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Mob women – The rise and fall of Hamilton’s own Bessie Starkman-Perri

August 2019

Hamilton, Ontario, is known as “Steeltown” to locals and those who love the city. With two steel mills, Dafasco and Stelco, employers that have provided jobs to generations of Hamiltonians, it’s a natural nick-name.

Hamilton also has another less-than-legal claim to fame as a base of operations for some of the Mafia bosses in the Toronto-Buffalo corridor. Names like Johnny “Pops” Papalia, the Musitano brothers (Angelo and “Fat Pat”) and the Luppino and Violi families, are all well known to Hamiltonians.

Two other famous names from Hamilton’s past are Rocco Perri and Bessie Starkman-Perri.

Rocco Perri was an immigrant from Plati, Calabria, Italy, who came to Canada in 1908 and eventually became known as “The King of the Bootleggers” during Canada’s prohibition era. By his side was his wife, Bessie Starkman, a woman who left her previous husband and two children in 1912 for Perri, who was a boarder in the Starkman’s house in Toronto, to literally become Perri’s partner in crime and eventually head of operations for his bootlegging business in Hamilton. Many considered Starkman to be the driving force behind the operation.

Things were going swimmingly for the duo until 1927, when Perri and Starkman were subpoenaed to testify at a Royal Commission on Customs and Excise inquiry, focusing on bootlegging and smuggling, and at a hearing on tax evasion charges against Gooderham and Worts distillery, one of Perri’s suppliers. Both were charged with perjury after their Royal Commission testimony, but a plea agreement saw the charges against Starkman dropped and Perri sentenced to six months in jail in 1928.

Starkman’s “career” would ultimately be short-lived, coming to an end on 13 August 1930, when she was ambushed and shot in the garage of the home she shared with Perri at 166 Bay Street South in Hamilton. She was 40 years old.

Starkman was buried in Ereve Zedeck Jewish Cemetery on Upper James Street in Hamilton. Reportedly, the funeral procession was so long that mourners were still leaving downtown Hamilton as the hearse arrived at the cemetery, a distance of around 4 miles.

Perri had a marble headstone placed on the grave, one that is still the tallest in the cemetery. While the name “Bessie Starkman-Perri” once adorned the headstone, the “Perri” name has since been removed.

The murder of Bessie Starkman-Perri remains unsolved to this day, but it is suspected that Calabrian compatriot Antonio Papalia, father of Johnny “Pops,” may have played a role in the murder.

Perri carried on for the next decade and a half, surviving two assassination attempts in 1938 and enduring internment at Camp Petawawa, near Ottawa, from 1940-1943, as a potential “enemy alien.” After his release, he returned to Hamilton.

Perri vanished a year later, and his current whereabouts are unknown, although many believe the bottom of Hamilton Harbour is a good place to start looking. The last time anyone saw Perri was in Hamilton on 23 April 23 1944, when he went for a walk to clear his head.

Sources: http://www.billgladstone.ca/20000-gawkers-swarm-bessie-starkman-funeral-1930, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rocco_Perri

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

Permanent link to this article: https://militarybruce.com/mob-women-the-rise-and-fall-of-hamiltons-own-bessie-starkman-perri/

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