What Led the D’ Amore Sons to Kill Their Father?
Inside the 1949 case of a Marple murder where the defendants were acquitted.
Perhaps no motives are completely unmixed. Take, for instance, those of John and Nicholas D’Amore, who killed their father in Marple in 1949. The senior D’Amore, it was revealed, had abused their mother for years before her sons finally stepped forward in her defense.
An all-female jury of mothers and grandmothers acquitted the brothers. And the 300 spectators in the Media courtroom burst into applause. Yet the facts of the case were a bit more complicated. And, not incidentally, the brothers ended up with their father’s estate. One even took over his business.
“Abuse may not have been the real reason for the crime,” wrote Thomas George Deitman, author of Murder in Marple. “Rather, greed may have made them pull the triggers. But since the family was abused by the father, abuse seemed like the logical explanation.”
The story begins in 1913, when Panfilo D’Amore, age 19, arrived aboard the ship S.S. America, sailing from Naples. His hometown was Scerni, Italy, an ancient village. Panfilo—meaning “friend to all”—is the town’s patron saint. D’Amore is Italian for “of love.”
On the ship’s manifest, D’Amore listed his next of kin as his “wife,” Concetta. Other records indicate that Panfilo and Concetta, who had remained in Scerni, did not marry until the next year, when she joined him in Philadelphia. In addition, D’Amore’s parents were here by 1917, when he told the draft board they depended on him for support.
Whatever inspired the D’Amores to leave the old country, it probably wasn’t a desire to escape great wealth. Between 1900 and 1915, 3 million Italians immigrated to America, more than from any other country, according to the U.S. census. Most were laborers, especially farm workers. So it may be telling that Panfilo and Concetta did not have their first child until they were 27, suggesting that they had arrived poor and couldn’t immediately afford to have children.
By 1930, the family was in Philadelphia on Edgewood Street, just north of Vine. A daughter, Helen, was born in 1922, followed at roughly two-year intervals by Nicholas, Yolanda, John and Anthony. Financially, things got better. By 1942, the D’Amores were in Marple Township, living in a colonial-era stone house with a detached garage at State and Sproul roads. According to Deitman, the house stood at the current site of a movie theater, likely the AMC Marple 10. Next door was the State Road Nursery, owned and operated by D’Amore.
D’Amore—who was, by then, using the name Benjamin—was described in Selective Service records as 6 feet tall and 160 pounds, with brown hair and eyes, and a dark complexion. He was what would now be considered an abusive husband and father. In the context of the time, however, he might have been seen by many as merely strict. Standards of conduct change.
“In the United States, having just come through World War II, the culture was still highly patriarchal,” wrote Deitman. “Any family member was out in the cold when it came to expecting any outside protection from an abusive spouse or father.”
Later, in court, a sobbing Nicholas D’Amore described beatings that began when he was 5. “My first day of school, I got afraid for some reason and ran home,” said the 27-year-old eldest son. “When my father asked my mother why I wasn’t in school and she told him, he grabbed her and started beating her. He bumped her head against the wall, and when she fell, he kicked her. When I got a poor report card, he would beat me and Mom both, and tell her it was her fault.”
A common punishment was being chained to a post in the basement overnight without food. John recalled, at age 14, being forced to sleep in the cellar for two weeks. His father told him, “You deserve to sleep with the rats.”
When Helen, the eldest daughter, was confined to the cellar, her father tied her hands to a stovepipe so that she couldn’t sit down. “Mother tried to sneak food to me,” she recalled. “He caught her and threw her down the cellar steps.”
By 1949, the children had all left home. Nicholas was a sheet-metal worker. John worked for the American Forestry Service. Anthony, another brother, was away in the military. The two D’Amore daughters, Helen and Yolanda, were married. Helen’s husband, John Guanti, worked with her father in the nursery business. Concetta lived with her husband.
And that’s how things were at about 6 p.m. on Nov. 21, 1949, when John and Nicholas stopped at their parents’ house to borrow an electric fan. There, they learned from Guanti that their mother—then paralyzed on her left side—had again been beaten by their father. “It was over a pair of socks,” Guanti was quoted as saying. “The old man wanted to wear a certain pair that hadn’t been washed yet. He gave her quite a going-over.”
