Serial killer H.H. Holmes built his murder castle in Chicago, but he met the hangman in Philadelphia. Al Capone served his first prison sentence here. The real-life killers who inspired HBO’s Boardwalk Empire lived and died here.
America’s first bank robbery was pulled off here in 1798. The country’s first kidnapping for ransom came off without a hitch in 1874. A South Philadelphia man hatched the largest mass murder plot in U.S. history in the 1930s. His partners in crime were unhappy housewives.
Catholics and Protestants aimed cannon at each other in city streets in 1844. Civil rights hero Octavius V. Catto was gunned down on South Street in 1871.
Take a walk with us through city history. Would you pass Eastern State Penitentiary on April 3, 1945, just as famed bank robber Willie Sutton popped out of an escape tunnel in broad daylight? Or you might have been one of the invited guests at H.H. Holmes’ hanging at Moyamensing Prison on a gray morning in May 1896. It still ranks as one of the most bizarre executions in city history. Or, if you walked down Washington Lane on July 1, 1874, would you have been alert enough to stop the two men who lured little blond Charley Ross away with candy? You might have stopped America’s first kidnapping for ransom, the one that gave rise to the admonition, “Never take candy from a stranger.” The case inspired the Leopold and Loeb kidnapping.
Then there was the bank robber whose funeral drew thousands of spectators and the burglary defendant so alluring that conversation would stop whenever she entered the courtroom.
Mix in murderous maids, bumbling burglars, and unflinching local heroes and you have True Crime Philadelphia.
Reporter Canavan debuts with a lively survey of the bloody and sometimes bizarre history of crime in Philadelphia, from the forgotten (in 1787, while Philadelphia hosted the Continental Convention, a witch hunt resulted in the stoning death of an elderly woman) to the well-publicized (in 1947, infamous bank robber Willie Sutton escaped from a Philly prison). In the 1930s, tailor Paul Petrillo masterminded the largest mass murder plot in U.S. history, selling arsenic to unhappy housewives to poison their husbands. The crimes netted a total of $100,000 in life insurance money, led to the conviction of 23 people, and sent two to the electric chair. The city was also the home to the first kidnapping for ransom, in 1874, and the country's first bank heist, in 1798. And it's the resting place of serial killer H.H. Holmes of The Devil in the White City fame, who was hanged in 1896 for the murder of his business partner, Benjamin Pitezel, in 1894. Per his final wish, Holmes was buried in cement to prevent his body from being dissected. Canavan writes with zest about a host of colorful characters and their misdeeds. True crime aficionados will be amply rewarded.