Like countless other Italian immigrants, cousins Herman and Paul Petrillo left their native country for America in search of opportunity and a better life. The Petrillos achieved their goals, but not through hard work or determination – they were criminals. The cousins operated within Philadelphia’s seedy underbelly in a number of ways, but it was with their murder-for-hire ring that the Petrillos truly excelled and profited. Their method of murder: poison.
After leaving Italy, the Petrillos settled in Philadelphia in 1910. The Petrillos did not come alone; like many other American cities, Philadelphia experienced a massive influx of Italian immigrants in the early 20th century. The Petrillos’ countrymen would soon become their victims.
Pretty much as soon as they had arrived, Herman and Paul set to criminal activities. Herman was an expert counterfeiter (and spaghetti salesman) and Paul ran insurance scams from the back of his tailor shop. Their financial crimes gradually grew darker and darker, until they finally turned to murder in 1931.
The cousins saw advantage in the economic hardships of the Great Depression, and they used it to line their pockets. The Petrillos teamed up with a man named Morris Bolber and created a “matrimonial agency.” Their new business venture was meant to match up widowed women with men, usually unsuspecting Italian immigrants. But, of course, the Petrillos had an angle. Along with these new marriages, the agency sold life insurance policies. The Petrillos and their partner Bolber saw to it that the newly-married men met an unfortunate demise, then they split the money with the “wives.” Bolber knew that an “accidental” death would pay out double the proceeds.
The trio began to hire thugs, including women to act as wives, to carry out their dirty scheme. The ring eventually included as many as two dozen people. Over the next several years, it is estimated that the gang was responsible for between 50 and 100 murders around Philadelphia, but the exact number will likely never be known. In addition to poison, their victims were killed in a variety of ways, including bludgeoning and being run over with cars. The group killed freely and profitably for years, until October 1938.
Police started to suspect something was amiss when the autopsies of so many men of similar circumstances started coming back with high arsenic levels. Then the case took another turn when a local Italian immigrant named Fernando Alfonsi suddenly died.
A man named George Meyers had approached Herman Petrillo about a acquiring a loan to help save his business. Herman told Meyers he would pay him $500 – if he murdered Fernando Alfonsi with a lead pipe and make it look like an unfortunate accident. Alfonsi had been on the Petrillo’s kill list for a while, but several attempts at poisoning him had proved unsuccessful.
A shocked George Meyers alerted the U.S. Secret Service, which was already investigating Herman Petrillo for counterfeiting. The feds sent in an undercover agent, posing as a hitman. Petrillo offered the fake hitman the same deal he offered George Meyers: $500 to kill Alfonsi. However, Fernando Alfonsi died shortly afterwards of heavy metal poisoning, so no action was ever taken. It was enough, though. Due to the evidence collected by the Secret Service, 24 members of the ring were indicted, and the Philadelphia Poison Ring was finally put out of business.
Many of the members of the gang received lengthy sentences, and some were even put behind bars for life. Morris Bolber died in prison in 1954 while serving his sentence. But both Herman and Paul Petrillo, the ringleaders of the assassins, were sentenced to death and executed by electric chair in 1941.
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