The Whisky King

Trevor Cole tells the story of Canada’s first celebrity mobster, Rocco Perri, and the undercover Mountie who pursued him.

Trevor Cole

At the cusp of the 20th century, two Italian men, among many others, arrived in Canada during waves of immigration. One, Rocco Perri, from southern Italy, rose from the life of a petty criminal on the streets of Toronto to run the most prominent bootlegging operation of the Prohibition Era in central Canada, taking over Hamilton and leading one of the region's most influential crime families. Perri was feared by his enemies and loved by the press, who featured him regularly in splashy front-page headlines in the Toronto Star. So great was his celebrity, following the murder of his first wife and business partner, Bessie Starkman, a crowd of 30,000 thronged in the streets of Hamilton to watch her funeral.

Perri's businesses — which included alcohol, drugs, extortion and prostitution — kept him under constant police surveillance. He caught the interest of one man in particular, the other arrival from Italy, Frank Zaneth. Zaneth, from the north, joined the RCMP and became its first undercover operative. His work took him across the country, but he was dogged in his pursuit of Rocco Perri and worked for his arrest until the day Perri was last seen, in 1944, when he disappeared without a trace. (From HarperCollins Canada)


Rocco Perri was once the most infamous mobster in Canada, making millions as a bootlegger in the Prohibition years. But one day in 1944, he disappeared. 25:17