Joseph Veroni: Ontario Canada's First Godfather

Updated on July 24, 2020
Bonnie M D profile image

This is an expansion of an article from my book " Bawdy Houses, Bums & Illicit Booze: Prostitution, Vagrancy & Murder, Guelph 1870's-1953."

Rocco Perri
Rocco Perri | Source

On May 11, 1922, the citizens of Guelph, Ontario Canada, were rocked by news of the violent death of Joseph Veroni. Forty-five-years of age, he was described by many Guelph citizens as a grocer and a baker. He, his wife Maria and his large family of eight children lived in St. Patrick’s Ward (The Ward)—a section of the city where Italian immigrants had arrived to and lived in since around 1900.

Joseph Veroni, alias Domenic Sciarrone or Scaroni, had arrived in Guelph in 1912 after spending a few years first in Buffalo—where he probably met his wife, New York and then Toronto, Ontario. The family then settled down to live in what appeared to be a respectable life in the Ward. They opened and operated a small bakery and grocery store at 126 Alice Street. This was in the very heart of this thriving Italian community.

Some residents in the Ward had worked on the construction of the railroad. They had not intended to stay, but they had. They sent for their relatives in Southern Italy—many came from the Calabria region of Italy, but a few immigrated from Sicily. No matter what their origins, their Ward became alive with men, and women with their children, who all had one goal—to forget their poverty in the Old Country and create new successful lives for them and their families in the community of Guelph.

Guelph, Ontario, Early 20th Century

In the early 20th century, Guelph was establishing itself industrially, offering different types of employment to its working-class citizens. Italian women mingled with Irish and Scots in the Guelph Carpet Mill and the Guelph Worsted and Spinning Mill. Later they also were found working in Northern Rubber—located at the corner of Alice and Huron Streets and Biltmore Hat later on York Road and Morris Street. Many Italian (and Irish women) also turned their homes into boarding houses and their back yards into gardens—taking the extra produce to sell in the local farmers’ market.

Men also worked in the carpet and spinning mills, but were more likely to be engaged by the local foundries. IMICO was one such employer as was Gilson’s Manufacturing Company. These, too, were in the Ward, making it easy to get to their jobs. Construction companies, the City and railroads also hired Italian workers—though sometimes Italians were only welcomed in an all-Italian crew.

The area developed quickly and, like many neighbourhoods, had its own grocery stores, bakeries, butcher shops and shoe-repairers. In fact, anything you wanted, you could find close to home. This was essential for these Italian immigrants for Guelph, founded and settled by English and Scottish protestants, was home to many who bore prejudices against “aliens” and “foreigners.”

Veroni Home on Alice Street
Veroni Home on Alice Street

The Not-So-Roaring Twenties

Guelph did not subscribe to the fantasy of the Roaring Twenties. However, in the Ward, some Italians were quick to take advantage of the demand for booze south of the border. While the making of wine was expected and customary for family events, the brewing and running of beer and whiskey for American “export” became a profitable sideline for some Italians. In the 1920s and 1930s, Alice Street was home to many small and large stills—one on Empire Street was close to two storeys tall. Joseph Veroni was more ambitious and organized than many of his neighbours and friends were.

During the 1920s, Veroni, known outside of Guelph as Dominic Sciarrone, ran a booze manufacturing and running operation. He, and his brother, Joe Sciarrone (also a baker with a shop near Welland), covered the region between their two cities in Southern Ontario. These two men were assisted by Salvatore Sciarrone, their cousin and brother-in-law and his partner Jim Forti. It is alleged that Joe Sciarrone was the hitman for Veroni’s family business.

Around Joseph Veroni, a small gang sprung up. They were always ready to defend the Scarrione name and protect their territory which covered not only Guelph and Brantford but the rural region that lay north and west of Hamilton—home of Rocco Perri, later renowned as the “Whisky King” of Ontario and Canada. Membership in this “gang” was clearly indicated by the wearing of a large diamond on the left hand. Joseph Veroni was still wearing his when he was found dead on May 11, 1922 at 11:30 pm, by John McSpadden, an operator for the Grey Bus Line - his body sprawled alongside the Lewistown Highway near Niagara Falls, New York.

The write-up in the Guelph Mercury, the city’s local newspaper provided the following details at the time:

The body and effects of Dominic Sciarrane, alias Joe Veroni, of Guelph, Ont., victim of what police and sheriffs' deputies believe to have been an Italian vendetta, or … a bootleggers' fight, were turned over to his wife …by coroner Wm. Draper, and started for Guelph.

