Guided Spirit Walks 2019 Behind-the-Scenes: STORIES THAT DIDN’T MAKE IT

This year’s Guided Spirit Walk research process started with general themes that could be explored. This year’s theme “Glimpses of St. Catharines: Stories of the Famous and Infamous” was broad enough that we were not confined to any particular topic or year constraint.

Potential infamous and noteworthy topics included St. Catharines’ connection to the Civil War, bootlegging in Port Dalhouise, the Fenian Raids, workers’ strikes like the Humberstone Mill strike of 1938. Some of these topics made the final cut, and some of them did not. A story’s inclusion depended on if we could make a connection back to Victoria Lawn Cemetery.

For example, one of the stories on this year’s Guided Spirit Walks explores prohibition and temperance in 1930s St. Catharines. The audience will meet Woman’s Christian Temperance Union advocate Florence Nelson and St. Catharines police detective Duncan Brown, who investigated bootlegging and moonshiner cases (Brown would later become the City’s police chief). Both Nelson and Brown are buried in Victoria Lawn Cemetery.

Florence Nelson (second from left) in 1961
Duncan Brown at his retirement in 1958

However, before we landed on Florence and Duncan as our features for the Guided Spirit Walk, we did a lot of research about prohibition in St. Catharines. Of course, not every story makes it into the tour either due to lack of information, or the person involved not being buried in Victoria Lawn Cemetery. These are a few of the interesting stories that are not included in the tour, but are interesting nonetheless.

We have amazing volunteers who work in the archives. Linda asked what I was researching and when I told her prohibition or temperance, she immediately brought me a file on “Jack Persia”.

Jack “Blackjack” Persia operated the Valley Inn on Arthur Street in north end St. Catharines during prohibition. He was the original owner of the inn and made home-made wine. He rented a property behind the inn to a provincial police officer who knew about his bootleg operations to the United States, but overlooked it for an unknown reason. This story was incredibly interesting, but there was not enough information of what became of Jack Persia or where he was buried, so unfortunately he could not be included on the Guided Spirit Walk.

In February 1925, George Clark received a call at his auto garage business that an automobile had stalled in Stamford. No other garages were available in Niagara Falls as it was the middle of the night so Clark went to help the stranded man. He crossed the third Welland Canal, and the construction site of the fourth Welland Canal, reached his destination and headed back to St. Catharines with the man and his car.

On the way back, his car lost traction and became stuck in the “diggings of the new canal way”. After many failed attempts to rescue the car from the canal, Clark and the man were becoming increasingly cold and wet. The man produced a flask of liquor and offered Clark a drink. He recalls “I was not a drinker and was not totally temperate”. The two men shared a few drinks and eventually got the car out of the canal. They returned to Clark’s shop, and in the morning the man got his battery recharged and he was on his way. Once the man was on his way, Clark learned that he was a rum-runner for a Hamilton group! Clark wrote his memoir when he was 86 years old, and recalls that every time he crossed Homer Bridge after the completion of the fourth Welland Canal, he thinks of the cold and dreary night with the rum-runner.

Could the man’s rum-running operations be connected to Rocco Perri in Hamilton? Perri was Ontario’s most notorious Prohibition-era bootlegger and had a connection to St. Catharines. Perri was born in Italy in 1887, and immigrated to the United States in 1903, and then Canada in 1908. Soon after his arrival in Canada, he met Bessie Starkman who left her husband and children to run away with Perri to St. Catharines. Perri worked on the construction of the fourth Welland Canal until the Canadian government stopped the construction work in 1916 due to World War I. Lack of men and funding left Perri jobless so Rocco and Bessie moved to Hamilton. The same year the Ontario Temperance Act came into effect and shortly thereafter Bessie and Rocco formed a gang which operated only in the Niagara-Hamilton area. When Prohibition began in the United States, they expanded business operations and Perri eventually became known as “King of the Bootleggers”.

“King of the Bootleggers” Rocco Perri
Perri’s partner in crime, Bessie Starkman, known also as Besha Starkman, Bessie Stark, Bessie Perri, and more.

Rocco and Bessie Perri are mentioned on this year’s Guided Spirt Walks however they themselves could not be included because the tour works best when the people are buried in Victoria Lawn Cemetery. Bessie was shot and killed in the garage of their home in 1930 and buried in Hamilton, and Perri went missing in 1944 when taking a walk to “clear his head”. There are two major theories of what happened to Perri; he was either murdered and thrown into Hamilton Harbour, or he fled to the United States.

These stories were all very interesting, but not every story can make it into the Guided Spirit Walks. Luckily, we hit the jackpot with Florence Nelson and Duncan Brown and their stories will be excellent additions to our tour.

Guided Spirt Walks run September 6th, 7th, 13th, and 14th at 6pm and 7pm at Victoria Lawn Cemetery. Tickets are currently on sale for $12.00/person. Visit our website for more information.

Amanda Balyk is the Museum’s summer Program Assistant and is completing her M.A. in History at Brock University.

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