Daily factoid: 1637 In an effort to prevent anyone from stabbing him while he feasted, Cardinal Richelieu orders that all knives be rounded, inadvertently inventing the first butter knife.
Thought for the day:
“It has been my experience that folks who have no vices have very few virtues.”
I returned from my week in Chiang Mai (Paradise in the Mountains) only to receive the news that Hayden was to be removed from school today and brought to BKK in preparation for his move to either California or Italy in September. Many people have commented that most people believe that they are the star in their own life’s drama. To which Franklin Roosevelt wryly observed that you should “[R]emember that you are just an extra in everyone else’s play. However, the bitter truth of the matter is that for most of us we are no more than bit players in our own tragedy.”
Anyway things continue on here in Thailand. The english language newspapers continue reporting on the various political maneuverings of the Red and Yellow shirt factions, missing completely the reality of the jockeying for power amongst the major Thai governing institutions. So what else is new, the news from the US appears no less insipid.
On a lighter note, last night I had dinner with a friend who I had not seen in a while at a wonderful French restaurant in Pattaya called “Mata Hari.” We were joined for dinner by her nephew named “Boy,” a policeman by day and a chef at night.
Now for those of you unfamiliar with the naming conventions in Thailand (I think I explained it in a previous post) they resemble those traditional in Southern Italy and Sicily. There, at some point in one’s youth, he is given a nickname, usually by his friends, by which he will forever after be known. Names like Beefsteak, Tony the Bum, Footer, Mopey Joe are all names given to people I have known. While these names are usually bestowed on males some females are also so graced as we saw in the case of the woman named “Rose ‘Kiss of Death’ Carina” involved in the crime spree of the notorious Petrillo brothers and “Morris’ Louie the Rabbi’ Bolber”.
Anyway, in Thailand shortly after birth, the baby’s father gives the baby a nick-name that becomes that person’s name thereafter or until they change it which they often do. Names like Nong (Boy), Ying (Girl), Daeng (Red), Nok (Bird) and so on are common. For some reason the father of my dinner companion decided to forgo the Thai name and jump directly into the english transaction.
Given the connotations in American english in calling someone “Boy,” I refrained from doing so leaving the conversation somewhat stilted as I sought to deal with liberal guilt that I should not have since my people arrived in the US long after the earlier settlers bequeathed that shame to the nation. Unfortunately, I am sad to say, we rapidly and happily acquired the prejudices and sensitivities of our betters (as they so firmly told us they were our betters).
I just realized that I sent the notorious Petrillo brothers article to only a few of you. So, since the rest of you may not understand the reference, I have attached it below. (As far as I know we are not related)
Malice, Madness, and Mayhem: an Eclectic Collection of American Infamy
The Petrillo Poison Ring
For six years during the depths of the Depression, two Italian immigrants and a Jewish mystic sprinkled arsenic through the working-class neighborhoods of Philadelphia like deadly Sandman. Caught up with them were a dozen “poison widows” – and a couple of “poison widowers” – bearing various degrees of complicity in the deaths of their spouses. The victims were mostly Italian immigrants, some illiterate, some with little knowledge of English, all dead. And they all carried an inordinate amount of life insurance.
Cousins Paul and Herman Petrillo were both born near Naples, Italy, and came to America in 1910, when Paul was 17 and Herman was 11. Paul married shortly after arriving in Philadelphia and began production on his large family. His wife, Angelina, was sickly and rarely seen about the neighborhood. Paul opened his own shop, “Paul Petrillo, Custom Tailor to the Classy Dresser,” and by 1929 was successful enough to pay cash for a house.
But the Depression was not kind to “classy dressers,” and Paul began to look for ways to supplement his income. An insurance agent who hung around Paul’s shop, Gaetano Cicinato, told him about the shadier side of the insurance business. The cheap policies he sold required no medical exam. If you knew someone was an ill-health – a
35-year-old who’d been gassed during World War I, for example – the 50-cent a week premium was peanuts compared to the payoff. It was like hitting the lottery. Paul began accumulating such policies. Some were taken out by the insured’s family and assigned to Paul. Others he took out himself, listing himself as “cousin” or “brother” to the insured. But Paul was impatient. He needed a way to improve his odds.
