COSTANZO, FILUMENA (Florence) (Sanfidele (Lassandro)), bootlegger’s accomplice and convicted murderer; b. 1900 in Cosenza, Italy, daughter of Vincenzo Costanzo and Angela ––; m. 16 Oct. 1915 Carlo (Charles) Sanfidele in Fernie, B.C.; they had no children; d. 2 May 1923 in Fort Saskatchewan, Alta.
Filumena Costanzo immigrated to Canada with her mother and father, sister and brother, in 1909. The family settled in Fernie, where Costanzo’s father was employed as a coalminer, the primary occupation in the Crowsnest Pass [see Frank Henry Sherman*]. In 1915, at the age of 14, Florence (who had changed her name on the advice of a teacher) married 23-year-old Carlo Sanfidele. As was the custom among Italians at the time, the marriage had been arranged by her father. Shortly after it took place, she and her husband moved to Pennsylvania in search of employment, but within only a few months they had returned to Canada, settling in Blairmore, Alta. It appears that Carlo adopted the surname Lassandro because he had entered the United States illegally and hoped he could avoid prosecution under the assumed name. By 1916 he was employed in Blairmore as a chauffeur to local businessman Emilio Picariello.
On 1 July 1916 Prohibition came into force in Alberta, making the sale of alcohol illegal. Soon after introduction of the legislation, a brisk bootlegging trade developed which involved the transportation of alcohol from neighbouring wet jurisdictions, including British Columbia and Montana, to southern Alberta and the clandestine sale of the illicit product to slake the thirst of the local mining community. By this time Carlo was working for Picariello as manager of the Alberta Hotel in Blairmore in addition to serving as a chauffeur. As part of his duties he took his employer’s powerful McLaughlin Six motor car on bootlegging runs. Picariello’s operation was extensive, stretching from Nelson, B.C., to Regina. His son Stefano (Steve) also was a driver. Picariello was able to continue his runs into British Columbia even after the sale of alcohol was prohibited there in 1917 and its manufacture was banned the following year. Florence Lassandro and the young Picariello were close in age and Picariello Sr believed the appearance of a young couple crossing the border seemingly out for an afternoon picnic was the perfect cover. As a result, the two rode together on numerous runs. On occasion, Florence drove alone. But whether alone or with Stefano Picariello, she participated in this illegal activity over several years.
On 21 Sept. 1922 officers of the Alberta Provincial Police pursued and attempted to intercept an automobile believed to contain illegal liquor and driven by Picariello’s son. As the car entered the main street in Coleman, Alta, the local police signalled it to stop, but when no attempt was made to comply, Constable Stephen Oldacres Lawson fired at the vehicle, striking Stefano in the hand. The police gave chase, but Picariello’s vehicle soon outdistanced them and they abandoned their pursuit. News of the incident reached Emilio Picariello that evening. Believing that his son might have been seriously injured or even killed, he armed himself and, together with Florence Lassandro, drove to the Coleman police barracks. Constable Lawson emerged and heated words were exchanged. As the confrontation escalated to physical grappling, two shots were fired apparently from Picariello’s vehicle, both of which missed Lawson. The constable turned away from the car, perhaps to retrieve his own firearm, and a third, fatal shot struck him in the back. His wife and one of his daughters witnessed the incident from the doorway of the barracks. Picariello and Lassandro immediately fled in their vehicle and eluded the police during the night of 21–22 September. They were finally apprehended in Blairmore late in the day on the 22nd.
Both Picariello and Lassandro were charged with murder. After a preliminary hearing in Coleman, the pair were remanded for trial in Calgary before Mr Justice William Legh Walsh*. With the financial means to retain top-flight counsel, Picariello hired prominent Calgary defence lawyer John McKinley Cameron* to act for both accused. The trial attracted much local and national attention. Prohibition itself was extremely controversial and Picariello’s reputation as a rum-runner was well known. Also, the shooting of a policeman, then as now, was regarded as a particularly contemptible act. At the same time, Picariello was conspicuous in the Blairmore area as a local politician and a philanthropist and was widely called the “Emperor.”
Cameron believed that a mysterious bystander had been responsible for the fatal shot but no supporting evidence could be found and the argument presented in court, also reasonably consistent with the facts, was that of self-defence. The jury, however, was unconvinced and the six-day trial resulted in convictions. In passing the obligatory sentence of death, Walsh acknowledged that some leniency might be extended to Lassandro because she was a woman, but that she should nevertheless prepare to meet her end. On Picariello’s instructions, Cameron appealed to the Supreme Court of Alberta and, upon dismissal of the case there, to the Supreme Court of Canada. The original convictions were upheld.
Jailed in Fort Saskatchewan, with no reprieve or commutation despite further efforts by her lawyer, Lassandro spent the night before her execution in prayer with a Franciscan priest. Then in the early dawn of 2 May 1923, minutes after Picariello had met his end, she in turn ascended the scaffold steps. Protesting her innocence to the last and maintaining that she forgave “everyone,” Florence Lassandro was hanged.
Reaction to the conviction and execution of Lassandro and her co-accused was mixed. The Italian community in the Crowsnest Pass was appalled but there is evidence of a general view in Calgary that their treatment was entirely appropriate. An appeal by Lassandro’s family to have her remains returned to Blairmore was refused by the provincial government and both Lassandro and Picariello were interred in an unmarked grave in a north Edmonton cemetery.
With its ingredients of murder, courtroom drama, and ultimate tragedy, the story of Florence Lassandro’s brief life has received considerable attention, both literary and theatrical, including a full dramatic opera. Sometimes portrayed as an innocent victim caught up in events or controlled by the Svengali-like Picariello, she remains something of an enigma. What is clear, however, is that her death on the Fort Saskatchewan gallows provided fuel and focus for the public debate on both Prohibition and capital punishment.
GA, M 4843/30-31; M 6242; M 6840. Blairmore Enterprise (Blairmore, Alta), 1922–23. Calgary Herald, 1922–23. F. W. Anderson, A dance with death: Canadian women on the gallows, 1754–1954 (Saskatoon and Calgary, 1997). Brian Brennan, Scoundrels and scallywags: characters from Alberta’s past (Calgary, 2002). Jock Carpenter, Bootlegger’s bride ([Calgary], 1993). Ann Chandler, “The lady & the bootlegger,” Beaver (Winnipeg), 84 (2003–4), no.3: 40–44. Citymakers: Calgarians after the frontier, ed. Max Foran and S. S. Jameson (Calgary, 1987). R. E. Spence, Prohibition in Canada: a memorial to Francis Stephens Spence (Toronto, 1919).