The Philadelphia Poison Plot

With more than 1.5 million residents, Philadelphia is the fifth or sixth largest city (by population) in the United States. From 1880 through 1920, the population exploded, starting from about 800,000 at the beginning of those 40 years and ending at 1.8 million. Many of the people who came to Philly during that period were immigrants from other countries, and many of them didn’t speak English and struggled to create a life for themselves in their new nation. When the Great Depression hit at the end of the 1920s, many of those later immigrants found themselves desperate for a way to feed themselves and their families.

And some turned to crime — including murder.

In 1938, a man named George Meyer had tried — and failed — to make a living as an upholstery cleaner. With little money on the table, he turned to a local businessman named Herman Petrillo, and Petrillo had an offer for him: $3,000 — the modern-day equivalent of about $65,000 — if he killed a man named Ferdinando Alfonsi and made it look like an accident. There was one catch, though: Petrillo was going to give Meyer most of the money — $2,500 of the $3,000 — in counterfeit bills.

Petrillo was a well-known criminal in the area. He and his cousin and co-conspirator Paul were both immigrants; they had moved to Philly from Italy in 1910. Both had criminal backgrounds; Herman was a counterfeiter who dabbled in arson, while Paul was a tailor by day who engaged in insurance fraud on the side. When the Depression hit in 1929, it hit Philadelphia particularly hard — the city had an unemployment rate near 25%, ten points higher than the already brutal national average. The Petrillo cousins, already well-versed in both insurance fraud and counterfeiting, decided to add murder to the mix.

Meyer, according to Absolute Crime, “wasn’t interested in killing,” thought. But he wasn’t against pulling a scam of his own, asking Herman Petrillo to pay him upfront. When Petrillo refused, Meyer approached the authorities, hoping to get paid as an informant. The authorities agreed, but only under the condition that Meyer participate in a sting. He agreed — and then things got a bit weird.

Meyer was supposed to steal a car and “accidentally” run over Alfonsi, but the authorities came up with a better idea — they asked Meyer to convince Petrillo to buy a car instead, knowing he’d use counterfeit money to do so. Petrillo agreed, but when he went to buy the car, the undercover detectives asked about the plot to kill Alfonsi. Petrillo stated that the plan was off — Alfonsi had already been taken care of. Meyer, on his own, went to visit Alfonsi and saw that his former target was deathly ill. In fact, Alfosni died shortly thereafter.

The authorities were suspicious, and an autopsy proved that suspicion well-founded. It showed highly elevated levels of arsenic, much greater than a person could normally consume. But what made Alfonsi’s death try unusual was that it wasn’t unique, not by any stretch. Throughout the 1930s, men in Philadelphia’s Italian community had been dying from similar causes at alarming rates, with at least 30 and as many as 100 other such deaths on the books. So the investigators got back to work — and what they uncovered was a murder-for-profit scheme.

The plot, led by Herman and Paul Petrillo, centered around the dissatisfied or abused housewives of their community, promising them a way to get their husbands to be more engaged — or to go away. Historian Robert James Young, Jr., explained in Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies:

The members of the ring targeted vulnerable people and exploited their situation. For example, women who were discontented with their marriages often went to spiritualists such as Paul Petrillo [and his associates] who at first performed magical rituals and gave them simple folk medicines to use on their spouses and improve their marital relationships. When these remedies failed, one of the advisors would casually suggest curing their husbands with la fatura, or an arsenic substance, which was available for approximately $300. Although some of the wives knew the la fatura was really adeadly poison, others had been told that it was actually a stronger love potion that was potentially fatal. After the husband died, the widow maintained her silence for fear that she would be indicted as an accomplice in murder since she had prior knowledge of the substance’s possible effects.

That was the murder part of the murder-for-profit plan. The money leveraged Paul Petrillo’s understanding of insurance markets. As Philadelphia-area publication Billy Penn explained, “As this all played out, the Petrillos would take out life insurance policies on the doomed husbands. Sometimes they would trick the husbands into signing these policies, exploiting their limited understanding of English. Other times they would impersonate the unsuspecting spouses.” In almost all cases, the husband and future victim had no idea an insurance policy was taken out on his life. In any event, the Petrillos would cash out when wives, intentionally or otherwise, poisoned their spouses.

Ultimately, the crime ring’s greed got the better of them. The investigation into the death of Alfonsi led authorities to exhume dozens of other people who died from similar symptoms, and both Petrillos were convicted of multiple counts of murder. They were executed via the electric chair in 1941.

Bonus fact: In 1858 — just before Halloween — 20 people died from arsenic poisoning in Bradford, England. The cause wasn’t murderous intent by hardened criminals, though; it was an accident. A candy vendor named William Hardaker had been selling peppermint candies for years, and to cut costs, one of his ingredient vendors replaced some of the sugar with powdered gypsum — a harmless additive. Unfortunately, one day, the vendor made a mistake, grabbing arsenic instead of gypsum. Hardaker was, at first, believed to have poisoned the candy on purpose, but as Atlas Obscura shares, the police realized it was an accident rather quickly: “They discovered him at home, writhing in agony, having helped himself to one of the humbugs the night before. The true culprit behind the Bradford humbug poisoning was, in some ways, worse than a lone-wolf villain: People across Bradford were dying because of systematic carelessness and a pursuit of profit.” In part due to the accident, the UK Parliament passed an act that restricted who could sell poisons such as arsenic.

From the Archives: Lunch and a Murder: A lunch club in Philadelphia that gets together to solve murders. (And no, it wasn’t around in the 1930s.)