This series, Crooks, tells the forgotten stories behind some of the most outlandish crimes, and criminals, in Philadelphia history. See below for how to access these archives for yourself.
In 1938, as the United States continued to pull itself out of the Great Depression, unemployment rates in Philadelphia were around 25 percent.
Exploiting the financial consternation, two cousins from South Philadelphia that year initiated a murder-for-hire scheme preying on Italian immigrants that resulted in one of the most notorious crime sprees in city history.
Not all of their victims were even accounted for, but it was estimated that 50 to 100 people died.
For their efforts, Herman and Paul Petrillo were executed by electric chair in 1941: Paul in the spring, and Herman on Oct. 20.
Facing their own financial straits through the years, spaghetti salesman Herman Petrillo had become skilled in counterfeiting, while tailor Paul Petrillo had developed talents for insurance scams. They joined forces with another cousin, Morris Bolber, and created a "matrimonial agency" matching widowed women with new husbands, usually hapless Italian immigrants.
But they didn't do it in the name of love.
The criminal masterminds would also initiate life insurance policies for these new husbands, and see to it that they succumbed to "accidental" deaths shortly thereafter. Bolber would help file insurance claims to capitalize on a provision in the policies that allowed for double payment if the death was accidental.
The "accidents" ranged from drownings to poisonings, which led the local press to name the gang "Arsenic Incorporated."
The scam, which eventually included up to 24 participants, started to unravel in October 1938. Police were getting suspicious as more immigrants of similar circumstances were dying, their toxicology reports showing elevated levels of arsenic. One victim, a poor Italian laborer named Ferdinand Alfonsi, provided the link police needed to confirm a larger criminal conspiracy.
And then a snitch came forward.
Upholstery cleaner George Myers had approached Herman Petrillo for a loan to save his business. Herman said he would pay Myers $500 in cash to kill Alfonsi, after repeated attempts to poison the laborer were unsuccessful. Myers was instructed to hit Alfonsi with a lead pipe and then arrange the body to make it seem as if the dead man had suffered an accident. Uncomfortable with the agreement, Myers alerted the head of the Philadelphia branch of the U.S. Secret Service, which was already eyeing Petrillo for counterfeiting.
An undercover agent posed as a hit man and contracted with Petrillo to kill Alfonsi for the same $500. At the same time, the agent tried to get Petrillo to sell him counterfeit money.
While the money was being organized, Alfonsi was hospitalized with a serious ailment, and Petrillo called off the hit. In a conversation with the agent after Alfonsi's admittance, Petrillo said Alfonsi must have nine lives because Petrillo had given him enough arsenic to "kill six men," according to old news accounts.
Before his death, Alfonsi told police he had applied for life insurance several times, but his wife intercepted the mail and told him he was not approved. Investigators learned after Alfonsi's death that he had been approved for the insurance, and his wife was the beneficiary of a policy totaling more than $8,000 ($136,000 in today's dollars).
In the spring of 1939, 24 people were indicted, including the Petrillos, Bolber, and some of the so-called "black widows." Most were sentenced to life imprisonment.
The Petrillos were sentenced to death.
About this Series:
Using the digital archives of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, Crooks tells the forgotten stories behind some of the most outlandish crimes, and criminals, in Philadelphia history. *Search the archives for yourself and subscribe for full access.*