Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Philadelphia's Poison Ring

The D.A. and the Informant

The assistant district attorney of Philadelphia during the late 1930s was Vincent McDevitt.  A blithe Irish lad, McDevitt grew up in the dense streetcar suburb of West Philadelphia.  Being the second oldest of four brothers brought him hardship after the death of his father when he was 14 years old.  McDevitts mother worked as a seamstress, but the money was not nearly enough to support the family of five.  McDevitt and his older brother began working to help put food on the table.  As the years went by and the familys financial burdens became lighter, Mrs. McDevitt urged her sons to further their education.  It was important to her that her children have a better life than the one she was able to provide for them.  McDevitt studied hard and, much to his mothers delight, was eventually awarded a partial state senatorial scholarship, which enabled him to attend night classes at Temple Law School.  Finally, in 1929, 28-year-old McDevitt completed his education and qualified for the bar.  Within three years, he married and shortly thereafter became a father.  Building a law practice during the Depression was no easy task, but McDevitt was a determined man and he promised himself that his family would never have to live as he did within the homogeneous clusters of row houses that made up most of West Philadelphia.  In January 1938, the struggling attorneys hard work finally paid off when he obtained an appointment as an assistant district attorney. 

Vincent McDevitt
Vincent McDevitt (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)
Shortly after settling into his new office, McDevitts boss, district attorney Charles Kelley, assigned McDevitt to a recent homicide case.  Three months prior, on October 27, 1938, Ferdinando Alfonsi, 38, died under mysterious circumstances and a government informer had recently provided the Secret Service with details relating to the case.  Kelley had heard rumors that a cult was involved and was reluctant to become personally involved in such a bizarre case.  So it was that McDevitt was assigned to handle it.  Later that day, a Secret Service agent, known only as Agent Landvoight (due to his undercover work), filled McDevitt in on the case. 

Landvoight said the informer told him of a group of individuals based in Philadelphia, who ran a murder ring to collect insurance money.  According to Poison Widows, by George Cooper, the informer, George Meyer (a.k.a. Newmeyer), ran an upholstery cleaning company, which had recently fallen on hard times.  When he sought money for his business, he was referred to the ringleader, Herman Petrillo.  Agent Landvoight was already familiar with Petrillo.  He tried for years to arrest him for counterfeiting five and ten dollar bills.  Landvoight had a file three inches thick on him, but every time the authorities served a warrant or attempted a sting operation, they came up empty handed.

George Meyer (a.k.a. Newmeyer)
George Meyer (a.k.a. Newmeyer) (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)
Meyer knew about Petrillos money-making scams and told Landvoight that Petrillo had offered him $500 in legal tender and $2,500 in counterfeit bills, if Meyer could organize a hit on Ferdinando Alfonsi.  He then handed him an 18-inch piece of pipe.  You do it in his house, Petrillo said.  Hit him with the pipe.  Then carry him up the steps and throw him down.  Itll look like an accident.  Meyer had no intention of carrying out the crime, but played along hoping that Petrillo would offer him an advance.  Nonetheless, Petrillo would not pay a dime up front and in the end Meyer decided to make some quick cash by selling the information to the Secret Service.  Landvoight was more interested in the counterfeit bills than he was in any murder conspiracy and offered to pay Meyer if he would continue to play along with Petrillos scheme.  The down and out businessman had little choice and reluctantly agreed.

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