Death: July 1936
Plot: Section 135, Lot 305
In late 1930’s Philadelphia, playing out in neighborhoods across the city, was a murder for hire scheme that would tantalize the city and its residents for almost two and a half years. The bizarre story begins in October 1938 with the death of an Italian immigrant named Ferdinand Alfonsi. Under normal circumstances, the death of a poor laborer in a city as large as Philadelphia would go unnoticed outside the deceased’s circle of family and friends. But Alfonsi’s death was not normal. His autopsy revealed that his body was saturated with arsenic.
Since three Philadelphia detectives were already investigating similar deaths, this newest report was reviewed with great interest and led them to believe that there was an arsenic murder ring operating in the City of Brotherly Love. Philadelphia police and the District Attorney’s Office would be taken on a criminal journey that would include not only poison for profit, but insurance fraud, extortion, seduction and superstition. The characters in this murderous tale are too numerous to list. And while each story contained it’s own series of plot twists and turns, the outcome remained the same; someone ended up dead.
The leaders of this murderous bunch targeted residents of poor Italian neighborhoods, seeking the vulnerable and exploiting their desperate situations for profit. Although not substantiated and possibly embellished by the press, several stories were told of wives, unhappy in their marriages, visiting a spiritualist looking for a magical solution to their troubles. The spouses were given love potions to fix their marital woes. When the potions didn’t work, another offer was made; the use of a magic water containing arsenic which held stronger power, but was potentially fatal. Many of the wives knew the substance could be lethal, but opted to continue with the plan. Others, who were opposed to possibly killing their husband, were seduced by ring members who then used this information to extort the wives. In yet other cases, they resorted to preying on the fear and superstitions of the wives by evoking the “evil eye”, basically frightening the women into participation.
No matter what the story, the underlying motive for the murders was the profit received from insurance payments. The potential murder victim either already had an insurance policy or one would be written for him prior to the murder, often without his knowledge. Once the victim died, the ring would collect a portion of the insurance payout for their assistance. Arsenic poisoning was the method of choice because it normally would not be suspected and the resulting death could be attributed to anything from gastroenteritis to pneumonia. If a quicker payout was needed, other murder options were also available. “Accidental” deaths often resulted in larger policy pay outs. While the majority of the murders involved wives, dubbed black widows, the ring offered it’s services to any family member as long as there was a profit to be made.
Assigned to the investigation was Assistant District Attorney Vincent McDevitt. He was determined to preserve all evidence in the poison cases for presentation at trial. He implemented procedures for obtaining and securing evidence that are similar to those used today. Soil samples from grave sites, embalming fluids from corpses and victim’s clothing were subjected to chemical analyses. Doctors examining the corpses were ordered to wear rubber gloves and containers and surfaces were sterilized to avoid potential contamination. The immense number of exhumations almost overwhelmed the coroner’s office, prompting the FBI to offer use of their laboratory facilities for the ever increasing number of bodies. This was the only participation by J. Edgar Hoover and the bureau as the murders being investigated did not fall under federal jurisdiction.
When the arsenic trials concluded, a minimum of 35 deaths were attributed to the arsenic ring. However, officials believed the actual number of deaths could exceed 100, possibly even more. The sheer number of participants combined with the peculiar circumstances and the suspicion that the ring had expanded into New York, New Jersey and Delaware, made settling on an actual number of victims impossible. The investigation and prosecution of the large number of ring members was exhaustive and pushed the Philadelphia judicial system to its limits, but in the end, the arsenic ring was disbanded. Two members of the cold blooded killing ring met their demise in the electric chair; another 14 men and women were convicted and served lengthy prison sentences. With members who were insurance agents, doctors, undertakers, those able to obtain the poison and those willing to carry out the murders, the Philadelphia arsenic ring provided all the players needed to successfully operate their poison for profit business.
Pietro Stea, common law husband of Rose Carina, was one of the victims. He was originally buried at Mount Moriah in 1936 and re-interred in May 1939.