Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative

Rehabilitation of a Bootlegger

Apr 13, 2015

If you are close to North Vancouver and looking for a good time this Wednesday, don't forget "Secrets, Booze and Rebellion," an evening of "hidden history" featuring myself, Eve Lazarus and Aaron Chapman at the Lynn Valley Library. Fun starts at 7 p.m.

And just to show that the subject of prohibition (the topic of my latest book) is forever relevant, I learn that a small distiller in Ontario is now marketing Bessie Starkman Prohibition Vodka, complete with Bessie's image on the label. (Hat tip to Chris Moore.)

Bessie was a prohibition-era brothel keeper turned bootlegger based in Hamilton. She and her husband Rocco Perri pretty much controlled the flow of illicit booze in southwestern Ontario and across the Niagara River into the US during the 1920s. It was widely considered that Bessie was the brains of the operation while Rocco provided the muscle.

Later they switched to drugs, which may be why Bessie got gunned down in the driveway of their palatial Hamilton home in 1930. (Rocco too met an unhappy end; he was "disappeared" in 1944, presumably by a rival gang.)

This unsavory history has not deterred the Georgian Bay Gin Company which claims its Bessie Starkman vodka "pays tribute to Bessie's uncompromising commitment to quality." That's one way of putting it.