The Philadelphia poison ring was a murder for
hire gang led by the Petrillo cousins, Herman and Paul Petrillo, in
1938. The leaders were ultimately convicted of 114 poison-murders and
were executed by electric chair in 1941. Paul's cousin, Morris Bolber,
was among the 14 others in the gang, all of whom were sentenced to life
Herman and Paul Petrillo were cousins and both were
experienced in the world of elaborate crimes. Herman was an expert
counterfeiter and Paul was running an insurance scam business. In
Philadelphia, they joined forces with Morris Bolber to establish a
On the surface, the three men were helping recently-widowed
women to remarry, move on with their lives, and establish life
insurance policies for their new husbands. In reality, however, the
agency was just an elaborate conduit towards collecting money from the
life insurance policies.
Vincent P. McDevitt was an Assistant District
Attorney in Philadelphia. Early in 1939, the District Attorney,
Charles F. Kelley, assigned him to the homicide case of Ferdinando
Alfonsi, who had died on
27 October 1938.
McDevitt immediately had information from two undercover detectives,
agents Landvoight and Phillips.
From them, McDevitt had an informant, one George
Meyer, who ran a local upholstery cleaning business. Meyer encountered
Herman Petrillo when he was trying to obtain money for his business.
Petrillo had offered to provide him with a large sum of money, legal
tender and counterfeit, if Meyer would perform a hit on Alfonsi.
Landvoight and Meyer had played along with the murder plot, with Meyer
hoping for an advance pay-out and Landvoight hoping to finally bust
Petrillo's counterfeiting crimes.
Working undercover, of course, Landvoight helped
Meyer "play along," as the Petrillos plotted the murder that they
wanted Meyer to carry out.
The plan was to steal or buy a car, take Alfonsi
out to a dark country road and hit him with the car, thus making the
murder looking accidental. Herman Petrillo preferred the idea to steal
the car rather than buy one, but Landvoight and Phillips were hoping
to convince Petrillo to give them money to buy a car for the murder,
as it would give them the opportunity that had so long prayed for, to
arrest him on counterfeit charges.
In the end, Petrillo sold them some fake tender,
ostensibly for buying a means of transportation to the planned crime
scene. The "play along" plan continued until Meyer, on a whim of
curiosity and concern, decided to visit the intended murder victim. At
the front door of the house where Alfonsi lived, Meyer learned from an
old woman who had opened the door that Alfonsi was gravely ill.
After notifying Phillips, he returned with Phillips
and Landvoight to the Alfonsi house. They found Alfonsi to be
bizarrely ill, suffering symptoms of bulging eyes, immobility, and
being unable to speak. At their next meeting with Herman Petrillo,
after Petrillo handed Phillips an envelope full of counterfeit bills,
Phillips asked about the plan to murder Alfonsi. Petrillo replied that
there was no reason to worry about it anymore; it was being handled,
Ferdinando Alfonsi expired after being admitted to
the National Stomach Hospital. The cause of death was heavy metal
poisoning. The autopsy revealed tremendous arsenic levels. The
detectives assigned to the case were Michael Schwartz, Anthony
Franchetti, and Samuel Riccardi. They instantly thought of the rumors,
already well-developed, about a highly-organized arsenic killing spree
surging through the city. Indeed, there were distinct patterns. The
victims tended to be Italian immigrants, as Alfonsi was, and to have
high levels of arsenic in their bloodstreams.
Herman Petrillo and Mrs. Alfonsi were both arrested.
Mrs. Alfonsi had purchased a sizable life insurance policy for her
husband, an immigrant who could not read English and had been unaware
of the policy. Moreover, the Alfonsi case fit with a rapidly-emerging
common Modus operandi in a lot of other homicide investigations.
Most importantly, each case involved a fresh life
insurance policy with a double indemnity clause and a nearly-direct
lead to one of the Petrillo cousins, and each cause of death was
listed as some sort of violent accident.
Bolber-Petrillo Murder Ring, The
America's most prolific team of killers-for-profit were active in Philadelphia during the 1930s, claiming an estimated 30 to 50 victims before the ring's various members were apprehended.