In the Italian neighborhoods of Philly, many immigrants retained the beliefs of the old country – deeply superstitious, they believed in curses and the evil eye, in potions and charms. Paul Petrillo was one such believer. It was said he carried eleven rabbits’ feet in his pocket to ward off demons. He handed out business cards, with the address of his tailor shop, calling himself, “Professor P. Patril – Divine Healing, Private Readings.”
While Paul started out a respectable member of society, cousin Herman took a different path. He was a con artist, an arsonist, and a counterfeiter, but somehow he always managed to slip through the grips of the cops and the feds. It was Herman who first suggested a way for Paul to start collecting on his growing stack of insurance policies. “Send the guy to California,” was Herman’s euphemism for murder. When Paul initially declined, Herman started on his own scheme. His first mark was 50-year-old old Ralph Caruso, a vagrant who was suffering the crippling effects of a trolley accident. Herman installed Caruso in a boardinghouse and built up an insurance portfolio worth $3,000, payable to Ralph’s “brother,” “Herman Caruso.” (For an estimate of current value, multiply amounts by 15. $3,000 in 1935 is worth roughly $47,000 in 2008.) Then Herman took Ralph fishing. With the help of goon Salvatore Sortino, Herman drowned Ralph Caruso in the Schuylkill River.
Unfortunately for Herman, the insurance companies were suspicious and only made partial payments. For all that work, Herman collected a mere $700.
Meanwhile, Herman had a little thing going with a woman named Marie Woloshyn and convinced her to take out insurance on her husband, John. One evening, accompanied by another buddy named Caesar “Jumbo” Valenti, who had spent half of his life in prison, Herman took John for a drive. Jumbo popped John on the head with a pipe and tossed his body in the road. Herman finished the job by driving over the corpse. The police declared it a hit-and-run.
Through his interest in mysticism, Paul Petrillo met Morris “Louie the Rabbi” Bolber. He wasn’t really a rabbi, but Bolber taught Hebrew and prepared boys for their bar mitzvahs. A Russian Jewish immigrant, Bolber claimed to have learned divine healing through the Kabbalah, an ancient book of the supernatural, and from a Chinese witch doctor named Rino. Salvatore Sortino, the thug who’d helped Herman Petrillo send Ralph Caruso to California, followed Louie the Rabbi’s prescription for good luck: “Put an egg under your arm and keep it there for nine days.”
But Bolber’s stock in trade – and which most interested Paul Petrillo – were love potions. Bolber’s incantations could turn a drunken lout of a husband into a prince, or rekindle fading ardor.
Anna Arena worked part-time as a seamstress in Paul’s tailor shop. She came to Louie the Rabbi complaining that her husband, Joseph, ignored their children and showed no interest in her womanly charms. Bolber convinced her of her latent sexuality and paired her with another client in need of sex therapy, Dominick Rodio. With the help of Gaetano Cicinato, Anna obtained a $3,200 double-indemnity policy on Joseph.
To everyone’s frustration, Joseph was healthy, and Bolber’s incantations did nothing to change that fact. Paul called for reinforcements in the form of cousin Herman. Herman and Dominick Rodio took Joseph crabbing, where he had an unfortunate encounter with an oar. The conspirators split the $3,200.
But Herman’s brand of murder was messy and complicated; they needed something easier. The first poison victim was Luigi LaVecchio. Luigi had fallen from a scaffold nine years earlier, in 1923, and had never fully recovered. His wife, Sophie, ran a confectionary store. When Sophie learned of Louie the Rabbi’s healing powers, she sought his help. Again, Paul Petrillo and Gaetano Cicinato obtained life insurance on Luigi. But instead of calling in Herman and his goons to hasten the inevitable, Bolber supplied a packet of powder, which Paul instructed Sophie to mix in Luigi’s food. Immediately Luigi began a tortuous routine of vomiting and diarrhea. It took him three days to die.
