A “Ghoulish Jamboree”: The Not-So-Jewish Jewish Funeral of Mob Boss Bessie Starkman
Keywords:Intercultural Relations, Canadian History—World War I through World War II
Bessie Starkman (1890-1930), along with her lover Rocco Perri, was one of the most notorious crime bosses in 1920s Canada. When unknown thugs murdered the forty-year-old at her Hamilton, Ontario home, Canada’s underworld lost one of its most powerful figures, and according to one writer “the only Jewish woman who ever commanded an Italian mob.” Focused on the couple’s criminality and Starkman’s 1930 murder, scholars have generally sidestepped exploration of her Jewish identity and background. Indeed, in 2005, author Robin Rowland declared simply that when the wife and mother ran off with the Italian Catholic Perri, she “abandoned her husband, children, and Jewish faith”; almost every subsequent source on Starkman has quoted or paraphrased this assertion. The notion that Bessie Starkman “deserted the Jewish faith,” however, requires greater scrutiny, especially as the concept of religious abandonment had consequences regarding funerary ritual and interment. Unlike other works that describe Starkman’s extravagant funeral to emphasize her celebrity, Perri’s husbandly devotion, or the occasion’s cultural/religious pluralism, this article examines Starkman’s funeral and burial specifically through a Jewish lens and highlights the cultural and religious tension that surrounded these rites. Thanks largely to Perri, there were two major features that conformed to Jewish custom, notably the rabbi officiant and Starkman’s burial in Hamilton’s Orthodox Jewish cemetery. But the simple Jewish funeral that prioritized the dignity, privacy, and purity of the body clashed with Perri’s explicit desire for a spectacle, one marked by crowds, adulation, and opulence. Ultimately, Starkman’s public funeral, as one observer noted, became a “ghoulish jamboree.”
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