Students of the case, in retrospect, are prone to cite the gang's activities as evidence that modern homicide statistics may be woefully inaccurate. If 20,000 murders are reported in a given year, they say, it is entirely possible that 20,000 more go unreported, overlooked by the authorities.
The basic murder method was conceived in 1932, by Dr. Morris Bolber and his good friend, Paul Petrillo. After one of Bolber's female patients aired complaints about her husband's infidelity, the doctor and Petrillo planned for Paul to woo the lonely lady, gaining her cooperation in a plan to kill her wayward spouse and split $10,000 in insurance benefits.
The victim, Anthony Giscobbe, was a heavy drinker, and it proved a simple matter for his wife to strip him as he lay unconscious, leaving him beside an open window in the dead of winter while he caught his death of cold. The grieving widow split her cash with Bolber and Petrillo, whereupon her "lover" promptly went in search of other restless, greedy wives. It soon became apparent that Italian husbands, caught up in the middle of the Great Depression, carried little life insurance on their own.
Petrillo called upon his cousin Herman, an accomplished local actor, to impersonate potential victims and apply for heavy policies. Once several payments had been made, the husbands were eliminated swiftly and efficiently through "accidents" or "natural causes."
Dr. Bolber's favorite methods included poison and blows to the head with a sandbag, producing cerebral hemorrhage, but methods were varied according to victims. One target, a roofer named Lorenzo, was hurled to his death from an eight-story building, the Petrillo cousins first handing him some French post cards to explain his careless distraction. After roughly a dozen murders, the gang recruited faith healer Carino Favato, known as the Witch in her home neighborhood. Favato had dispatched three of her own husbands before going into business full-time as a "marriage consultant," poisoning unwanted husbands for a fee.
Impressed by Dr. Bolber's explanation of the life insurance scam, Favato came on board and brought the gang a list of her prospective clients. By the latter part of 1937, Bolber's ring polished off 50 victims, at least 30 of which were fairly well documented by subsequent investigation. The roof fell in when an ex-convict approached Herman Petrillo, pushing a new get-rich scheme.
Unimpressed, Petrillo countered with a pitch for his acquaintance to secure potential murder victims, and the felon panicked, running to police. As members of the gang were rounded up, they "squealed" on one another in the hope of finding leniency, their clients chiming in as ripples spread throughout a stunned community. While several wives were sent to prison, most escaped by testifying for the state. The two Petrillos were condemned and put to death, while Bolber and Favato each drew terms of life imprisonment.
Michael Newton - An Encyclopedia of
Modern Serial Killers - Hunting Humans
Philadelphia's Poison Ring
By David Lohr
The D.A. and the Informant
The assistant district attorney of Philadelphia
during the late 1930s was Vincent McDevitt. A blithe Irish lad, McDevitt
grew up in the dense streetcar suburb of West Philadelphia. Being the
second oldest of four brothers brought him hardship after the death of
his father when he was 14 years old. McDevitts mother worked as a
seamstress, but the money was not nearly enough to support the family of
five. McDevitt and his older brother began working to help put food on
the table. As the years went by and the familys financial burdens became
lighter, Mrs. McDevitt urged her sons to further their education. It was
important to her that her children have a better life than the one she
was able to provide for them. McDevitt studied hard and, much to his
mothers delight, was eventually awarded a partial state senatorial
scholarship, which enabled him to attend night classes at Temple Law
School. Finally, in 1929, 28-year-old McDevitt completed his education
and qualified for the bar.
Within three years, he married and shortly thereafter
became a father. Building a law practice during the Depression was no
easy task, but McDevitt was a determined man and he promised himself
that his family would never have to live as he did within the
homogeneous clusters of row houses that made up most of West
Philadelphia. In January 1938, the struggling attorneys hard work
finally paid off when he obtained an appointment as an assistant
Shortly after settling into his new office, McDevitts
boss, district attorney Charles Kelley, assigned McDevitt to a recent
homicide case. Three months prior, on October 27, 1938, Ferdinando
Alfonsi, 38, died under mysterious circumstances and a government
informer had recently provided the Secret Service with details relating
to the case.
