Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) is based on a true story. In this season of Halloween, we note that the daffy and macabre comedy with malevolent roots was first a play, which still haunts professional and community theatre stages across the country. It is an American theatre classic. The true story is much more macabre, and only slightly less daffy.
It happened in the small town of Windsor, Connecticut, just north of Hartford. One hundred years ago, a woman ran a private nursing home in her house, and was investigated for the murder of five of her residents, and was eventually convicted. It’s possible she may have murdered more than forty people in all—with arsenic.
Born in the town of Litchfield, Connecticut, in 1873, Amy Duggan went to the New Britain Normal School in 1890, and taught at the Milton School in Milton, Connecticut. She married James Archer in 1897. In 1901, the couple was hired to care for an elderly widower in his home in Newington, Connecticut, and when he died in 1904, his heirs turned the home into a boarding house for elderly, with Amy and James Archer in charge. They called the business “Sister Amy’s Nursing Home for the Elderly.”
In 1907, the house was sold, so “Sister” Amy and husband James moved to Windsor, bought another house and opened the Archer Home for Elderly People and Chronic Invalids. Residents paid for room and board and also medical attention if they required that, frequently signing over insurance policies to Amy so she could manage their final expenses when they died.
More than twenty residents died in the first four years of operation, most from gastrointestinal complaints that would kill them within days—or hours. Poor Mr. Archer also succumbed suddenly, his death listed as kidney disease. “Sister” Amy would discreetly have the bodies buried immediately so as not to upset the other residents.
Dr. Howard King, the medical examiner for Windsor, was also the house physician for the rest home. He apparently wrote out the death certificates and minded his own business. Business was good.
“Sister” Amy had a pattern of buying arsenic, nearly a pound at a time—to kill rats, she said— which was usually followed by the death of another resident. When neighbors, and then reporters, started raising questions about all this, Amy declared she was the victim of a conspiracy. Her righteous indignation was enough to quiet things down a bit, because she would not be charged with murder until five years later—after fifty more people died.
In the summer of 1913, Amy married a new resident to the home—Michael Gilligan, a 57-year-old man who was divorced and had a hefty savings account. Early in 1914, her new husband drafted new will leaving his estate to her—and just in time, too, for he was dead two days later. He died of “indigestion.”
The late Mr. Gilligan had adult children from his previous marriage. They joined the growing ranks of neighbors, reporters, and eventually the state’s attorney, who were becoming suspicious of Amy’s home cooking. More residents were killed, however, by May 1916 when the crime spree was finally ended by official investigation.
It had started quietly when a female undercover private eye working for the Connecticut State Police, moved into the rest home at the end of 1914. She managed not to ingest any arsenic, and the evidence she gathered was enough to arrest Amy in May 1916 and bring her to trial. Now that lady private eye is a character that would make a great movie.
Amy went on trial in June 1917 for the five murders that could be proven, when the bodies were exhumed and discovered to be full of arsenic. Among them was Franklin R. Andrews, who was regarded as apparently healthy, but who fell ill on the morning of May 29, 1914, and was dead by evening. His death was the only proven count of murder that convicted Amy Archer-Gilligan. Her only child, her daughter Mary, testified that her mother was addicted to morphine. The jury found Amy guilty of murder in the first degree. She was sentenced to be hanged.
But, wait a minute. The governor granted a stay of execution until her case could be heard by the state Supreme Court of Errors, and then a second trial was scheduled, but her defense team plea bargained, and Amy was found guilty of murder in the second degree by reason of insanity—the sentence for which was life imprisonment.
First sent to the old state prison in Wethersfield (no longer there), in 1924 she was transferred to the Connecticut Valley Hospital in Middletown, a state institution for the criminally insane. She was assigned to work in the cafeteria. One hopes she wasn’t allowed to season the food. Amy Archer-Gillian died of natural causes at 89 years old in April 1962.
In 2014, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that nearly 200 pages of documents related to the medical and psychiatric treatment of Amy Archer-Gilligan were to remain sealed, considering them not to be public records. This hampered the plans of at least one writer to examine this material for a book on Mrs. Archer-Gilligan and her infamous crimes.
Another writer, years ago, was equally fascinated. New York playwright Joseph Kesselring, following the case as had a shocked America, rewrote the story into a comedy. Arsenic and Old Lace was a smash on Broadway from 1939 to 1944, and then made into the popular 1944 movie with Cary Grant and Josephine Hull, who played Abby Brewster, recreating the role she originated on Broadway.
One of the features of the play—beloved by community theatre groups for this alone—is that many of the little old ladies’ victims emerge for a “bow” at the end of the show—these non-speaking roles are usually taken by members of the community, usually ten or so people. Many a town mayor or favorite teacher has emerged from the “cellar” as a murder victim to take a bow.
Considering how many victims were probably actually murdered by Amy Archer-Gilligan, this bit of black humor is gruesome, indeed.
Note: The above ad for The Valley Players production of Arsenic and Old Lace is from my forthcoming book to be published later this year on summer theatre on Mt. Tom, Holyoke, Massachusetts. More on that to come.
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