Rocco Perri

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Rocco Perri
Born Rocco Perre
(1887-12-30)December 30, 1887
Platì, Calabria, Italy
Disappeared April 23, 1944 (aged 56)
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Status Declared dead in absentia[1]
Occupation Bootlegger, mob boss
Years active 1916–1944
Spouse(s) Bessie Starkman

Rocco Perri (born Rocco Perre on December 30, 1887; disappeared April 23, 1944) was an organized crime figure in Ontario, Canada in the early 20th century. He was one of the most prominent Calabrian mafiosi bosses in Canadian history, and the spouse of Bessie Starkman. He was known as "The King of the Bootleggers".[2]

Family and criminal activities[edit]

Perri was born in Platì, Calabria, in southern Italy on December 30, 1887, who immigrated to the United States in 1903, then Canada in 1908.[3]

In 1913, Perri met Bessie Starkman, who left her husband and two children to run away with Perri.[3] When the Government of Canada cut funding to the Welland Canal project due to World War I, Perri was unemployed. After working in a bakery, he became a salesman for the Superior Macaroni Company. Perri and Starkman found a better life when the Ontario Temperance Act came into effect on September 16, 1916, as it restricted the sale and distribution of alcohol; the couple began bootlegging and, using Starkman's business acumen and Perri's connections, established a profitable business. Perri and Starkman's Hamilton residence was located at 166 Bay Street South in Hamilton, Ontario.[4]

In 1918, Perri began an affair with Olive Routledge, whom he had two daughters with.[3] Bessie, busy running the finances for their organization, did not question Perri's outings. In 1922, Routledge found out about another woman in Perri's life and committed suicide by jumping from a building; her parents would take custody of their children.[3]

Three developments ensured Perri's bootleg operations would continue to be profitable. Prohibition was declared in Canada on December 23, 1917; in April 1918, it became illegal to transport alcohol in Canada; in 1920, the Eighteenth Amendment prohibited sale of alcohol in the United States. Through the 1920s, he became the leading figure in organized crime in Southern Ontario. He was under constant surveillance by police. He specialized in exporting liquor from old Canadian distilleries, such as Seagram and Gooderham and Worts to the United States, and helped these companies obtain a large share of the American market — a share they kept after Prohibition ended. Perri diversified into gambling, extortion and prostitution. Perri has also been linked as a distributor of Canadian whisky to New York City's Frank Costello and Chicago's Al Capone; but when asked if Capone knew Perri, he said "I don't even know which street Canada is on."[5]

On May 10, 1922, boss of the Scaroni crime family, Domenic Scaroni was killed after invited to a meeting of organized crime figures in Niagara Falls.[3] Domenic's brother Joe Scaroni, was also killed on September 4, after driven to a bakery by Perri associates John Trott and Antonio Deconza.[3] Perri was linked to the murders, though no hard evidence was found. With the Scaroni brothers eliminated, Perri formed allegiance with the Serianni crime family to keep the Ontario market away from the Buffalo Magaddino crime family.[3]

In 1927, Perri was compelled to testify at a Royal Commission on Customs and Excise inquiry, focusing on bootlegging and smuggling, and also at a hearing on tax evasion charges against Gooderham and Worts. Later that year, at a Gooderham and Worts tax evasion hearing, Perri admitted buying whisky from the distiller from 1924 to 1927. Gooderham and Worts was convicted of tax evasion in 1928 and had to pay a fine of $439,744.[6] Perri and Starkman were charged with perjury after their Royal Commission testimony, but in a plea bargain, the charges were dropped against Starkman; Perri served five months of a six-month sentence and was released on September 27, 1928.[6]

Starkman was the head of operations, until August 13, 1930 when she was ambushed and shot in their garage, though no one was ever tried for the crime, it is thought Calabrian compatriot Antonio Papalia, Johnny Papalia's father played a role in the murder.[7][8]

In 1938, two attempts were made on Perri's life: on March 20, his veranda was destroyed by dynamite placed underneath, and on November 23, a car bomb under his car detonated; Perri was not injured in either attempt.[3]

In 1940, Rocco and his brother Mike Perri, were arrested and sent to internment at Camp Petawawa as part of the Italian Canadian internment, as potentially dangerous enemy aliens with alleged fascist connections to Benito Mussolini's regime; Rocco was released in 1943.[3]


Perri was last seen alive in Hamilton on April 23, 1944, when he went for a walk to clear his head. His body has never been found; it is speculated he was murdered by being fitted with cement shoes and thrown into Hamilton Harbour — a practice known colloquially as the lupara bianca.[9] It is believed Antonio and Johnny Papalia, along with Stefano Magaddino of Buffalo played a role in Perri's disappearance to gain better control of the Canadian market.[10] Royal Canadian Mounted Police concluded in 1954, "We won't find his body until the Bay dries up."[11] Perri was ultimately declared dead in absentia.[1]

