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Rocco Perri came to Canada almost a century ago from Calabria, Italy. Even today his name is well known to historians, police and organized crime--and especially to the people of the city he called home--Hamilton, Ontario.
A poor immigrant, Perri along with his common-law wife, Bessie Starkman, built an unequalled crime empire for the time. During the Prohibition years, Perri provided alcohol to a thirsty clientele in Canada and the United States--a business that was very illegal and highly lucrative. Al Capone and Joseph Kennedy were among Perri's customers. The Perris also ran gambling, loan-sharking, extortion and prostitution rackets.
In the heady 1920s, Ontario was a dry province. After the war, the Ontario Temperance Act, which originally prohibited public consumption and sale of alcohol as a wartime measure, had been strengthened to close a variety of loopholes to become outright prohibition. It was, of course, a widely flouted law that gave rise to an underground economy of thriving bootleggers who supplied beer and whisky to blind pigs and speakeasies—as well as to Americans suffering through the decade-long thirst of the Volstead Act south of the border. Rocco Perri, an Italian immigrant to Hamilton, was one of many once-small-time crooks who were emboldened and enriched by the smuggling trade.
A letter uncovered by renowned crime journalist Antonio Nicaso indicates Rocco Perri was alive and kicking in 1949. An Italian cousin of the mobster has told the writer that Perri died in 1953 in Massena, N.Y. A copy of the letter, which the cousin gave to Nicaso in 1992, is written in Italian and is dated June 10, 1949. The mobster, also known as Canada's Al Capone because of the size of his bootlegging business in the 1920s, was reported missing by another cousin to Hamilton police on April 23, 1944, when he failed to return from a walk in the North End.
Perri had been the intended victim of foul play since 1930, including a shooting in 1930 and two bombings in 1938. In the 1930 incident at his swanky Bay Street South home, the killers missed him, but killed his lover and partner in crime, Bessie Starkman.
The letter indicates his disappearance may have been planned. "Dear cousin," it says. "With this letter, I will tell you I am in good health. Let them know I'm fine if you've heard the news." It is signed Rocco Perri.
Antonio Nicaso is the author of the book "Rocco Perri: The Story of Canada's Most Notorious Bootlegger"
The existence of a potential suicide note Perri may have left behind in his car, found by Hamilton police when they searched the vehicle a few days after he disappeared. A detective described the tone of the unsigned letter as being "a self sacrifice" and it contains the line, "I soon sacrificed my selfe (sic) and not give you any worry."
Perri did his bootlegging business with the famed American Kennedy family.
Perri and Bessie Starkman had a son in 1914, but he died of ill health after two days.
Perri's actual birthdate is December 30, 1887, not Dec. 27, 1887, or 1890 as is reported.
Perri's mother died in 1897 and his father remarried within months. Relatives said Perri never accepted his stepmother and it was one of the motivations which made him immigrate to North America in 1903, first settling in Massena, N.Y.
Perri had received an education from a priest in his hometown of Plati, in the toe of the Italian mainland, and it made him popular with uneducated immigrants when he came to Canada because he was able to write.
Perri first settled in the United States when he came to North America in 1903. He came to Canada in 1908 and worked at various construction jobs around Ontario, including living in St. Catharines and North Bay, before settling in Toronto in 1912. There, he boarded with a family named Starkman and fell in love with his landlady, Bessie, a mother of two. They ran off together and settled in Hamilton in 1916, just as the Ontario Temperance Act -- prohibition -- went into effect.
The couple operated a grocery store on Hess Street North, but went into bootlegging. The money poured in, and there were several killings of Perri's rivals in which he was believed to have been involved.
In his prime, he was selling 1,000 cases of 60-proof whisky a day. The couple are said to have made millions. Perri got his nickname from an interview with a reporter in 1924. "While I admit I am king of the bootleggers, I can assure you I had nothing to do with these deaths. I only give men fast cars and I sell only the best liquor, so I don't see why anyone should complain, for no one wants prohibition."
When his beloved Bessie was slain in 1930 outside their 17-room mansion, 10,000 people turned out to see the funeral. It featured a $3,000 silver-trimmed casket, 15 cars of flowers and the sight of a hysterically upset Rocco Perri.
Rocco Perri drove a Marmon motor car.
Perri found a second love and partner in crime in Annie Newman. In 1940, he was interned in Petawawa in a general roundup of Italians believed to be sympathetic to Italian fascism. He was released in 1943 but, by that time, his Hamilton fiefdom had been annexed by the Buffalo mob.
Source:"Rocco Perri uncovered?" <http://www.nicaso.com/pages/doc_page153.html>
Books About Rocco Perri
"Rocco Perri: The Story of Canada's Most Notorious Bootlegger" by Antonio Nicaso Wiley. 2004 ISBN-13: 978-0470835265
ROCCO PERRI: King of the Bootleggers is more than the biography of a man and his empire; it is a riveting portrait of a time when corruption was rampant, murder a business necessity, and discrimination against newcomers forced many to turn to crime as a means of survival. This book also solves a half-century-long mystery about the fate of Rocco Perri.
- "King of the Mob: Rocco Perri and the Women Who Ran His Rackets" by James Dubro and Robin Rowland. Viking Canada, Distributed by Penguin Books Canada. 1987. ISBN 0-670-81533-0.
- "Rocco Perri: The Story of Canada's Most Notorious Bootlegger" by Antonio Nicaso Wiley. 2004 ISBN-13: 978-0470835265
- Powerpoint Presntation on Rocco Perri from St. Thomas University
- Historicist: The Bootlegger's Bravado article from torontoist.com