Clockwise from top left, convicted conspirators Herman Petrillo, Paul Petrillo, Morris Bolber, and Carina Favato. (Philadelphia Police Department via Jim Goad/Thought Catalog)

In May 1939, the Camden Evening Courier ran the headline: “Witch Doctor Pleads Guilty in ‘Ring’ Death.”

What happened there?

From 1890 to 1920, Philly’s Italian-born population boomed to more than 130,000. Many of the newcomers spoke little or no English, leaving them vulnerable to hucksters, grifters — and worse.

Enter the Petrillo cousins. Herman Petrillo was a spaghetti salesman. His cousin Paul was a tailor.

Or at least that’s what they were in polite society.

In the shadows, they helped operate a vast murder-for-money operation that may have claimed more than 100 lives.

Herman Petrillo

The ring targeted immigrant women, many of them in strained or abusive relationships.

The Petrillos and their associates would steer these women to spiritualists. After establishing trust, the healers would offer to cure wayward husbands with something called “la fatura.”

It’s not clear whether the women understood what “la fatura” was. Perhaps some did and some didn’t. But Philadelphia detectives soon found out:

La fatura was a powdery substance laced with heavy amounts of arsenic.

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.

Whether as direct beneficiaries or through payments from widows, the money from these life insurance policies would find its way to the Petrillos and their co-conspirators.

These murders began in the early 1930s and continued undetected until 1938.

The poison ring eventually included a circle of “witches,” healers, and medical doctors who were in on the plot.

Among them…a woman named Carina Favato…a doctor named Horace Perlman…and the “witch doctor” referenced in our headline, Morris Bolber (one of the ringleaders).

Authorities began to unspool the plot in 1938. Their investigation revealed all sorts of dubious deaths.

Some by poison. Some by brute force.

Others involved “matchmaking” arrangements where widows would be paired with lonely immigrant laborers — who were then brutally murdered.

Most of the eventual prosecutions were successful.

In all, 22 members of the poison ring were convicted or pleaded guilty. Among the 22, two were executed: cousins Paul and Herman Petrillo.

However, a few of the accused did prove their innocence.

One of them was a widow named Stella Alfonsi, whose husband’s death was key to the ultimate unraveling of the murder ring.

Stella Alfonsi took the unusual step of hiring a Black attorney, the pioneering Raymond Pace Alexander. Her acquittal boosted Alexander’s growing reputation. He later served on City Council and became the first Black judge on Pa.’s Court of Common Pleas.

There is still mystery surrounding the South Philadelphia poison ring.

Prosecutors tied 35 deaths to the cabal, but there are credible estimates of 100 victims or more — and 90 years later, their murders have still never been solved.

Originally tweeted by Avi Wolfman-Arent (@Avi_WA) on May 25, 2023.

Avi Wolfman-Arent is co-host of Studio 2 and a broadcast anchor on 90.9 FM. He was previously an education reporter with WHYY, where he's worked since 2014. Prior to that he covered nonprofits for the...