Kelley had heard rumors that a cult was involved and
was reluctant to become personally involved in such a bizarre case. So
it was that McDevitt was assigned to handle it. Later that day, a Secret
Service agent, known only as Agent Landvoight (due to his undercover
work), filled McDevitt in on the case.
Landvoight said the informer told him of a group of
individuals based in Philadelphia, who ran a murder ring to collect
insurance money. According to Poison Widows, by George Cooper, the
informer, George Meyer (a.k.a. Newmeyer), ran an upholstery cleaning
company, which had recently fallen on hard times.
When he sought money for his business, he was
referred to the ringleader, Herman Petrillo. Agent Landvoight was
already familiar with Petrillo. He tried for years to arrest him for
counterfeiting five and ten dollar bills. Landvoight had a file three
inches thick on him, but every time the authorities served a warrant or
attempted a sting operation, they came up empty handed.
Meyer knew about Petrillos money-making scams and
told Landvoight that Petrillo had offered him $500 in legal tender and
$2,500 in counterfeit bills, if Meyer could organize a hit on Ferdinando
Alfonsi. He then handed him an 18-inch piece of pipe. You do it in his
house, Petrillo said. Hit him with the pipe. Then carry him up the steps
and throw him down. Itll look like an accident. Meyer had no intention
of carrying out the crime, but played along hoping that Petrillo would
offer him an advance.
Nonetheless, Petrillo would not pay a dime up front
and in the end Meyer decided to make some quick cash by selling the
information to the Secret Service. Landvoight was more interested in the
counterfeit bills than he was in any murder conspiracy and offered to
pay Meyer if he would continue to play along with Petrillos scheme. The
down and out businessman had little choice and reluctantly agreed.
Counterfeiters and Insurance Frauds
Herman Petrillo was born in 1899, in the Neapolitan
province of Campania. After his immigration to the United States in
1910, he worked as a barber, but eventually opted for easier ways to
make money. In the beginning his schemes consisted of arson and
insurance fraud, but a person can only burn down so many buildings
before the police and insurance companies become suspicious. During one
fateful trip to the seedier side of town, he ran into a group of men
selling counterfeit five-dollar bills for half the face value. Petrillo
was so impressed by the quality of the bills that he began to study the
criminal art and was soon making his own.
Herman Petrillo's cousin, Paul Petrillo, emigrated
from Naples to Philadelphia in 1910. He married shortly after his
arrival in the states and before long opened a tailor shop, Paul
Petrillo, Custom Tailor to the Classy Dressers, on East Passyunk Avenue.
According to later reports in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the business
quickly prospered, however, when the Depression came, he barely survived
To support his family, Paul got into the life
insurance racket. He sold cheap policies with weekly premiums of 50
cents or a dollar. The insurance company he worked with did not require
a medical examination, so Paul would sell policies to sickly, middle-aged
men. While the prospect may have sounded alluring to those wanting to
ensure their families well being, Paul had his own agenda.
More times than not, Paul would list himself, without
the policy holders knowledge, as brother or cousin of the insured, thus
making himself the sole beneficiary. Basically, he was playing the
lottery, but this was no ordinary game and it required the death of a
human participant in order to get the big payoff.
Paul was fascinated by magic and was interested in
healers and individuals who claimed the power to take away a person's
pain. When discussing this interest with a local masseur, Paul was
excited to learn that the man often attended sessions where various
healers discussed their practices and was overjoyed when the man invited
him to attend one. It was there that Paul met a man named Morris Bolber.
A Russian Jewish immigrant, Bolber was a middle-aged
man, known around town as Louie the Rabbi. Born in Tordobis, Russia
during the late 1800s, he was raised by his grandparents and entered
Grodno State University at age nine. Upon his graduation at 12, he began
to tutor children. During this time, he became interested in the
Kabbalah, an ancient book of magic. His fascination eventually turned
into obsession and in 1905 he took a ship to China and sought out a
legendary sorceress named Rino. Bolber lived with the old woman for five
years, during which time she taught him how to make potions and use
In 1911, Bolber immigrated to New York City. He
eventually married and settled down on the lower East side. He worked as
a teacher, saved his money earnestly, and soon thereafter, opened a
grocery store, which prospered for many years.
