In one of the creepiest mass-murder rings in American history, some 50, or 100 — no one knows the real number — poor Italian immigrants were murdered for money in the late 1930s by a ring organized and managed by cousins Herman and Paul Petrillo. Both would go to the electric chair in 1941; cousin Morris Bolber and 20-odd other defendants would get life in prison. The Philadelphia papers’ archives inspired a recap on the 75th anniversary of Herman’s execution:
Facing their own financial straits through the years, spaghetti salesman Herman Petrillo had became [sic] 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 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.
You can see the inspiration for some classic films noirs and golden age detective novels, there. You can also see a reminder that the crime of Cain is timeless, didn’t come about with the Chinese invention of gunpowder in or around the 12th Century, and wouldn’t go away if the magical thinkers actually succeeded in their ambition of making firearms magically disappear.