It’s time to reflect on one of the worst murder cases in Philadelphia history. This is the story of the counterfeiter (Herman Petrillo), the insurance guy (Paul Petrillo), and the fake doctor (Morris Bolber). It was the 1930s and the Depression era when the Petrillo cousins along with Dr. Bolber started their fraud and serial murders. Their earliest victims were Giacobbe, Lorenzo, and Fierzena. The faith healer, Morris Bolber, then encounters Mrs. Carina Favato. Favato poisoned three of her five husbands with arsenic. The gang would soon go on to become one of those most notorious in Philadelphia’s history.
The Arsenic Incorporated gang was responsible for about 70 murders throughout North and South Philadelphia. Herman, the former actor, played the role of husband with the wife’s consent. Paul, the womanizer, seduced the wives into wanting to end their unhappy marriages. He told some of them their husbands would meet their death in an accident and they would be able to collect on some insurance money too. Bolber would then assist in filing insurance claims after the cousins Petrillo successfully murdered the women’s husbands and collect the money.
Antonio Giacobbe was known to be a heavy drinker. One evening his wife, along with Paul Petrillo decided to have a night on the town. After stumbling home in a stupor, his wife and Paul stripped Giacobbe down. Giacobbe later died from pnemonia.
The more their scheme worked the greedier they became. They opened a business dedicated to widows to finding new men to marry and kill for cash. They discovered more elaborate means of killing the spouse by dropping sandbags on their heads while they slept. Coerced abortion, magic rituals, and unintentional poisoning were other methods they used to emotionally blackmail the reluctant wives.
One case of poisoning Ferdinand Alfonsi, aroused the suspicion of the police when he died with abnormal toxemia levels. George Meyer held the key to the ring. He asked to borrow money from Herman to start a business. Pertrillo offered him $600 in counterfeit bills to kill Alfonsi. Meyer, being of sound mind, could not kill. He turned down Pertrillo’s offer and also alerted the police. Upon hearing Petrillo’s name, The head of the Secret Service Branch in Philadelphia, William A. Landvoigt, assigned Stanley B. Phillips to the case. He posed as a hitman and proposed he do the killing.
Phillips’ goal was to get the counterfeit money. In the meantime he requested to buy fake currency. The delay was put on hold because Petrillo could not get more and Alfonsi had already been hospitalized in grave condition, making the murder no longer necessary. However, the joke was on Petrillo, and he was finally arrested, along with Mrs. Alfonsi, when it had been discovered they both were named as beneficiaries to an $8,250 life insurance policy taken out on Ferdinand.
On February 1, 1939 the cousins and Favato were indicted on murder charges. The mastermind of this intricate plot, Dr. Morris Bolber, turned himself over to police in May claiming he was innocent. Favato and Bolber cooperated with the authorities so they did not get the death penalty. The cousins Petrillo were not as lucky. Paul was executed on March 31, 1940. Paul’s cousin Herman followed a short time later on October 20, 1941.