An autopsy, performed by Dr. Draper and Dr. Robert Talbot, of this city, … showed that two bullets, one of which is a 32-calibre steel-jacket missile, such as is used in automatic pistols, caused the death...working on the theory of a bootleggers' fight, the police say that the trail leads to Buffalo, and that arrests are expected any minute.

Someone had disliked Veroni enough to shoot him three times—once directly in his head. In stereotypical gangland style, the shooter(s) then tossed him out of moving car. Upon hitting the ground, his lifeless body rolled about sixty feet.

The car used in the murder was not his. The local police found Vernoni’s vehicle parked on 11th Street in Niagara Falls, NY. According to the news reports and police information, he had left it there earlier to join "friends" at the (Louis) Deviti Restaurant. Why he was there exactly is not known but it was noted in reports that this was most certainly a gathering of the region’s more powerful crime families.

According to his wife, Maria, Veroni had left to attend to some business in the United States. However, as many residents in the Ward and Veroni’s associates could have confirmed, his business had nothing to do with his bakery or grocery store. Instead, it had everything to do with his position as a cross-border supplier. In fact, United States agents speculated that he was "mixed up in a black hand gang" and that his death resulted from a “bootlegger’s quarrel.” His incarceration in October 1921 for selling liquor—caught after being on the lam for over a year, seems to validate this assumption.

Whatever the actual cause, it had nothing to do with robbery. Veroni’s pockets contained $120. He was also wearing a diamond ring, a diamond stickpin and a gold chain. While most historians agree it had something to do with the true nature of his business, they cannot agree definitely on who was behind Veroni’s death and/or who was responsible for actually pulling the trigger. Some believe Veroni ran afoul of some of his American or Canadian associates. They frequently point to The Sicilian group “The Good Killers” headed by Stefano Magaddino—later rising to the position of “Don.” Along the way Magaddino had gained the nickname of “The Undertaker.”

Other historians do not think this. They do not believe Veroni’s death was the result of any quarrel with his American clients or fellow bootleggers. They consider it the result of a hit set up by one man who had a lot to gain. This was Rocco Perri.

Alice Street
Alice Street | Source

Rocco Perri and Joseph Veroni

Veroni and Perri were both Italians. According to historians on the subject, particularly Trevor Cole, author of Whiskey King, both men came from villages in Calabria. Both also had interests in the same mine in Cobalt as well as a shared business. According to local legend (though it is often attributed to Al Capone), Perri often visited Guelph and stayed in the Albion Hotel with or without his mistress. Veroni also visited Hamilton, the headquarters for Perri’s whiskey empire.

Yet, the nature and attitude of these two men differed. Perri, like many Italians in Guelph and beyond, had left behind the rivalries of their Italian villages and any negative affiliations. He knew that, to succeed and fly under the radar of the police, he had to adopt a more co-operative and collaborative approach. When it came to ensuring a smooth operation of his business, he worked with both Calabrians and Sicilians. Rocco made allies of both the Calabrian Scaroni Family and the Sicilian Giuseppe Sottile. Revenge and violence were not to be the immediate go-to stance. As a “spaghetti salesman,” he did his best to remain low profile and keep out of the grips of the law.

Veroni and his brother, on the other hand, were neither cautious nor circumspect. Veroni had been in jail for alcohol-related offences. He had been caught operating a still. Moreover, he had been involved in or condoned violent actions more than once in Guelph and Welland. One Ontario Police Officer (OPP), Inspector John Miller, went so far as to state he felt Veroni was responsible for the deaths of many men in and out of his own territory.

One man who was probably directly or indirectly murdered by the Veronis lived in Guelph. This was 21-year-old Fortunato Tedesco, a popular young man who was an employee at the Guelph Stove Works. He was killed outside his own home on Morris Street on January 12, 1919. He had just come back from a dance when someone shot him with a 12-bore shotgun. The weapon was found where it lay just beyond the fence surrounding the backyard where Fortunato had managed to crawl to before dying.

At an inquest into the Tedesco death, at which Veroni testified under certain conditions, the local newspaper noted he was far from acquiescent. Although he answered the questions, he did so in such a menacing and contemptuous manner, his denials of involvement did not ring true. This was how he ran his operation, through intimidation and violence. Certainly, the families of his victims, upon hearing of Joseph Veroni’s untimely demise were not about to mourn his passing. Nor would Rocco Perri be excessively upset. Veroni’s actions were causing too much attention to be directed at both their illicit operations.

Alice Street looking toward Northern Rubber on the Right at the corner of Huron and Alice
Alice Street looking toward Northern Rubber on the Right at the corner of Huron and Alice

Who Murdered Joseph Veroni?

