Black Sheep Sunday – Philomena Costanzo and the Sopranos

Philomena Castanzo was born in 1901 in Calabria, Italy.  Lured by the promise of work, in the coalmines of Crowsnest Pass, Philomena came to Canada with her parents to Fernie, British Columbia.

By the autumn of 1915, Philomena was still a teenager (14) and married off to Charles Lassandro (nee Carlo Sanfidele), who was ten-years her senior.  Sanfidele had changed his name in order to get through Customs and enter Canada.  And shortly after the wedding, much to his young wife’s dismay, Lassandro changed her name to Florence.

Before she was 23, she was dead.  Florence Lassandro was involved in the murder of a police officer.  She was convicted and hanged; she was the first woman in the province of Alberta sent to the gallows.

But how did she get mixed up in this?

Well, a little history first:  On July 21st, 1915, Alberta’s all-male electorate enacted Prohibition legislation with a vote of 61% and by July 16th, 1916 the consumption of alcohol as a beverage was illegal.  But, at the same time, although the province voted to go dry, the population of Crowsnest Pass voted “wet!”

With the outbreak of war, coupled with the Temperance Movement, prohibition gained momentum.  By 1917, every province — except Quebec, implemented the legislation.  But with soldiers returning home by 1919, they did not accept these imposed puritan values and by May 10th 1924, prohibition was abolished.

During the drying out period, to supply demands, a man named Emil Picariello did a little bootlegging.  He had legit businesses as a hotelier (he owned the Alberta Hotel in Blairmore) and manufacturing ice cream. Emil was nicknamed “Emperor Pic.”

Although Florence’s husband was an employee of Picariello, it was Florence who lived with the Picariellos and their family.  Rumours surfaced that she was in love with Pic’s son, Steve.

So, what went wrong?

September 1921:  During a liquor run, Steve was involved in a police chase, and got shot by a Constable Lawson.  Wounded, Steve escaped to Natal (Michel), British Columbia.  The severity of his injuries were not clear. In the community of Coleman, Emil and Florence met up with the police officer, gun fire followed heated words and the cop was fatally wounded.  Allegedly, Lawson died steps from his home in front of his family.

Both Florence and Emil were convicted, tried and found guilty, but it was still questionable as to who pulled the trigger.  The reasons for Florence’s involvement in the crime were not proven during the trial either; or whether she felt remorse for Lawson’s death.  Both were sentenced to hang and unsuccessfully petitioned for clemency.

The hanging: 2 May 1923

[Transcription of above graphic]

Picariello went first. “You are hanging an innocent man, God help me.”

Lassandro followed a few minutes later.

She had spent the night with her priest in prayer, and made the long walk from the woman’s building across the jail yard with a steady step.

“Why do you hang me when I didn’t do anything?” she asked, looking down from the scaffold. “Is there not anyone who has any pity?”

No one answered.

“I forgive everybody,” she said.  Then the trap was sprung.


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