Rocco Perri uncovered?

    Dan Nolan / The
Hamilton Spectator

 A crime writer has found a letter apparently written by Hamilton's King of the Bootleggers years after he was reportedly murdered and dumped in Hamilton Harbour.

Antonio Nicaso is planning a book on the man called Canada's Al Capone. Hamilton's notorious King of the Bootleggers may have lived out his final days in upstate New York and not been murdered in 1944 and fitted with cement overshoes for the bottom of Hamilton Harbour.

A letter uncovered by renowned crime journalist Antonio Nicaso indicates Rocco Perri was alive and kicking in 1949. And 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.

None in Hamilton were surprised Perri wound up going missing and the oft-told tale is he was finally done in by a rival, encased in concrete and dumped into the bay. The letter, however, 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.

The letter is to be part of research Nicaso has compiled for a forthcoming book he is preparing on Perri, titled The Little Gatsby, which refers to the famous novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald about a young man of humble origins who attempts to buy his way into the social elite during The Roaring 20s.

Other new details Nicaso has uncovered include:

* 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 Starkman had a son in 1914, but he died of ill health after two days.

* Perri's actual birthdate is Dec. 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.

The book is scheduled for publication at the end of the year, first in Italy. Nicaso, who moved to Canada in 1990 after his car was bombed for writing a controversial story on the Italian mafia, also has a French publisher lined up, but so far hasn't got an English one.

Perri, who came to Hamilton in 1916 to launch his career in bootlegging under the guise of a macaroni salesman, has been the subject of previous books, TV shows, a play and even a musical.

Nicaso, who has written several books on today's crime families, believes another book on Perri is warranted because there's still much more to tell.

One of the best known books on Perri is King of the Mob: Rocco Perri and the Women Who Ran His Rackets. It was written by James Dubro and Robin Rowland and came out in 1987.

"When I read King of the Mob -- which is a great book -- I thought there were still so many unanswered questions," said Nicaso, 39, who works in Toronto as the group editor for a chain of Italian, English and Spanish publications. "Why are so many immigrants involved in prohibition? Why did Perri always have a woman beside him? Why did Perri disappear in 1944. I thought the early part of his life and the last part of his life were missing."

Here is what is known about Perri's life. 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.

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.

Nicaso knows some will believe the 1949 letter indicating he faked his disappearance is a fake itself. But, he notes, it was not something willingly given to him and he only got it because he ruffled the pride of an elderly man in Plati, who happened to be one of Perri's cousins.

Nicaso said when he was visiting Plati in 1992 he wasn't planning on writing a book about Perri. But he had an interest in the story and was asking questions of Plati residents to learn what he could.

One day, he was talking to a 79-year-old man who he later learned was Perri's cousin. (He has given the family a promise he won't reveal their name.)

During their talk, the man told Nicaso he remembered when Perri passed away. Nicaso said he was incredulous. "How can you know?" I said. "He disappeared ... . I don't believe your story."

The old man was quite put out and didn't like being challenged. He volunteered that Perri died in 1953 in Massena, N.Y., and he remembered exactly as he was in the local train station when he heard the news.

"But, it doesn't matter what you believe," the elder added. "It's better to forget these things." Later, Nicaso went to see the man with a friend from the town, and eventually the older man warmed up a bit to Nicaso. That's when he brought out the 1949 letter and five longer letters he said were written by Perri after his supposed disappearance.

He allowed Nicaso to take a photocopy of the 1949 letter, but not the others. "They would have had no interest in playing a joke on me," Nicaso added.

"This is something they decided not to share with anybody. I believe there was a conspiracy of silence in his family and his circle. They said, 'Let people think he was killed."

Nicaso said it might be next to impossible to determine if Perri is buried in the Massena area. He has no idea what he did after 1944, although he's heard stories Perri was seen in Mexico afterwards. He also said Perri would have likely changed his name and, in earlier days, he went by the name of Giuseppe Portolesi, Rocco Susano, Rocco Sussino and Rocco Perry. "He always changed his name," he said. "It was typical of a man with a criminal mind. There is no way to tell the story of Perri between 1944 and 1953. The only thing I know is that Perri was alive in 1949."

Nicaso said about 90 per cent of his research is complete, but he wants to get more before sending it off to the publisher. He is hoping Hamilton residents may be able to give him tidbits on Perri's life, and invites e-mail at "There's more meat in his life," Nicaso added. "I still feel there are holes in Perri's life."

Saturday, July 5, 2003