Old habits die hard

The tradition of using 'inheritance powders' to enrich oneself by the death of a near relative may never have been entirely lost in Italy, and it surfaced again in the 1930s among the immigrants of an Italian neighbourhood of South Philadelphia. The press dubbed it The Great Arsenic Murder Ring, and indeed many people died suspiciously and much life insurance was collected on their deaths. Altogether 30 people were put on trial for murder, and 24 were found guilty. The distributors of the inheritance powders were two brothers Herman and Paul Petrillo along with Morris Bolber who was also known as Louie the Rabbi. They persuaded women to take out life insurance policies on their husbands and then to give them a white powder which would, in the words of the gang, 'send them to California'. It was arsenic trioxide. Some women clearly connived in the plots, handing over part of the money they collected to the Petrillos and Bolber, while others later claimed they were innocent, among whom was a Stella Alfonsi. She was still able to tell her story to George Cooper for his book Poison Widows: A True Story of Witchcraft, Arsenic and Murder, published in 1999. The three ringleaders of the affair were sentenced to death and two were electrocuted, the third being given a life sentence. Twenty-one of the willing poisoners were sentenced to life imprisonment, or given long gaol sentences.

drinks.* What makes it somewhat unrewarding to try and unravel La Voisin's crimes and those of others in the 1600s is that we can never be certain of the poisons that were used, because chemistry was still in its infancy. That situation was to change in the 1700s as that branch of science slowly developed. Two women of that century who were eventually executed for using arsenic were found guilty with the help of the emerging science.

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