Guilty or Innocent? A Curator’s Perspective

Finding the smoking gun …

A historian (and curator) wants lots and lots of archival material – documents, correspondence, newspaper accounts, diaries, journals, photographs, etc. – to consult so as to be able to tell a compelling story. The icing on the cake is if there are people, family members, peers and others, who may have known the characters at the centre of the story or had information to pass on about them.

It’s also fascinating examining what I view as “contested history” – historical events in which there are competing and even diametrically opposed points of view. These elements have shaped my research on Emilio Picariello and Florence Lassandro and the man they were found guilty of murdering – Constable Stephen Oldacres Lawson of the Alberta Provincial Police.

As the starting premise of my research, I asked the question – “What if they were innocent of the murder, as they had claimed, and had wrongfully been found guilty?” How could I pursue this question and arrive at a compelling result?

Everyone is familiar with fictional and historical investigations by police into “cold cases,” generally involving an unsolved murder. Cold case research involves sifting into case files and also interviewing people involved in the case at the time to try to solve the case. This process hopefully results in some new truths.

What did my research involve? I read for a second and third time the treasure trove of resources at the Glenbow Archives and the Provincial Archives of Alberta. The former has the records of his principal defence lawyer, J. McKinley Cameron, Kings Counsel, and the latter includes some trial materials and Alberta Provincial Police Records.

Did I find a “smoking gun” (what detectives look for)? I believe so. I’ve meticulously set out the police case that resulted in their conviction and also challenged it by providing substantial conflicting evidence.

Was there a “shooter in the alley” as both the accused contended and, if so, who was he?

Did the fact that both Picariello and Lassandro were Italian immigrants have a bearing on the guilty verdict? This is a complex subject and it can only be addressed by looking at immigration history of the time and commonly held attitudes. Were foreigners of “loose moral fibre” and criminals to boot!
With over two-thirds of the population in Fernie and the Crowsnest Pass of British origin,n this was an all-too-common point of view. War-time internment, strikes and other challenges to authority made distrust of foreigners and what we would today describe as “systemic racism” the norm. Was the Italian Black Hand Society active in Fernie and the Pass as was suggested in local newspapers?

Finally, to tell a compelling story, rounded characters must be created – not just the stereotypes found in the media of the time and perpetuated in stories of Prohibition. Finding oral history interviews of individuals of the time who knew the central characters and were participants in Prohibition provided information not entered into the legal records either at the preliminary hearing or the trial. Getting information from members of the Picariello family allowed me to see what kind of person Emilio truly was.

Who did it? You will have to come to the exhibit to find out and also read the upcoming book titled The Rise and Fall of Emilio Picariello to be published by Oolichan Books, Fernie, BC.

Adriana A. Davies
Curator and Historian


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