Speculation on who caused Veroni’s death varies. Certain aspects remain valid. Prior to leaving for his trip State side, Veroni had met with Perri in Freelton, Ontario. This, according to Antonio Nicaso, author of Rocco Perri: The Story of Canada’s Most Nororious Bootlegger, occurred in the afternoon. What they actually talked about is pure speculation. After the meeting, Veroni headed off to his destination—Niagara Falls.

On the evening of May 10, 1922, Veroni arrived at the Deviti Restaurant for a conference with several prominent figures in the world of American organized crime. The meeting lasted several hours before Veroni exited, presumably intending to head back to his car. But, while he arrived alone, he was not to leave that way. he was not alone. Veroni was last seen alive departing the restaurant in the company of four men - probably the same four who put 3 bullets into him and tossed him out of a moving car over the cliffs near Niagara Falls.

However, even if the four men actually performed the deed, an important question remains. Did Perri set Veroni up or was he warning him about the dangers awaiting him in Niagara Falls? Was this death actually the result of a clash between the interests of Veroni and the head of the Niagara Falls gang at the time—Don Simone? Currently, there is no definitive answer. In fact, although the American agents involved claimed an arrest was imminent, none was ever made.

The Funeral and What Followed

Joseph Veroni left a large family and a thriving Guelph business. His real occupation as the head of a Guelph Crime Family was never outwardly visible to many Guelph’s citizens while he was alive (the Calabrian and Sicilian Italians being the major exception). Of all the local and regional newspapers, it appears only the Hamilton Herald knew the true Veroni. It noted as a matter of fact, that Scaroni was the leader of a criminal gang. This was something that escaped local papers, particularly the Guelph Mercury.

His funeral, held on Saturday, May 13, 1922, however, should have clarified who he was. The funeral cortege consisted of many prominent crime figures from across Ontario - all associated with Rocco Perri. They included

  • Frank Longo, a well-known gangster operating out of Welland who worked with both Perri and the Veroni family
  • Frank Romeo of Hamilton who worked with Perri on several occasions
  • Antonio R. Deconza from St. Catharines who delivered a “touching oration”
  • James and Dominic Agostino, also of St. Catharines
  • Joseph Morabili of Welland

The other important Italian Calabrian to attend the funeral was Rocco Perri (listed in the local paper as Rocco Barry). He was one of Veroni’s pallbearers. If nothing else, publicly, Perri appeared to be showing his lack of involvement in the entire affair. If his actions spoke the truth, he was merely being supportive of the Veroni family by playing this prominent role in Veroni’s funeral.

However, his presence at Veroni’s funeral is open to an alternative interpretation. Perhaps Perri was there to make certain everyone in the business knew who was almost in complete control of a good chunk of Southern Ontario’s whiskey trade. This would have been obvious to everyone at the funeral. What some may have also realized was now Perri really only had one possible rival - Joe Sciarrone, Veroni’s brother, who operated out of Brantford/Welland. Joe was currently stirring up trouble. He was telling everyone who would listen, including Perri, how he was going to make the murderer of his brother pay.

Some four months later, in September 1922, Joe Sciarrone was found with cement boots on in the Welland Canal. The local paper reported, “The only clue left at the canal was seven shells of 45 calibre which did not lend any material help to the identity of the murderers. It is felt, however, the same gang are at the back of the affair that instigated the shooting about two months ago, when the deceased and his cousin, Sam Schoronia, was fired at from an automobile on St. George, this city” (Brantford). His last known contacts on and just prior to that fatal day of September 4, 1922 were all well-known gangsters. They included, John Trott, Charlie Bordonaro, Antonio Deconza, James Agostino and Rocco Perri.

Sciarrone’s family may well have mourned his loss—his sister-in-law would miss the financial and social support for her and her children, but at least one man benefited. With Sam’s death, Perri became the highest-ranking Calabrian gangster in Ontario. Yet, the Veroni involvement in criminal activities in Guelph and the province did not end with the death of Joseph and his brother Sam. One of Joseph’s children, Thomas, was to carry on the family tradition. He became a major fixture in the Guelph and area liquor trade of the 1930s.

Sources:

Butts, Ed (2004). Outlaws of the Lakes: Bootlegging and Smuggling from Colonial Times to Prohibition.

Cole, Trevor (2017). The Whisky King.

Dubro, James and Robin Rowland (1987). King of the Mob: Rocco Perri and the Women Who Ran His Rackets.

Durtnall, Bonnie (2019). Bawdy Houses, Bums and Illicit Booze: Prostitution, Vagrancy and Murder, Guelph, 1870s-1953.

Guelph Mercury: Various issues from the 1920s

Nicaso, Antonio (2004). Rocco Perri: The Story of Canada’s Most Notorious Bootlegger.

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