At first blush one would feel sorry for young Lillian Stoner, whose husband Reggie has just died at the opening of The Wicked Wives, a story set in 1938 Philadelphia. That is until you learn that Reggie’s mother had recently caught Lillian in flagrante delicto with another man.
The picture gets even murkier when, despite the attending physician being ready to sign off on the death as resulting from pneumonia, Assistant District Attorney Tom Rossi observes signs consistent with poisoning. Should be easy enough to get to the bottom of things though, just order an autopsy, right?
Wrong. Turns out Lillian’s uncle is the very powerful and influential – not to mention corrupt – Deputy Mayor Bill Evans, who makes it quite clear to Rossi that if he pushes for an autopsy he can kiss goodbye any shot at an endorsement from Evans for District Attorney. Without Evans’ backing not only does Rossi have no chance of becoming D.A., but his entire career may take a turn for the worse.
Determined to do the right thing despite what it may cost him personally, Rossi moves forward with the investigation. Initially thinking he was looking into a single questionable death, Rossi ends up uncovering a scandal wider and deeper than he could ever possibly have imagined.
Through painstaking investigation and connecting the dots, Rossi discovers that a mysterious Lady in Black has recruited lothario Giorgio DiSipio to get friendly with lonely and neglected women, encourage them to take out life insurance policies on their spouses, then provide the women with the means to poison their husbands. Assistance from policy writers and undertakers in on the scheme smooths the process and helps avoid raising suspicion.
The sheer number of players involved in the scheme makes the initial setup of The Wicked Wives a bit slow to get going, but once the investigation hits its stride, and later when the actual courtroom prosecutions begin, the book becomes an engrossing dissection of lust, murder, greed, and jurisprudence in a major American city during the late Depression. Along the way, stark realities of life during that era are brought to life including the extreme poverty, political corruption and cronyism, openly anti-immigrant and ethnic prejudices, and the commonplace occurrence of death from pneumonia and acute pulmonary edema, both of which conveniently offer many of the same symptoms as death by poisoning.
Interestingly, The Wicked Wives is based on real events which took place in Philadelphia in the late 1930’s. Over the course of an investigation and prosecution which spanned several years, seventeen women and over half a dozen co-conspirators were arrested in the poisoning deaths of the women’s husbands in a scheme designed to collect on life insurance policies. Author Gus Pelagatti prepared for writing The Wicked Wives by interviewing judges, lawyers, detectives, witnesses and neighbors who were all involved in the real case, the result of which is a fascinating fictionalized look at one of the most notorious organized murder for profit schemes to ever take place in this country.