POISON WIDOWS by George Cooper


A True Story of Witchcraft, Arsenic, and Murder
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The narrative flair that Cooper demonstrated in his first book, Lost Love: A True Story of Passion, Murder, and Justice, New York 1869 (1993), deserts him in this tale, which delivers less sting than its title promises. He still retains, though, a gift for re-creating a moment in history, in this case, the South Side of Philadelphia in the 1930s and ’40s, with its immigrant population. The story involves arsenic, insurance scams, shady characters, and other deliciously lurid details, but Cooper, a former Columbia University law professor, falls flat in his attempt to bring the tale to life. The main characters are Morris Bolber, a.k.a. Louie the Rabbi, and Paul and Herman Petrillo, all of whom connive to convince certain immigrant wives (some unsuspecting, others not) to take out insurance policies on their husbands. The plotters then “send them to California,” a euphemism for killing them, after which the widows, and Louie the Rabbi and gang, collect on the insurance policies. All told, 30 defendants were tried, many of them ultimately sent to jail or executed for their part in the Great Arsenic Murder Ring. Cooper is at his best evoking immigrant life in 1930s and ’40s Philadelphia, in particular the role of superstition and witchcraft in many of these people’s lives. The author’s research is impressive as well. In addition to reading contemporary newspaper accounts and court transcripts, Cooper also talked to the sons of Stella Alfonsi, one of the women tried but ultimately acquitted for poisoning her husband. Fine as a record of a historical moment, but a definite step down from the terrific story told in, say, Arsenic and Old Lace. (8 pages b&w photos, not seen)

Pub Date: March 10th, 1999
ISBN: 0-312-19947-3
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: Dunne/St. Martin's
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15th, 1999


NonfictionTHE POISONER by Stephen Bates
by Stephen Bates