However, in 1931, as with so many other businesses of
that era, the Depression forced him to close his doors. When money
became short, Bolber packed up his wife and four children and moved to
Philadelphia to get a fresh start. Upon their arrival, he began teaching
and preparing Jewish boys for their bar mitzvahs. He also sent out
handbills announcing his new practice as a faith healer.
Their meeting was important to Petrillo. Paul
Petrillo was awe struck by Bolber and gradually the two became close
Agent Landvoight arranged for Stanly Phillips, a
street-wise agent of the Secret Service, to work with Meyer. On August
1, 1938, Meyer and Phillips met with Herman Petrillo at a local diner.
Petrillo was uncomfortable discussing the plans in public, so the three
men went outside and sat in his Dodge sedan. Meyer introduced Phillips
as Johnny Phillips, a friend of his that was fresh out of prison after
serving time for murder.
Herman Petrillo didnt seem to mind and the
conversation soon turned to Alfonsi. He suggested that they take him to
the Jersey coast and drown him. They could leave his clothing at the
scene and it would look like an accident. Phillips was not interested in
the murder plot and wanted to get his hands on some of Petrillos
counterfeit money. In order to work this in, he suggested that Petrillo
give them some money to buy a car. They could use the car to transport
the victim to a dark country road, where they could then run him over
with the car and leave his body along side of the road. Petrillo liked
the idea, but suggested they steal a car, rather than purchase one for
the job. Phillips decided not to press the matter and the men decided to
think the crime over.
According to Poison Widows, the cat-and-mouse games
continued for the next several weeks and on August 22, 1938, the men
convened at a local eatery on Thayer Street. Petrillo still did not want
to give the men money to buy a car but did, much to Phillips' delight,
offer to sell them some fake bills.
Petrillo reached into his wallet and pulled out a
counterfeit five-dollar bill. Phillips was awestruck by the quality of
the bill and quickly started making arrangements to buy $200 worth of
the bogus bills. Petrillo, initially reluctant to deal, finally agreed
and said he would need two weeks to deliver.
Phillips was ecstatic about the possibility of
finally arresting Herman Petrillo. After years of undercover work and
sting operations, he now had his man right where he wanted him. Or so he
thought. When the two-week time period arrived, and then passed, he
began to worry that Petrillo might have gotten wind of their plan and
asked Meyer to try and find out what was going on. Petrillo was nowhere
to be found. No one had seen him in over a week and he could not be
found at any of his usual haunts.
Meyer was getting increasingly nervous and decided to
check on Ferdinando Alfonsi, the man Petrillo wanted dead. He knew where
the man lived and drove over to his house on Ann Street. Posing as a
construction worker, Meyer knocked on the door and waited anxiously.
Finally, just when he was about to turn and walk away, a middle-aged
woman opened the door. Meyer pretended to be interested in doing some
work on the home and asked to speak with the man of the house. However,
to his immediate dismay, the woman informed him that her husband was
very ill and could not get out of bed. As quickly and politely as he
could, Meyer apologized for having disturbed them and made his way back
to his car.
Agent Phillips got a sick feeling in his stomach when
Meyer explained the situation to him. Perhaps they had spent too much
time focusing on the bogus bills and not enough time protecting the
intended victim. Phillips called together several agents and the group,
posing as insurance representatives, went to check on Alfonsis condition.
While they had no problem getting inside, they were shocked when they
saw Alfonsi. His pupils were bulging and he could neither move nor speak.
The agents then contacted the Philadelphia police.
Meanwhile, Petrillo contacted Meyer and told him he
had their money. A meeting was arranged at a local bus stop and later
that day Meyer and Phillips met him there. Petrillo gave the man an
envelope, which contained 40 counterfeit five-dollar bills. Philips was
happy to finally get the money, but was also concerned about Alfonsi and
decided to see what he could find out. Pretending the men still wanted
the job, Phillips asked Petrillo if he still wanted Alfonsi taken out.
