Among the notable inmates of Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania was Dr. Morris “Louie the Rabbi” Bolber who’d started his life sentence in 1942. Shortly after his arrival, Bolber, a Russian immigrant, began interacting within the prison synagogue where, apparently, he made friends like Joseph Paull, a volunteer especially interested in Bolber. Before Bolber died in 1954, he said of Paull, “As for me, I remember his numerous, never to be forgotten, acts of kindness shown me. Therefore, I will pray for him a prayer he surely deserves for all the good he has done for me.” What a nice guy, this Bolber. I can imagine fellow inmates and staff discussing Bolber as they might have taken him at face value. He attended synagogue . . . one of those seemingly harmless lifers . . . a duffer, really . . . how’d a fellow like that wind up in a place like prison?
During the 1930s, Bolber devised methods by which a gang operating throughout Philadelphia murdered anywhere from thirty to fifty people. Bolber and his partners, cousins Paul and Herman Petrillo, aligned when a female patient complained to Bolber about her alcoholic, cheating husband, Anthony Giscobbe. Paul Petrillo charmed the woman into a plan to murder the wandering spouse for a split of his $10,000 insurance benefits. The scheme was quite simple. Giscobbe’s wife stripped him nude and placed his unconscious form before an open window. So, you really can catch a deadly cold during Philadelphia winters, but I hypothesize that Giscobbe wasn’t a healthy specimen given his heavy drinking.
Before entering the murder-for-hire racket, Bolber sold love potions and ground-up bones meant, ahem, to better people’s lives. Although he defined himself as a faith healer, he possessed genuine medical credentials. His practice incorporated la fattura, an Italian magical tradition that Paul Petrillo followed as well. After connecting with the Petrillos, Bolber moved from grifter to killer with vigorous aplomb, easing wifely woes through permanent means – for a price.
Both Petrillos had been running scams for quite some time, Paul with insurance and Herman with counterfeiting and arson. Now to secure payments for killings, Herman would impersonate targeted victims and buy insurance policies under their names. The team made a few payments before murdering these “policy holders,” staging deaths to appear like natural causes or accidents. The Petrillos threw one victim, a roofer, from an eight-story building after distracting him with French postcards. Bolber’s favorite methods involved poisoning with arsenic or blows to the back of heads with sandbags which induced hemorrhaging and then death.
Another faith healer, Maria Carina Favato, joined up, bringing more prospective clients. She’d been undertaking similar pursuits herself, providing “marital counseling,” basically contracting to poison misbehaving or unwanted husbands. Favato was impressed with the insurance angle, agreeing to sign with the Petrillo-Bolber ring, and equally Petrillo and Bolber were impressed with her professional experience. Before starting her counseling business, she’d murdered her first three husbands. Other marriage-counseling fraudsters attached themselves along the way, including Josephine Sedita and Rose Carina. Networking indeed is everything.
The end approached when George Meyers, an ex-inmate and furniture upholsterer, approached Herman Petrillo for help with funding his business. Petrillo offered to give Meyers a large sum of cash, real and counterfeit, if Meyers would hit Ferdinando Alfonsi. Petrillo had been having an affair with Alfonsi’s wife, Stella, and wanted him removed. Rather than committing murder, Meyer approached the Secret Service wanting to exchange information for money. The Secret Service said not unless he worked with an undercover agent named Phillips who’d been investigating Petrillo’s counterfeiting crimes. Petrillo’s plan was for Meyers to buy or steal a car and stage Alfonsi’s accidental death. Phillips convinced Petrillo to fund the deal with counterfeit money. Petrillo then agreed to give Meyers two weeks. When Petrillo stopped communicating with Phillips and Meyers, the two decided to visit Alfonsi at his home and there discovered that Alfonsi was ill, suffering from what later was determined to be arsenic poisoning. Petrillo had gotten anxious while waiting and decided to poison Alfonsi himself. So much for the original plan. Alfonsi died in the hospital, and detectives connected several such deaths by similar poisoning.
Quickly, police arrested members of the gang who began informing on one another hoping to cut deals. Several wives faced charges too, but they received leniency for testifying against those they’d hired to dispatch their husbands. The court sentenced Paul and Herman Petrillo to death while sending Morris Bolber and Maria Carina Favato away for life.
When Bolber surrendered, he admitted to killing one victim, Romain Manduik, with arsenic. Nonetheless, he played up his faith healing, calling himself a “sort of psychiatrist,” uselessly maintaining his innocence and wanting to turn evidence “for the people of Philadelphia.” But no. Bolber’s claims fell apart when gang members and clients testified against him. And that’s how he wound up spending his final years at Eastern State Penitentiary, an active synagogue-attendee and dispenser of blessings to kindly volunteers.