More than just a Bottle King now, he acquired the nickname Emperor Pic due to not only his wealth, but his generosity with his friends and giving to the poor. When the coal miners went on strike in 1918, he cashed in war bonds and distributed money amongst the poor. This generosity endeared him to his recipients, which may also have contributed to him being elected to a seat on Blairmore’s town council—despite it being widely known he was involved in bootlegging.

Owning a thriving hotel and several ice cream parlors in the Crowsnest area certainly gave Picariello some advantage—it would not appear unusual or suspicious to see his vehicles traveling about the area, making or receiving various deliveries. Despite his precautions, Picariello’s growing success did not go unnoticed and drew the attention of the newly-formed Alberta Provincial Police (APP). In an attempt to halt the smuggling trade, the APP set up road checks along the main route through the mountains. Picariello thwarted many of those efforts by lining the sides of his vehicles with sacks of flour and burying the alcohol underneath a couple of layers of flour sacks. He counted on the APP to do only a cursory check for booze, if any. After this successful ploy, he gave away the sacks to the poor. Another crafty manoeuver was to have vehicles travel several car lengths apart, with the first empty of illegal cargo and the second car loaded with hidden booze. If the police stopped to check the decoy car, the second car would either drive by while the police were occupied searching the first or they would keep enough of a distance that they could retreat undetected.


No doubt this is where Filumena Lossandro (nee Costanza) featured in the scenario. Born in Cosenza, Italy in 1900, Filumena immigrated with her family to Canada in 1909. In Fernie, B.C. she met and married her husband who was a chauffeur for Picariello and later became involved in the bootlegging operations. As an employee of Picariello, she’d perhaps be in the lead car, either driving or as a passenger, and using all her feminine wiles, would keep the police distracted. She was also rumored to be Emilio’s mistress, even though he was married and had six (or seven) children. She was definitely with Emilio on that fateful September day in 1922 when their world fell apart. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Earlier that day of September 21st during a sting operation, Constable Lawson of the APP had been in a car chase with Stefan Picariello, Emelio’s oldest son. The policeman shot Stefan in the hand. Upon hearing the news and thinking his son was dead, Emelio, accompanied by Filumena confronted the policemen. During the argument, Lawson was shot and later died. Emilio and Filumena were arrested the next day and charged with murder. They pled not guilty and managed to be tried together (to supposedly save the Crown court costs) but in actuality, they thought they stood a better chance of being acquitted because of Filumena being a woman. After all, female murderers were rare. The police could not establish which of the suspects had pulled the trigger because they weren’t confessing and the only witness was the constable’s very young daughter. The trial was held in Calgary in late December 1922. The jury found them guilty and sentenced to hang.

Emelio and Filumena were executed on May 2, 1923 just a few months before prohibition ended. Filumena is the only woman to ever have been hung in Alberta.

Several books have been published about Emperor Pic’s life. When this writer visited the Crowsnest Pass, particularly the Frank Slide Interpretive Centre in the late 1990s, a play was performed there about Emelio and Filumena. Regrettably, I can’t recall for certain if I saw it, but the crime piqued my interest. I do recall watching the stunning short film made of Turtle Mountain’s massive rock slide. Even all these years later I recall the dark screen, the sound of a single rock tumbling through the darkness, then a second, a third and then a rush of rocks hurtling down the mountain and spilling thousands of tons through the valley. I wrote a blog about it last year.

The life-size cardboard cut-outs of miners and their wives displayed in the Interpretive Center haunt me to this day. It compelled me to write a book about it. That story I condensed a couple years ago into a novella and set it in a fictitious town in Colorado. It’s part of an anthology called Hot Western Nights published by Prairie Rose Publications. Below is an excerpt from Diamond Jack's Angel. Photo courtesy of Nicholas Clements Photography.

Excerpt: Diamond Jack's Angel

Jack Williams rode up the mountain trail to pick up his shirts. He could have had them done at the laundry in town, but he liked to give Angela a little help. He snorted. Who am I kidding? I just like seeing her. Too bad she doesn't feel the same.