Between 1932 and 1938, the bodies piled up. Paul Petrillo’s paramour, Rose “Kiss of Death” Carina, alone dropped three husbands in quick succession, Dominic Carina, Prospero Lisi, and Peter Stea. Most of the victims were husbands; there were Antonio Giacobbe, Guiseppi DiMartino, Antonio Romualdo, Romaine Mandiuk, Pietro Pirolli, and Salvatore Carilli. There were a couple of wives, Jennifer Pino and Jennie Cassetti. Maria Favato managed to rid herself of her common-law husband, Charles Ingrao, and teenaged stepson, Philip Ingrao. Joseph Swartz took out his mother-in-law, Lena Winkleman. With the exception of Ralph Caruso, Joseph Arena, and John Woloshyn, all met with sudden and fatal illnesses. When doctors were called, their symptoms were usually put down to digestion problems. As poor immigrants, their deaths did not attract much attention from the authorities.
In 1935, Maria Favato was 39 years-old, five feet tall, and over 200 pounds. She was illiterate and spoke little English. She too believed in the power of curses and spells. For ten years, she and Charles Ingrao had been living as husband and wife, but Charles had a bad habit of knocking Maria around. Over the years, she had taken out nearly $9,000 in life insurance on her husband.
Maria and Charles housed a border, Raphael Polselli, a short, scrawny man who developed an infatuation with Maria. Distressed over Charles’s abuse of his beloved, Polselli got in touch with his friend Jumbo Valenti. For $300, Jumbo told Raphael, he could procure a magic powder from Herman Petrillo that would take care of their problem. It took Charles Ingrao nine days to die. The doctor listed cause of death as pneumonia.
Pleased with the results, Maria Favato and Raphael Polselli took out insurance policies on neighbors Antonio Romualdo and Guiseppi DiMartino, and obtained more magic powder from Herman Petrillo. Romualdo died on November 13, 1936, and DiMartino on February 7, 1937.
Charles Ingrao’s 16-year-old son, Philip, had been living in a foster home, but Maria took him back after Charles’s death. From various companies she built up more than $6,300 in insurance. By the spring of 1938, the premiums had reached $3 per week while Philip brought home only $5 per week in wages. The teenager suffered for nearly a month before he died on June 25, 1938. By the time she caught the attention of authorities later that year, Maria had accumulated policies on Charles’s younger son, Michael, and on her own son from her first marriage, Joseph Pontarelli.
The poison ring began to fall apart in 1938 with the death of Ferdinando Alfonsi.
Herman and Paul Petrillo had founded a social club, the Italian-American Political and Moral Bocce Club of Paradise, otherwise known as the Paradise Club. Besides offering the locals a place to drink, play cards, and bemoan the world’s troubles, the dues members paid got them a $400 death benefit. Herman found a doctor who would perform 50 to 100 physical exams per day, at 50 cents a head (split with Herman).
Herman also used the Paradise Club to find willing accomplices for his various enterprises. One such confrere was Ferdinando Alfonsi, who helped Herman move some stolen merchandise and counterfeit cash. Ferdinando was unhappily married to Stella, a gregarious, attractive woman with a beautiful singing voice. Ferdinando and Stella mutually neglected each other and their two sons. Stella was also friends with Rose “Kiss of Death” Carina. Herman took a shine to Stella and wanted to take advantage her unhappy union. He took out a couple of thousand more in life insurance on Ferdinando. But Herman and Ferdinando were drinking buddies and business partners. It was tough to send a pal to California.
Enter George Myer (a.k.a. Newmyer), a small-time criminal and police informer. He and Herman concocted various schemes, but Myer had no intention of going through with the murder; he was just trying to finagle an advance. After weeks of delays and excuses, Herman offered Myer an extra $2,500 in counterfeit money if Myer would just get it done already.
