Interview with Gus Pelagatti, author of THE WICKED WIVES

Gus Pelagatti is a practicing trial lawyer with over 47 years of experience trying civil and criminal cases including homicide. He’s a member of the Million Dollar Advocate Forum, limited to attorneys who have been recognized as achieving a standard of excellence as a trial expert. He has spent years researching the true story of the 1938 insurance scam murders, interviewing judges, lawyers, police and neighbors involved in the trials. Gus was born and raised within blocks of the main conspirator’s tailor shop and the homes of many of the wives convicted of murdering their husbands. His latest book is The Wicked Wives.

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Like Gus Pelagatti on Facebook: Welcome to Between the Covers, Gus. Why was writing The Wicked Wives so important to you?
In the year I was born, Philadelphia was rocked by the poison murder scandals of 1938. 17 women were arrested for murdering their husbands for insurance. A like number of male co-conspirators were also nabbed. The males would seduce a lonely wife, persuade her to insure her spouse, and then teach her to poison the husband without arousing the suspicions of the doctors and police. The main male conspirator had a tailor shop two blocks from our family row house in South Philadelphia. The shop was the scene of the seductions. As I grew older, I would eavesdrop on adult conversation concerning many of these wives. My mother knew quite a few of the characters and filled me in as to the facts as I grew older. I vowed I would write about these wives and their lovers one day.
What was the experience like writing The Wicked Wives? Was it a true labor of love?
Yes. As I wrote I continued to research ascertaining new facts for the novel That was exciting
Your book is based on Philadelphia’s infamous 1938 murder scandal. How much of the book is fact and how much is fiction?
The major part of The Wicked Wives is based on truth.
How many years of research did it take to get all the information for your book?
When I became a lawyer in 1964, I interviewed judges, lawyers, police and neighbors who were all involved in the 1938 scandals. I researched the book between 1964-2008.
Can you tell us about the characters in the book?
Cast of Characters in “The Wicked Wives” The Wives
Lillian Stoner: The beautiful, blonde, snobbish society wife abandons her bankrupt husband Reggie to exchange sex for money with Bill Evans, her rich political uncle. She depends upon her lover Giorgio to feed her opium habit, and she conspires with him to murder her husband for insurance money.
Eva Russo: The risqué redheaded nymph loves sex with men, the night life and gambling. In fact her unpaid gambling debts lead to punishment by the mafia. She buries two husbands for insurance money. But the one thing she desperately desires she can’t have…Giorgio.
Joanna Napoli: The bosomy gift shop owner is madly in love with Giorgio and is willing to do the unthinkable to marry him … join Giorgio in a conspiracy to murder her drunken husband.
Rose Grady: Another of Giorgio’s playmates who conspires with him to bury three husbands and leaves the fourth to die at home before fleeing the city to avoid arrest. Her past earns her the name “Kiss of Death Widow.” She always wears mourning black and a veil.
Sadie Lamb: She owns a boarding house with her husband and rents rooms to three male borders. Sadie loves to play musical beds with her borders for a fee. Eventually all three borders and her husband have to be treated on the same day by a physician for a venereal disease. Giorgio persuades the borders to join a conspiracy to murder Sadie’s husband for insurance money. The Bad Guys
Giorgio DiSipio: He is a mastermind conspirator — a stunning lothario and local tailor who preys on lonely, disenchanted and unfaithful wives by convincing them to kill their spouses for insurance money. He is known to sexually service at least four women on the couch in the rear of his tailor shop in one day.
Boris “Rabbi” Feldman: A colorful flimflam man and Giorgio’s number one co-conspirator. He introduces many lonely wives to Giorgio and helps to seduce them. He knows where most of Giorgio’s skeletons are buried.
Bruno Bianchi a/k/a “Giant”: The Giant is a tall man with gray hair and a mustache who sits in the passenger seat of a Buick driven by a mysterious lady in black dressed as though in mourning. She wears a thick black veil over her face to hide her identity. Giant systematically assassinates the poison conspiracy witnesses while the lady in black drives the get-away car.
Deputy Mayor Bill Evans: He is the corrupt head of the Philadelphia Republican Party who is hell bent on protecting his niece Lillian Stoner from murder charges. He hates first Assistant Tom Rossi who won’t help him to protect his niece Lillian from murder charges. The Good Guys and Gals
Tom Rossi: He is the First Assistant D.A. assigned the job of arresting and prosecuting all conspirators including wives in the poison murders. He also wants to be elected D.A. but incurs the wrath of Deputy Mayor Evans when Rossi refuses to protect Evans’ niece Lily from murder charges. Evans sets political machinery in motion to have Rossi disbarred as a lawyer.
Hope Daniels: She and Tom Rossi are in love and want to marry. But Hope is part Negro, which Evans uses to incite bigoted Philadelphia voters against Rossi’s quest to be elected D.A. Evans has Hope fired from her city job as a nurse for lying about her ethnic heritage on her job application. This action creates a dangerous crisis in her relationship with Tom.
Mike Fine, Chief of CountyDetectives: Mike is a lean and mean fifty-five year old Jewish detective who had to grow up tolerating anti-Semitism. He is willing to protect the life of his best friend Tom Rossi at all times.
Lynn Sullivan: She is Tom Rossi’s stenographer who is hopelessly in love with her boss although he does not realize the depth of her affections for him. But she never gives up trying to win the man she adores.
District Attorney Pat Connors: Pat is about to retire and lends advice to his heir apparent Tom Rossi.
Bertha Brooks: Bertha is another colorful character who is Lillian’s neighbor and an eyewitness to critical facts involving murder.
Can you open to page 25 and tell us what’s happening?
Eva, one of the wives was a gambler. In February, 1937, She bet $1500.00 with a mafia bookie (the cost of most row houses) on Seabiscuit to win the Santa Anita Handicap. Seabiscuit lost by a nose. Eva knew she couldn’t pay the bookie and knew that he would punish her by giving her a severe physical beating. The anxiety caused her to vomit into her kitchen sink.
What about page 65?
Joanna attempted to shoot her drunken husband as he lay snoring in bed. She placed the barrel of a .32 to his head and covered her eyes with her left hand. When she pulled the trigger the gun misfired. However, the gun went off on the second attempt. Joanna felt a burning, excruciating pain. She looked down and saw blood gushing from her fleshy thigh. “Oh my God,” she screamed. “I shot myself.”
Now that The Wicked Wives is published, what’s next for you?
The sequel to “The Wicked Wives… “Benito’s gold”

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