Angela had made it quite clear she disapproved of him when more than once she had come into town to look for her grandfather in the saloons. For some reason the old miner preferred his saloon and often stayed too long. A few times when old Leopold got too deep into his cups, Jack had taken him home to the camp, afraid he’d fall off the mountain if he didn’t.

Coming up through the trees, Jack saw a woman and a dog standing at the edge of the clearing. No other women lived here, but he’d recognize Angela’s shape anywhere. She was the only female in Brookstown who wore her golden hair in a braided crown on her head, just like a princess would wear a tiara. Just once, he’d love to see her hair flowing around her shoulders.

“It’s me—Jack,” he called so she would know it was a friend approaching. At least he hoped she saw him as a friend.



Link for Diamond Jack’s Angel/Hot Western Nights Anthology








  1. I did not know Canada had dry areas too. A fascinating piece of history here, and such a tragic waste of life for no good reason.

    1. National prohibition occurred from 1918-1920 as a war measure, but whenever something's banned, there are always people who will find a way to profit from it illegally. I agree, a tragic waste of life. I'm guessing that Filumena was also hanged because it was a policeman who was killed. The death penalty was abolished in 1976 for murder, treason and piracy. Thanks for stopping by, Christine.

  2. Interesting story, Elizabeth. I couldn't help feeling sorry for Emilio and Filumena. His crafty business sense and her chutzpah should have been seen in a positive light. If only they hadn't shot Lawson! What bad luck that all this happened just before prohibition came to an end.

    1. Not all criminals are dumb. Emilio was definitely a smart man who chose greed over morality. I've often said if criminals could direct their clever minds to legal activities, the world would be a much better and safer place. I feel sad for his wife and children who would have suffered from this scandal. Thanks for stopping by, Arlene.

  3. What a sad story.
    Your excerpt is very intriguing- tmepts me to read on.

    1. Yes, definitely a sad ending. It's so ironic that he was well respected by the public despite his bootlegging activities because of his kindness to the poor. He no doubt remembered his humble beginnings and could empathize with people in need. I cannot forget the suffering I saw in the photographs of the miners and their wives, so I have a soft side for Emilio's generosity to the poor, especially when he gave money to them during the miner's strike in 1918. Thanks for stopping by, Lindsay. I hope you get a chance to read my novella in Hot Western Nights. That story is very close to my heart.

  4. Replies
    1. Awww, thank you, Chia. You are so kind. Thank you for taking the time to read my blog. I appreciate you stopping by.

  5. I always love when you post some history about Canada. I did not know that Canada had Prohibition like the United States. My maternal grandfather worked in the coal mine in Shamokin, PA in his early youth. There is a picture of him in the family album at the mouth of the mine covered in coal dust holding my mom when she was just a baby. It was a hard, dangerous way to make a living with very little pay.
    I thought I had HOT WESTERN NIGHTS, but, hanging my head in shame, I don't. I must go get it off Amazon ASAP.
    As always, I wish you the very best, Elizabeth.

  6. Thank you for saying you love to hear about Canadian history. When I started writing my first book back in 1982, I felt strongly that Canada had interesting history and amazing scenery, and why can't romances be set here, too, not just in the U.S. or England (I read a lot of Harlequins when I was expecting my twins and had to lie down a lot. My first book included some history of the Yukon gold rush history tied into a contemporary action/adventure romance. All my books are set in Canadian locations because I felt readers would be interested in reading a story in a different setting. None of the romances I'd read were set in Canada except one and the British writer made no effort to research Calgary for her setting, and I knew Calgary very well . Yes, coal mining was a hard, dirty job, working in the dark, let alone the danger of a shaft collapsing. We've had our share of mining disasters over the years. Hot Western Nights is a delightful anthology and I'm so proud to be part of it. The anthology has received 5-star ratings. Thank you for stopping by, Sarah. You're always so kind and supportive.