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The Depraved Crimes of the 1930s Philadelphia Poison Ring

Text by Michael Newton

From: Hunting Humans: An Encyclopedia of Modern Serial Killers

America’s most prolific team of killers-for-profit were active in Philadelphia during the 1930s, claiming an estimated 30 to 50 victims before the ring’s various members were apprehended.

Students of the case, in retrospect, are prone to cite the gang’s activities as evidence that modern homicide statistics may be woefully inaccurate. If 20,000 murders are reported in a given year, they say, it is entirely possible that 20,000 more go unreported, overlooked by the authorities.

The basic murder method was conceived in 1932, by Dr. Morris Bolber and his good friend, Paul Petrillo. After one of Bolber’s female patients aired complaints about her husband’s infidelity, the doctor and Petrillo planned for Paul to woo the lonely lady, gaining her cooperation in a plan to kill her wayward spouse and split $10,000 in insurance benefits.

The victim, Anthony Giscobbe, was a heavy drinker, and it proved a simple matter for his wife to strip him as he lay unconscious, leaving him beside an open window in the dead of winter while he caught his death of cold. The grieving widow split her cash with Bolber and Petrillo, whereupon her “lover” promptly went in search of other restless, greedy wives. It soon became apparent that Italian husbands, caught up in the middle of the Great Depression, carried little life insurance on their own.

Petrillo called upon his cousin Herman, an accomplished local actor, to impersonate potential victims and apply for heavy policies. Once several payments had been made, the husbands were eliminated swiftly and efficiently through “accidents” or “natural causes.”

Dr. Bolber’s favorite methods included poison and blows to the head with a sandbag, producing cerebral hemorrhage, but methods were varied according to victims. One target, a roofer named Lorenzo, was hurled to his death from an eight-story building, the Petrillo cousins first handing him some French post cards to explain his careless distraction. After roughly a dozen murders, the gang recruited faith healer Carino Favato, known as the Witch in her home neighborhood. Favato had dispatched three of her own husbands before going into business full-time as a “marriage consultant,” poisoning unwanted husbands for a fee.

Impressed by Dr. Bolber’s explanation of the life insurance scam, Favato came on board and brought the gang a list of her prospective clients. By the latter part of 1937, Bolber’s ring polished off 50 victims, at least 30 of which were fairly well documented by subsequent investigation. The roof fell in when an ex-convict approached Herman Petrillo, pushing a new get-rich scheme.

Unimpressed, Petrillo countered with a pitch for his acquaintance to secure potential murder victims, and the felon panicked, running to police. As members of the gang were rounded up, they “squealed” on one another in the hope of finding leniency, their clients chiming in as ripples spread throughout a stunned community. While several wives were sent to prison, most escaped by testifying for the state. The two Petrillos were condemned and put to death, while Bolber and Favato each drew terms of life imprisonment.

Mugshots via Mark Michaelson

Written By

Meghan MacRae grew up in Vancouver, Canada, but spent many years living in the remote woods. Living in the shadow of grizzly bears, cougars and the other predators of the wilderness taught her about the dark side of nature, and taught her to accept her place in nature's order as their prey. She is co-founder of CVLT Nation.

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