Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Philadelphia's Poison Ring

Counterfeiters and Insurance Frauds

Herman Petrillo was born in 1899, in the Neapolitan province of Campania.  After his immigration to the United States in 1910, he worked as a barber, but eventually opted for easier ways to make money.  In the beginning his schemes consisted of arson and insurance fraud, but a person can only burn down so many buildings before the police and insurance companies become suspicious.  During one fateful trip to the seedier side of town, he ran into a group of men selling counterfeit five-dollar bills for half the face value.  Petrillo was so impressed by the quality of the bills that he began to study the criminal art and was soon making his own.

Herman Petrillo's cousin, Paul Petrillo, emigrated from Naples to Philadelphia in 1910.  He married shortly after his arrival in the states and before long opened a tailor shop, Paul Petrillo, Custom Tailor to the Classy Dressers, on East Passyunk Avenue.  According to later reports in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the business quickly prospered, however, when the Depression came, he barely survived financially. 

Paul Petrillo
Paul Petrillo (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)
To support his family, Paul got into the life insurance racket.  He sold cheap policies with weekly premiums of 50 cents or a dollar.  The insurance company he worked with did not require a medical examination, so Paul would sell policies to sickly, middle-aged men.  While the prospect may have sounded alluring to those wanting to ensure their families well being, Paul had his own agenda.  More times than not, Paul would list himself, without the policy holders knowledge, as brother or cousin of the insured, thus making himself the sole beneficiary.  Basically, he was playing the lottery, but this was no ordinary game and it required the death of a human participant in order to get the big payoff.

Paul was fascinated by magic and was interested in healers and individuals who claimed the power to take away a person's pain.  When discussing this interest with a local masseur, Paul was excited to learn that the man often attended sessions where various healers discussed their practices and was overjoyed when the man invited him to attend one.  It was there that Paul met a man named Morris Bolber.

A Russian Jewish immigrant, Bolber was a middle-aged man, known around town as Louie the Rabbi.  Born in Tordobis, Russia during the late 1800s, he was raised by his grandparents and entered Grodno State University at age nine.  Upon his graduation at 12, he began to tutor children.  During this time, he became interested in the Kabbalah, an ancient book of magic.  His fascination eventually turned into obsession and in 1905 he took a ship to China and sought out a legendary sorceress named Rino.  Bolber lived with the old woman for five years, during which time she taught him how to make potions and use healing spirits.

Morris Bolber
Morris Bolber (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)
In 1911, Bolber immigrated to New York City.  He eventually married and settled down on the lower East side.  He worked as a teacher, saved his money earnestly, and soon thereafter, opened a grocery store, which prospered for many years.  However, in 1931, as with so many other businesses of that era, the Depression forced him to close his doors.  When money became short, Bolber packed up his wife and four children and moved to Philadelphia to get a fresh start.  Upon their arrival, he began teaching and preparing Jewish boys for their bar mitzvahs.  He also sent out handbills announcing his new practice as a faith healer.

Their meeting was important to Petrillo.  Paul Petrillo was awe struck by Bolber and gradually the two became close friends.

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