What is a maverick?” Calgary-based author Aritha van Herk asks a room full of people, gathered for the opening of the Glenbow’s newest exhibit. Usually associated with a rebellious cowboy from the old west, van Herk has given this term a local meaning, defining a maverick as: “A unique character, an inspired or determined risk-taker, forward-looking, creative, eager for change, someone who propels Alberta in a new direction or who alters the social, cultural, or political landscape.”
In 2001 van Herk wrote Mavericks: An Incorrigible History of Alberta, and the Glenbow Museum, the largest museum in Western Canada, loved her book so much they used it as the inspiration for their new permanent exhibit of the same name. “We thought this was the best snapshot of Alberta’s history,” explains the museum’s vice president Michale Lang.
The $12 million, 24,000 square foot exhibit tells the story of the province’s history through the personalities and experiences of 48 Albertans from diverse ethnic, cultural and social backgrounds. Though many are well-known historical figures like explorer David Thompson or former premier Peter Lougheed, others are names you won’t find in Wikipedia, like James Mah Poy, a Chinese immigrant who fought against discrimination and became a successful entrepreneur. Here we profile two Alberta Mavericks—but to experience the many things to see, hear, touch, and even smell in this exhibit, visit Mavericks at the Glenbow. You’ll find it brings out a range of emotions as you learn about people whose lives exude hope and promise and others who experienced only tragedy.
FILUMENA COSTANZO: THE MOLL
Filumena looks down at the gun in her shaking hand, and hears the sound of Emilio’s gun shooting. The constable falls. A little girl runs across the lawn towards her daddy on the ground, while the door he never reached flings open. His wife rushes out; it’s time to go. Emilio pushes down the gas pedal in the heavy McLaughlin-Buick and he and Filumena drive away.
The question of who shot Alberta Provincial Police Constable Steve Lawson has been the subject of controversy since it occurred on September 12, 1922 in Coleman, Alberta. Lawson’s nine-year-old daughter Pearl, who had been playing on the lawn at the time of her father’s murder, gave an eye witness testimony that though she heard multiple gun shots, she only saw “the girl” (Filumena Costanzo, aka, Florence Losandro) shoot, but didn’t see who fired the bullet that made her father fall. After Filumena and her rum-running boss, Emilio Picariello, fled the scene of the crime, they hid near the town of Blairmore for two days until they were caught and arrested. Both Filumena and Picariello were found guilty, and were sentenced to death by hanging, making Filumena the first and last woman in Alberta to be executed.
Filumena was born in Calabria, Italy in 1901, and immigrated to Canada with her parents, where they settled in Fernie, British Columbia. When she was 14-years-old, she was forced into an arranged marriage with another Italian immigrant, 23-year-old Carlo Sanfidele. Carlo, a dreamer, moved from one get-rich-quick scheme to the next, eventually falling in with Emilio Picariello (or “Emperor Pic” as he was known), an entrepreneur and bootlegger. Filumena’s life with her husband was an unhappy one. Carlo was verbally and physically abusive, and Filumena, like many women of her time, quietly obeyed him; that is until she mustered the strength to rebel by leaving their home to live with the Picariellos and work as their housekeeper. Here she became close with the Picariellos’ son, Steve, and the two were often used as decoys for border-crossing rum running, posing as a young married couple who were tourists. That was until one time when Steve, on a solo mission, was stopped by Constable Lawson. A pursuit followed, with Lawson shooting at Steve’s car. When word of the shooting reached his father Emilio, he assumed the worst and went out to Lawson’s place, presumably seeking vengeance. Filumena offered to go along. They drove to Lawson’s house where the fateful events that led to Constable Lawson’s death, and Filumena and Emilio’s subsequent arrest, occurred. At the trial the public scorned Filumena’s calm and distant demeanor in the courtroom, though just days before her execution, she broke her silence and gave her side of the story to a monk, claiming that Emilio talked her into taking the blame, convinced that a jury wouldn’t send a woman to the scaffolds. She was hung after Emilio on May 2, 1923.
To some, Filumena was a shy, obedient girl; others saw her as a smug mobster. But ultimately she was a woman who defied the prescribed role for women in her time—a freedom that came with too-high of a price.
FREDDIE MCCALL: THE DAREDEVIL
Freddie feels the engine stop, and he knows he’s in trouble. An angry voice plays over in his mind, warning of the dangers of flying these WWI planes. He looks down at the ground below him, but sees only crowds—fair-goers enjoying the Calgary Exhibition and Stampede. The safest place he can land is on top of the merry-go-round. The Curtiss-Jenny drops, and the air rushes up past him. There’s a sound of metal whining, and then everything’s quiet.
Captain Frederick Robert Gordon McCall was a World War I flying ace and Canadian war hero who earned multiple flight distinctions: a Military Cross and Bar, Distinguished Flying Cross, and a Distinguished Service Order. He shot down 35 enemy aircraft (including five in one day), the fifth highest total number in Canada’s history. He is also one of the forefathers of Alberta aviation: he pioneered air routes, was the first to fly a plane into Banff, and founded the Great West Airways, and the Calgary Aero Club. However, he is perhaps best loved for his adventurous spirit and legendary landings, including the one that occurred in July 1919 when his engine quit and he safely landed himself and two young passengers on top of a merry-go-round.
McCall was born in Vernon, BC in 1895, and moved to Calgary in 1906. As a 19-year-old he enlisted in the First World War, joining the 175th Battalion of the Alberta Regiment as a private in 1916. With no previous flying experience, he underwent condensed flight training, and was posted straight into the war zone in France. He became known for his “courage and offensive spirit,” often closing to point blank range to gun down enemy fighters.
After World War I, McCall still had an itch for the skies, and he and a fellow flyer leased two U.S. army aircraft to do stunt flying across Alberta and Saskatchewan as a way to make money. Often times his wife Genevieve, barely five feet tall, would be planted in the crowd to act as the first volunteer to go in the plane. Seeing someone so tiny take such a risk motivated others in the crowd to climb aboard. Throughout the 1920s he continued to thrill crowds with spinning nose dives and barrel rolls, and once buzzed a train carrying the Prince of Wales. He was also involved in the forming of small aviation companies around the city, pioneered an air route from Calgary to Golden, BC, and became the first pilot to transport nitro-glycerine and dynamite from Shelby, Montana to Calgary for an oil-drilling operation. When World War II rolled around he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force as a Commanding Officer for British Commonwealth elementary flying training schools. He died in 1949 from a heart attack in Calgary.
Eight years later, the Calgary Municipal Airport was named McCall Field in his honour, and in 1978 he was inducted into the Canadian Aviation Hall of Fame. He is remembered as a flying pioneer, an exceptional stunt pilot, a decorated war hero, and someone who never shrank from a challenge, living up to his motto of “danger is sweet.”—Laura Pellerine