The U.S. Secret Service, in charge of tracking down counterfeiters, had had Herman in their sights for years, and now, with informer George Myer’s help, they might finally be able to grab him. Myer arranged for Agent Stanley Phillips to meet with Herman. Myer introduced Phillips as “Johnny,” recently released after doing time for murder. Together, Myer and Phillips would send Ferdinando Alfonsi to California – two assassins for the price of one.
But weeks of negotiation ensued as Phillips tried to get Herman to pay up so the T-man would have hard evidence to make his counterfeit case.
Meanwhile, Myer caught word that Ferdinando Alfonsi was deathly ill. When, in September 1938, Herman finally came through with the counterfeit bills, Phillips inquired about the “job.” Herman replied, “Oh, forget about that part. The man’s in the Stomach Hospital, and he’s not coming out.”
The Secret Service contacted the Philadelphia police. Alfonsi’s doctors found arsenic in his urine. (He died a couple of weeks later, and an autopsy confirmed the arsenic poisoning.) When confronted by Assistant District Attorney Vincent McDevitt, Stella Alfonsi denied all knowledge of and complicity in the poisoning of her husband, but Herman reeled off a staggering list of victims. Although he himself was innocent, he pointed to cousin Paul Petrillo and Morris Bolber as the evil masterminds. Paul, also proclaiming his innocence, added to the list. Morris Bolber and Rose Carina quickly skipped town. (Louie the Rabbi eventually turned himself in; the FBI captured Rose Carina in the Bronx.)
As Vincent McDevitt began building his case, informant George Myer received death threats and was found beaten half to death. Police put him in protective custody. McDevitt exhumed the bodies of Charles and Philip Ingrao, common-law husband and stepson of Maria Favato, and subsequent autopsies found them full of arsenic. On February 17, 1939, Herman and Paul Petrillo, Stella Alfonsi, and Maria Favato were indicted for murder.
Arsenic is odorless, tasteless, and toxic in small doses. Its symptoms – vomiting, diarrhea, headache, muscle weakness – mimic common illnesses such as food poisoning or stomach ulcers. The victims’ deaths were attributed to, among other things, gastroenteritis, cardiac decompensation, influenza, and diabetes. One telltale effect of arsenic poisoning is a strong odor of garlic on the breath – hardly noteworthy in a community of Italians. Some victims were also dosed with antimony, a more potent cousin of arsenic that produces similar symptoms.
D.A. McDevitt was able to obtain confessions from several of the poison widows. Although their culpability varied wildly, it helped McDevitt’s mission that their English was poor, some didn’t have lawyers, and they couldn’t read the confessions they were asked to sign. Some, like Sophie LaVecchio, were probably largely ignorant of the true nature of the powder they mixed in their husbands’ food. Others, like Maria Favato, knew exactly what was going on.
• Herman Petrillo was found guilty of the firstdegree murder of Ferdinando Alfonsi and sentenced to death. Although his conviction was reversed on appeal, a second trial for the murder of Ralph Caruso produced the same outcome. He was executed on October 21, 1941.
• Paul Petrillo pled guilty to the first-degree murder of Luigi LaVecchio and was executed on March 31, 1941.
• Morris Bolber pled guilty to the first-degree murder of Romaine Mandiuk and was sentenced to life in prison. He died in prison on February 9, 1954.
• Maria Favato pled guilty to the murders of Charles Ingrao, Philip Ingrao, and Guiseppi DiMartino and was sentenced to life in prison; her release or death date is unknown.
• Raphael Polselli also pled guilty to the murders of Charles Ingrao and Guiseppi DiMartino; he died in prison on November 17, 1953.
• Sophie LaVecchio pled guilty to seconddegree murder in the death of her husband and was sentenced to 10 to 20 years.
• Rose Carina was acquitted, as was Stella Alfonsi.
An additional sixteen people pled guilty to or were convicted of first- or second- degree murder, two were convicted on lesser charges, and four were acquitted or released.
For six years, motivated purely by greed, Paul and Herman Petrillo and Morris Bolber took advantage of their friends’ ignorance and superstition and ensnared an entire community in a web of death. All for a couple of bucks.