“Madness runs in my family; he practically gallops. This is what Cary Grant says in the 1944 film Arsenic and old lace, based on the hit Broadway play. The macabre comedy, which takes place on Halloween, followed Grant’s character discovery that his aunts had secretly murdered tenants at their boarding house. It’s a pretty dark subject for a comedy, especially since it was inspired by real life events.
While working on Arsenic and old lace, playwright Joseph Kesselring traveled to Connecticut to review court documents relating to Amy Archer-Gilligan, a convicted murderer who ran a retirement home. Sixty-six people died in this house between 1908 and 1916. When investigators exhumed five of the bodies, including that of her second husband, autopsies revealed that they had been poisoned with arsenic or strychnine.
An unusually high death rate
Amy Archer-Gilligan and her first husband, James Archer, opened their small retirement home in Windsor, Connecticut, around 1907 or 1908. The Archer Home for Elderly People and Chronic Invalids typically had fewer than 10 residents at a time. ; and it is understandable that there have been deaths among the elderly tenants. The first was in 1908 and the second in 1909. But after that there was a dramatic increase. Between 1910 and 1916, there were 64 additional deaths at the Archer Home.
One of the first deaths at Archer Home was Amy’s husband, James, who died in 1910 at the age of 50 (Amy was possibly in her late 30s or early 40s). The cause of death at the time was Bright’s disease, an older medical term for kidney disease; and as far as we know, maybe that was what it was. Amy married her second husband, Michael Gilligan, at the end of 1913. He died three months later at the age of 56, the cause of death being recorded as valvular heart disease and “acute bilious attack”. that is, digestion or stomach problems.
This time, her husband’s death seemed more suspicious. Although he is a widower with sons, his will left his entire estate to Amy. And he wasn’t the only person whose death seemed to benefit him. Residents could choose to pay Amy a weekly rate or a one-time fee of $ 1,000 for lifetime care, and some of her residents appeared to die suddenly after paying her lifetime fees or giving her a sum of money. .
By the time her second husband died in February 1914, the townspeople (and residents of House Archer) had already begun to notice that the death rate there was strangely high. Yet it was not until the sudden death of another resident a few months later, in May 1914, that anyone would begin to understand what was going on.
Sister’s suspicions prompt investigation
That month, a 61-year-old resident named Franklin Andrews passed away. The cause of death recorded was “gastric ulcers”. But when her sister, Nellie Pierce, was cleaning her things, she found a match between her brother and Amy, in which Amy appeared to be pressuring her for money; she therefore contacted the public prosecutor and the Hartford Current.
Journalists at Running began investigating the deaths of Archer House. Carlan Goslee, who wrote obituaries for Windsor residents, had previously noticed the frequent deaths at Archer House and had previously discovered in a Windsor pharmacy that Amy had bought arsenic on several occasions, supposedly to kill rats and bedbugs.
Running reporters began to re-examine death certificates and noticed that many residents appeared to be suffering from sudden death and / or stomach problems. They also compared the death rates at pension with those of other nursing homes for the aged, noting that the death rate at the Archer home was much higher.
The findings sparked a state investigation in which authorities exhumed the bodies of five people who died in the hostel. Back then, embalmers often used arsenic when preparing a body, so its presence in a corpse’s system did not necessarily indicate poisoning. But upon examination, investigators found that Franklin Andrew’s stomach contained enough arsenic to kill several people, a strong indication that someone had poisoned him.
The other four bodies – Alice Gowdy, Charles Smith, Maude Howard Lynch and Amy’s second husband, Michael Gilligan – also showed signs of arsenic or strychnine poisoning. In May 1916, the police arrested Amy Archer-Gilligan. Although they charged her with the five deaths, she was only tried for the death of Franklin Andrew.
The following year, a jury found her guilty of first degree murder and sentenced her to death. Her lawyer appealed, and in 1919 she received a new trial, in which she pleaded insanity. This time, she was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. In 1924, the state transferred her to the Connecticut General Hospital for the Insane in Middletown, where she remained until her death in 1962.
Murders influence Broadway play and nursing home standards
One of the immediate impacts of Amy Archer-Gilligan’s arrest and trial was on Connecticut’s standards for elderly care. In 1917, the state introduced a bill requiring state authorization for elderly care facilities, which now had to undergo inspections and submit annual death reports.
The story of the Archer House murders also caught the attention of playwright Joseph Kesselring, who was in his early teens when Amy Archer-Gilligan was arrested and tried. Years later, Kesserling contacted Hugh Alcorn, the Hartford County attorney who had sued Archer-Gilligan. Alcorn gave him access to the legal documents relating to his case.
When Arsenic and old lace opened on Broadway in 1941, Alcorn attended a show but would not have liked it. However, the play was a huge success, leading Frank Capra to release a film adaptation in 1944. Almost a century later, many consider the film a Halloween classic, although they may not realize. that he was inspired by real and horrific events.