Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Philadelphia's Poison Ring


Herman Petrillos trial began on March 13, 1939 in Philadelphia's City Hall.  The presiding judge, Harry McDevitt (no relation to D.A. Vincent McDevitt), was one of the most feared judges in all of Pennsylvania.  A defense attorneys worst nightmare, the judge was known in legal circles as Hanging Harry.  Even though Petrillos lawyer, Milton Leidner, was a close friend of the judge, the defense attorney did not expect any leniency.   

Judge Harry McDevitt, called "Hanging Harry"
Judge Harry McDevitt, called "Hanging Harry" (Temple University of Pennsylvania)
The March 13, 1939 edition of The Ledger reported that Thomas Shearn, an agent for John Hancock Mutual Life, was the first to testify.  He told the jury how Petrillo had taken him to see Ferdinando Alfonsi on February 9, 1939.  Shearn testified that when Alfonsi refused to sign the policy, Petrillo instructed the agent, against company policy, to leave the paperwork with him.  Following Shearns testimony, Luigi Cissone, an agent for Monumental Life Insurance, told the jury he had also helped Petrillo get insurance on the ailing Alfonsi.  Afterwards, Secret Service informant Meyer and undercover agent Stanly Philips consecutively took the stand and testified about Petrillo's attempts to have them kill Alfonsi.  A druggist then testified that Petrillo approached him on numerous occasions in an attempt to purchase typhoid germs and similar poisons.  Next, a physician gave testimony in regards to the quantities of arsenic found during an autopsy of Alfonsi.

When the prosecution rested their case, the defense had little to offer.  Attorney Leidner briefly attempted to discredit the states witnesses, but quickly relented when he realized he was only furthering the damage done by D.A. McDevitt.  Petrillo then took the stand and spent three hours and 15 minutes denying all of the states accusations. 

On March 21, 1939, the jury foreman, 42-year-old Margaret Skeen, read the verdict to the court.  Guilty, with a recommendation for death, she announced.  According to Poison Widows, the defendant became enraged.  You lousy bitch, Petrillo snarled as he lunged toward the jury foreman.  However, before he could reach Mrs. Skeen, guards quickly restrained him and the judge banged his gavel in an attempt to bring order back to the courtroom. 

When the courtroom settled down, Judge McDevitt congratulated the jurors.  You can see how mean and vicious this man is, he told the jurors.  You now realize that was the only verdict you could have returned.  He then sentenced Herman Petrillo to die in Pennsylvania's electric chair.  Following the verdict, defense attorney Leidner stood up and apologized to the court.  I'm sorry, he said.  I wouldn't have defended this man if I had known he was such scum.

There would be further justice carried out.  Upon the conclusion of the trial, investigators announced to the press that 70 bodies would be exhumed and examined for signs of arsenic.   

Police exhuming a corpse
Police exhuming a corpse (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)

We're Following
Slender Man stabbing, Waukesha, Wisconsin
Gilberto Valle 'Cannibal Cop'