Petrillo grinned and said that they did not have to worry about it. He
is in the hospital, and he is not coming out, he said.
The Poison Ring
Philadelphia investigators ordered a urine specimen
from Alfonsis doctors, which later revealed large quantities of arsenic.
According to Stedman's Medical Dictionary, arsenic could cause heat and
irritation in throat and stomach; vomiting, purging with rice-water
stools; cramps in calf muscles, restlessness, even convulsions,
prostration, fainting, somnolence, dizziness, delirium, extreme
prostration, coma. While some cases, if caught in a timely manner, can
be treated, the majority of victims succumb to the poison and die.
It was now up to the assistant district attorney.
According to Michael Newton, author of Hunting Humans, McDevitt wasted
little time in arresting Petrillo on charges of attempted murder, but
when Alfonsi died a few weeks later, the charge was changed to homicide.
When McDevitt questioned Petrillo, he was skeptical that he would walk
away with anything he could use. After all, this was the same man that
the Secret Service had worked for so many years to arrest.
However, to McDevitts amazement, Petrillo would not
shut up. He provided the D.A. with a mind-boggling list of victims and
conspirators, claiming that his cousin, Paul Petrillo, along with Morris
Bolber, were the masterminds behind the entire operation.
McDevitt was really surprised as Petrillo named one
victim after another: Luigi LaVecchio, late husband of Sophie LaVecchio;
Charles Ingrao, late common-law husband of Maria Favato; Mollie Starace,
a friend of Paul Petrillo; Antonio Romualdo, late husband of Josephine
Romualdo; John Woloshyn, late husband of Marie Woloshyn; Dominic Carina,
Prospero Lisi, and Peter Stea, all late husbands of Rose Carina; Joseph
Arena, late husband of Anna Arena; Romaine Mandiuk, late husband of
Agnes Mandiuk; Pietro Pirolli, late husband of Grace Pirolli; Salvatore
Carilli, late husband of Rose Carilli; Jennifer Pino, late wife of
Thomas Pino; Antonio Giacobbe, late husband of Millie Giacobbe; Guiseppi
DiMartino, late husband of Susie DiMartino; Ralph Caruso, late tenant of
Christine Cerrone; Philip Ingrao, late stepson of Maria Favato; Lena
Winkleman, late mother-in-law of Joseph Swartz; Jennie Cassetti, late
wife of Dominick Cassetti; and lastly, Ferdinando Alfonsi, late husband
of Stella Alfonsi.
Petrillo said that all but three of the victims had
been killed with arsenic.
Investigators now had the daunting task of proving
Petrillos allegations. The only way they could get solid proof would be
to exhume every victim. McDevitt already had Ferdinando Alfonsis urine
test results and decided to proceed with that case. He knew that he
could always file charges regarding the other cases later and wanted to
get started on the prosecution for Alfonsis murder.
On February 2, 1939, the grand jury indicted Herman
and Paul Petrillo, Stella Alfonsi, and Maria Favato. Marias husband was
the first to be exhumed and her late husbands autopsy revealed large
quantities of arsenic in his system. The New York Times reported on
February 17, 1939, that the grand jury reached its verdict in only seven
and a half minutes. The defendants would be going to trial.
Herman Petrillos trial began on March 13, 1939 in
Philadelphia's City Hall. The presiding judge, Harry McDevitt (no
relation to D.A. Vincent McDevitt), was one of the most feared judges in
all of Pennsylvania. A defense attorneys worst nightmare, the judge was
known in legal circles as Hanging Harry. Even though Petrillos lawyer,
Milton Leidner, was a close friend of the judge, the defense attorney
did not expect any leniency.
The March 13, 1939 edition of The Ledger reported
that Thomas Shearn, an agent for John Hancock Mutual Life, was the first
to testify. He told the jury how Petrillo had taken him to see
Ferdinando Alfonsi on February 9, 1939. Shearn testified that when
Alfonsi refused to sign the policy, Petrillo instructed the agent,
against company policy, to leave the paperwork with him.