In 1992, evidence into the disappearance of Perri was uncovered by Mafia expert Antonio Nicaso; a letter shared with him by Perri's cousin in Italy dated June 10, 1949 translated from Italian reading, "Dear cousin, 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. His cousin also says Perri died in 1953 in Massena, New York.[12]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b McNeil, Mark (March 16, 2016). "The dark and incredible mystery of Evelyn Dick". The Hamilton Spectator. Retrieved August 18, 2017. There are not many infamous people who get out of this world with the word "unknown" or "presumed dead" written in the Date of Death column. The Hamilton gangster Rocco Perri is one. 
  2. ^ Edwards, Peter (2012). The Encyclopedia of Canadian Organized Crime. Random House. ISBN 9781551996882. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i Nicaso, Antonio (2004). Rocco Perri: The Story of Canada's Most Notorious Bootlegger. Toronto: John Wiley & Sons Canada, Ltd. ISBN 978-0470835265. 
  4. ^ Manson, Bill (2003). Footsteps In Time: Exploring Hamilton's heritage neighbourhoods. North Shore Publishing Inc. ISBN 1-896899-22-6. 
  5. ^ Bailey, Thomas Melville (1992). Dictionary of Hamilton Biography (Vol III, 1925–1939). W.L. Griffin Ltd. 
  6. ^ a b "Rum runners and whisky cargoes: Toronto during Prohibition was anything but dry". 3 May 2015. 
  7. ^ "7 CANADIAN GANGSTERS". 11 January 2012. Retrieved 8 December 2016. 
  8. ^ "The murder of Bessie - part 4". 6 January 2005. 
  9. ^ "April 23, 1944: Hamilton mobster Rocco Perri disappears". 23 September 2016. Retrieved 5 December 2016. 
  10. ^ Humphreys, Adrian (1999). The Enforcer:Johnny Pops Papalia, A Life and Death in the Mafia. Toronto: Harper Collins. p. 26. ISBN 0-00-200016-4. 
  11. ^ Colombo, John (1999). Mysteries of Ontario. Dundurn. ISBN 9780888822055. 
  12. ^ "Rocco Perri uncovered?". The Hamilton Spectator. 5 July 2003. Retrieved 26 May 2017. 

Further reading[edit]

  • "King of the Mob: Rocco Perri and the women who ran his rackets" by James Dubro and Robin Rowland (Toronto)-1987.
  • Rocco Perri: The Story of Canada's Most Notorious Bootlegger by Antonio Nicaso. John Wiley and Sons, Toronto, 2004.
  • Rocco Perri Scrapbook (Hamilton Herald Newspaper articles) 12 April 1927, 14, 16, 18 August 1930
  • Hamilton Public Library clippings, Hamilton, Famous and Fascinating, Thomas Melville Bailey and Charles Ambrose Carter.
  • Allen, Everett S. The black ships: Rumrunners of Prohibition. Little, Brown. 1979. ISBN 0-316-03258-1.
  • Carse, Robert. Rum row.
  • Cohen, Daniel. Prohibition: America Makes Alcohol Illegal. Millbrook Press. 1995.
  • Frew, David. Prohibition and Rum Running on Lake Erie (The Lake Erie Quadrangle Shipwreck Series, Book 4) Erie County Historical Society; 1ST edition (2006) ISBN 1-883658-48-9.
  • Gervais, Marty. The Rumrunners: A Prohibition Scrapbook. Biblioasis. 1980, Revised & Expanded 2009. ISBN 978-1-897231-62-3.
  • Hunt, C. W. Whisky and Ice: The Saga of Ben Kerr, Canada's Most Daring Rumrunner. Dundurn Press. 1995. ISBN 1-55002-249-0.
  • Mason, Philip P. Rumrunning and the Roaring Twenties: Prohibition on the Michigan-Ontario Waterway. Wayne State University Press, 1995.
  • Miller, Don. I was a rum runner. Lescarbot Printing Ltd. 1979.
  • Montague, Art. Canada's Rumrunners: Incredible Adventures And Exploits During Canada's Illicit Liquor Trade. Altitude Publishing Canada. 2004. ISBN 1-55153-947-0.
  • Moray, Alastair. The diary of a rum-runner. P. Allan & Co. Ltd. 1929, Reprint in 2006. ISBN 0-9773725-6-1
  • Steinke, Gord. Mobsters & Rumrunners Of Canada: Crossing The Line. Folklore Publishing. 2003. ISBN 978-1-894864-11-4. ISBN 1-894864-11-5.
  • Willoughby, Malcolm F. Rum War at Sea. Fredonia Books. 2001. ISBN 1-58963-105-6.
  • Yandle, Bruce. Bootleggers and Baptists: The Education of a Regulatory Economist. Regulation 7, no. 3. 1983: 12.

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