The prohibition era in the early 20th century North America led to the emergence of some of the greatest and fiercest bootlegging and mafia legends of all time. Although justice demanded they be put behind bars, in the public eyes they attained celebrity status. One such tale of bootleggers, ghouls, thugs, and rounders in Canada, is that of Rocco Perri and his circle of sinners and those attempting at catching and imprisoning him. Award-winning writer, Trevor Cole, in his book, “The Whisky King: The remarkable true story of Canada’s most infamous bootlegger and the undercover Mountie on his trail” spins a rum-running saga in this racy historical non-fiction novel.
Toronto-born, Cole has been in the business of writing for the radio, advertisements, and a variety of magazines for almost 15 years. In his journalistic career, he has won nine National Magazine awards for his compelling columns and articles in the Globe and Mail, Report on Business Magazine, and Toronto Life. Also a published author of four fiction novels, Cole has won nominations from multiple literary societies. The Whisky King is his first attempt at historical non-fiction. The 512-page novel has been published by HarperCollins, Canada. For this book, Cole researched a vast number of newspapers and documents to uncover and correctly represent the realities of the time.
The Rum-Running Saga
The Whisky King illustrates the time when Italians landed on the North American shores and spread out throughout the US and Canada to start a new life. Cole weaves a tale of two such immigrants starting out in Canada in the early 1900s. One chose the righteous path and joined the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) to serve as an undercover agent, Frank Zaneth, and the other used illegal means to become the “King of Bootleggers,” Rocco Perri.
Cole acknowledges that Perri’s life has been earlier depicted in "King of the Mob" by James Dubro and Robin F. Rowland in 1987, and "Rocco Perri: The Story of Canada's Most Notorious Bootlegger" by Antonio Nicaso in 2004. His narrative style although is different in the sense that he focuses on the lives of both Perri and Zaneth.
As the story goes, Perri arrived in Canada from Calabria, south of Italy, at the age of 16 and soon became a part of the Black Hand, the name used for mafia during those times. He was ambitious and had a charming personality that attracted everyone he interacted with. One of them was the Jewish, Bessie Starkman, who, influenced by Perri, walked out of her marriage and left her two daughters to become his partner-in-life-and-crime. Perri and Bessie together fueled by their ambitions, made cash out of running a brothel and gambling.
When the government issued liquor prohibition in Canada in 1916, Perri is said to have found the opportunity of building a fortune. He and Bessie used legal loopholes and started smuggling liquor from Hamilton. Their monthly earning went up to a million dollars in 1924, which in the 1920s was exceptional. Perri in the society was regarded as a powerful mobster who did not encourage violence. In his interviews, he stressed that he did not allow his men to carry guns, rather they were given fast REO Speed Wagons and Fords to make smooth exits.
In the book, Cole paints an image of the southern Ontario’s Golden Horseshoe in the colors of corruption; where events of extortion, gambling, roadside slayings, and bullet-ridden bodies in the Welland Canal were common, and local police officers and customs agents were on the gangsters’ payroll. Perri and Bessie were covered by the newspapers as if they were celebrities. Bessie in fact is said to have had a fetish for diamonds and luxury things that she showed off during public appearances.
Their lavish life went downhill after Perri was charged for selling contaminated and poisonous whisky, and Bessie decided to venture into drug peddling. She met her end in her own garage in 1930, when gunmen shot her down. Perri mysteriously disappeared 14 years later.
The other parallel in Cole’s The Whisky King was about Frank Zaneth, or Franco Zanetti, who came from the north of Italy. He started out as a prairie homesteader, which he was not good at. He soon lost everything, from family to field and ultimately landed a job as a Mountie in the RCMP. Because of his Italian birth and short stature, he became a good candidate for working undercover among the Black Hand crowd. Infiltrating gangs and changing identities, Zaneth set himself on the bootlegging trail and tried to capture the mob bosses, including Perri. His upright nature came as a disadvantage as he was unable to take bribes and earn much in his life, remaining frustratingly poor. Zaneth consequently was unable to bring his adversaries before the law.
Cole spins the Perri-Zaneth tale to probably highlight the fact that Canada has not always been the peaceful and organized country it prefers to be known as. The story is another addition to the chronicles of the time when whisky and alcohol drinkers were belittled by the government and sellers were unlawful.