Following Shearns testimony, Luigi Cissone, an agent
for Monumental Life Insurance, told the jury he had also helped Petrillo
get insurance on the ailing Alfonsi. Afterwards, Secret Service
informant Meyer and undercover agent Stanly Philips consecutively took
the stand and testified about Petrillo's attempts to have them kill
Alfonsi. A druggist then testified that Petrillo approached him on
numerous occasions in an attempt to purchase typhoid germs and similar
poisons. Next, a physician gave testimony in regards to the quantities
of arsenic found during an autopsy of Alfonsi.
When the prosecution rested their case, the defense
had little to offer. Attorney Leidner briefly attempted to discredit the
states witnesses, but quickly relented when he realized he was only
furthering the damage done by D.A. McDevitt. Petrillo then took the
stand and spent three hours and 15 minutes denying all of the states
On March 21, 1939, the jury foreman, 42-year-old
Margaret Skeen, read the verdict to the court. Guilty, with a
recommendation for death, she announced. According to Poison Widows, the
defendant became enraged. You lousy bitch, Petrillo snarled as he lunged
toward the jury foreman. However, before he could reach Mrs. Skeen,
guards quickly restrained him and the judge banged his gavel in an
attempt to bring order back to the courtroom.
When the courtroom settled down, Judge McDevitt
congratulated the jurors. You can see how mean and vicious this man is,
he told the jurors. You now realize that was the only verdict you could
have returned. He then sentenced Herman Petrillo to die in
Pennsylvania's electric chair. Following the verdict, defense attorney
Leidner stood up and apologized to the court. I'm sorry, he said. I
wouldn't have defended this man if I had known he was such scum.
There would be further justice carried out. Upon the
conclusion of the trial, investigators announced to the press that 70
bodies would be exhumed and examined for signs of arsenic.
Maria Favato was the next member of the media-dubbed
Poison Ring to go to trial. However, in a shocking move, she halted her
own trial and pleaded guilty to three counts of murder, which included
both her stepson and her own husband.
Woman Poisoner Confesses at Trial, blared The New
York Times on April 22, 1939. Included within the article were excerpts
of Marias unexpected confession. I might just as well get it over with,
she said. Let them send me to the chair. What have I got to live for?"
Shortly after Marias change in plea, Herman Petrillo,
in an effort to escape the electric chair, agreed to cooperate with the
prosecution. By May 21, 1939, 21 arrests were made in connection with
the poison ring. As the investigation continued, detectives discovered
that Herman Petrillo and Bolber ran a matrimonial agency, which was
apparently created in order to find new husbands for widows of their
victims. Upon finding a new mate, the widows would marry and then take
out life insurance policies on their new spouses. Afterwards, it was up
to the members of the ring to do away with the insured and collect the
On May 25, 1939, Morris Bolber pled guilty to murder,
possibly hoping that his plea would earn him a lesser sentence. His plan
worked and he was eventually sentenced to life imprisonment. A few
months later, in September 1939, Paul Petrillo also pled guilty.
Nevertheless, Paul was not quite as lucky as Bolber and was sentenced to
die in the electric chair. The last major player in the poison ring,
Rose Carina, the media-dubbed Rose of Death, was found not guilty
following a brief jury trial.
In the end, 13 men and women besides Bolber and the
Petrillos were either convicted of or pled guilty to first-degree murder.
All of these convicted killers served long sentences, the shortest being
not less than 14 years in prison.
On March 31, 1941, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania
electrocuted Paul Petrillo. Seven months later, on October 20, 1941,
Herman Petrillo met with the same fate. Thirteen years later, on
February 15, 1954, Morris Bolber died of natural causes while awaiting
his third parole petition.
Following the poison ring trials, District Attorney
Vincent McDevitt went on to build a solid and lucrative career. He
finally left public service in 1947, and later became vice president of
the Philadelphia Electric Company.
It is interesting to note that many written accounts
of the poison ring mention witchcraft and describe the Petrillos and
Morris Bolber as witchdoctors or cult leaders. However, these
allegations hold little merit and were probably invented by reporters of
the time. The sole purpose of the poison ring was money, obtained by
means of murder and insurance fraud. It was later estimated that the
group netted at least $100,000 prior to the arrest of its members.