The beating had lasted for 30 minutes. In the popular understanding of the case, this so incensed the brothers that, when their father’s car rolled into the driveway, they simply reacted.
D’Amore parked in front of the garage, left the engine running and went to raise the garage door. Silhouetted by the headlights, he would’ve been a perfect target.
“Nicholas may have fired first and missed,” wrote Deitman. “He reloaded and fired a second time. John’s gun went off just once.”
Two shots struck the man in the head. Nicholas’ gun was a deer rifle, and his shot might’ve been fatal. John was armed with his father’s shotgun. Its blast removed most of the skull. A neighbor heard the shots and inquired, but the brothers assured him everything was OK.
Nicholas and John D’Amore confessed right away, so local police and prosecutors likely saw the case as a slam-dunk. They had the body. They had the weapons. They had witnesses. And more than that, the brothers’ confessions indicated long premeditation. John told authorities: “I waited for years to do this—since I was 6.”
Nicholas said he had planned it since he was 8.
The D’Amore brothers got lucky. First, they got Arthur Blumberg as their defense attorney.
Blumberg, a World War II veteran who’d been wounded in Germany, was a University of Pennsylvania graduate who had received his law degree from the school in 1933. He was a former assistant district attorney and a law clerk for the Delaware County Orphans’ Court. Blumberg would later be “mentioned” quite often for various judgeships, but he was never appointed.
Blumberg seems to have recognized immediately that the facts wouldn’t work for him, so he went for emotion. He saw that everyone in the D’Amore family would share stories of their beatings. Notably, he requested that the brothers receive psychiatric examinations, thereby raising the issue that their mental state—and what produced it—would be relevant at trial.
It was, he told the court, “necessary for me to have the opinions and findings of physicians in the preparation of my case.”
The second piece of luck for the D’Amore brothers: an all-female jury—specifically, 12 woman jurors and two female alternates. Deitman called it “girl power in the jury box.”
Jury selection in 1949 was not the science it later became. There were no consultants to advise which jurors should be accepted and which should not. So Blumberg went on his instincts and objected to all five men in the jury pool. “It seemed that Blumberg had turned the thinking of the times—that women were second-class citizens—on its head,” wrote Deitman. These women, at least, were just right—all married, and most with children or grandchildren.
Why did District Attorney Paul Lessy allow this? “It could be that Lessy thought the case was so strong—after all, he had the murder weapons and the confessions—that even a jury made up of only women would see that the boys were guilty,” wrote Deitman. “It could be that he never realized that some of the jury members were themselves in abusive relationships and that they could identify with the plight of Concetta D’Amore.”
As proof of that sort of male obliviousness, even Judge William Toal was openly skeptical of the claims of abuse. None of those who asserted such claims, he noted, had ever been hospitalized.
In fact, the case was more complicated than abuse. On the night he’d died, Benjamin D’Amore didn’t return home until 11 p.m., five hours after John and Nicholas had arrived and found their mother in tears. During those five hours, John sent Nicholas to his home in Philadelphia—a round-trip of more than 20 miles—to retrieve the former’s deer rifle.
What happened as they waited? Concetta, Helen and Helen’s husband were also present. Did they try to dissuade the brothers? Or encourage them? Records of the trial have been lost. The brothers could not, however, claim they’d killed their father in a panic while being attacked. They had lain in wait.
The case came to trial six weeks after the murder and lasted five days. Lessy asked for the death penalty. Blumberg, in a cunning bit of stagecraft, seated Concetta at the defense table with her sons. Lessy objected, but was overruled. From that position, she was escorted in tears when her husband’s bloody clothes and the firearms were displayed.
As family members told their stories, both the jury and spectators reacted with what newspapers described as “shock and horror, accompanied by head shaking and audible gasps.” Toal ordered the room to be silent.
Arriving at a “not guilty” verdict took the jury two hours and 15 minutes. Blumberg personally kissed each juror.
Four months after the trial, an Orphans’ Court judge ruled that, since the killing was not “willful and deliberate,” the brothers were each entitled to $10,000 from their dad’s estate, despite having previously been disinherited. John went to work managing the nursery with Guanti.
Meanwhile, the remains of Benjamin D’Amore were removed from the family plot and sent to an anonymous crypt at another cemetery.