“Insanity runs in the family; it practically gallops”: That’s what Cary Grant famously said in the 1944 film Arsenic and Old Lace. Based on the hit Broadway play, the gruesome comedy set on Halloween shows Grant discovering his aunt has secretly been murdering renters at their boarding house.
It’s a pretty dark subject for a movie that’s supposed to be a comedy, especially because a real serial killer inspired it. Amy Archer-Gilligan, a convicted murderer, used arsenic to kill between 5-60 people. Find out how she got away with her crimes for over a decade.
Who Wrote Arsenic and Old Lace?
In 1939, playwright Joseph Kesselring wrote Arsenic and Old Lace, featuring the delightful, ditsy sisters Abby and Martha Brewster. The spinster sisters ran a boarding house for “lonely, elderly men,” and they helped these men to the “great beyond” by poisoning them with wine laced with arsenic and cyanide.
Indeed, the dark comedy was funny, but the person who inspired Kesselring was anything but comedic. The murderous, little old ladies plot in the loveable play that was later turned into a movie was loosely based on Amy Archer-Gilligan, who took in boarders, promising lifetime care only to poison them.
The Archer Home
Amy and her first husband, James Archer, opened their small nursing-boarding home in Windsor, Connecticut around 1907. Known as the Archer Home for Elderly People and Chronic Individuals, Amy and James typically had less than ten boarders at a time. Understandably, there were some natural deaths with the older guests.
The first deaths to occur at the Archer Home were in 1908 and 1909. It didn’t raise any red flags because the boarding house cared for those in their final years of life. However, the death toll dramatically increased over the next decade. Over the years, there were 64 deaths at the Archer Home.
Her First Victim
One of the first deaths at the Archer Home was Amy’s husband. James was only 50 when he died in 1910. His cause of death was determined as Bright’s disease, an older medical term for kidney disease. That may have been the true cause, but there was no way to know what really killed him.
While James’ death was recorded as a natural cause, Amy suspiciously took out a life insurance policy on him shortly before he died. The policy allowed her to continue operating Archer Home. Was he getting sicker, or did she poison him to collect the money? It’s still unknown.
Before Amy and James opened Archer Home, they ran Sister Amy’s Nursing Home for the Elderly. After she and James got married in 1897, the couple was hired to care for John Seymour, an elderly widower. They moved into his home in 1901, and he passed away three years later.
His children converted the home into a boarding house, and the Archers stayed to provide care for the elderly residents for a fee. When Seymour’s family decided to sell the house, the Archers moved to Windsor and used their savings to purchase their own residence, which they converted into a business.
Her Second Husband
After James died, Amy married Michael W. Gilligan, a widower with four older sons, in 1913. He was reportedly wealthy and interested in both Amy and investing in Archer Home. Unfortunately, their marriage was short-lived as Michael died three months after their wedding.
The official cause of his death was “acute bilious attack,” aka severe indigestion. Once again, Amy benefited financially from her husband’s death. When they were married, Michael had drawn up a will, leaving his entire estate to her and nothing to his four children.
While James’ death didn’t seem out of the ordinary, Michael’s sudden death raised some suspicions. However, there was no reason to suspect Amy at the time. People pitied her because she had lost not one but two husbands. Everyone saw it as a tragedy.
Amy’s friends and neighbors mourned Michael, but they should have saved their tears and seen the signs. Why would Michael, a seemingly healthy man, suddenly write a will and leave everything to his wife of only three months? Wouldn’t he have given something to his children?
Her Financial Gains
A few of the deaths at the Archer Home were written off, but the death rate quickly rose over the years. Many of the residents died of what was considered “a sudden, unexplainable demise.” In all those cases, Amy just so happened to benefit.
When people moved into the Archer Home, they could choose to pay Amy a weekly fee or a one-time $1,000 fee for lifetime care. Coincidentally, boarders seemed to die shortly after paying her the lifetime fee or signing over some amount of money to Amy.
Something Didn’t Seem Right
By the time Michael died in 1914, people in town and other residents of the Archer Home began noticing that more and more people were dying there. The residents checked in when they were in fine health, but then they dropped like flies.
It wasn’t until another boarder died unexpectedly in May 1914 that someone started to investigate what was going on at the Archer Home. For a while, no one questioned the deaths happening on Amy’s watch because she seemed like a sweet caregiver.
An Interesting Discovery
In May 1914, 61-year-old Franklin R. Andrews died at the Archer Home. His cause of death was recorded as gastric ulcers. His family was saddened by the loss, and his sister, Nellie Pierce, went to clean out his room. She started to look through everything and found a suspicious letter.
Nellie found correspondence between Franklin and Amy, in which Amy was pressuring him for money. Nellie wondered why she would want money from him if her brother had already paid a fee to live there. It didn’t sit right with her.
Contacting the Authorities
Nellie decided to contact the state attorney and The Hartford Courant. She found out that Franklin’s healthy physical condition deteriorated in a single day. Reporters at The Courant started looking into the Archer Home’s deaths.
Carlan Goslee, an obituary writer, had already noticed the increasingly frequent deaths at Archer Home, and they all had random causes of death. Between 1907 and 1910, only 12 residents had died. However, between 1911 and 1916, 48 residents passed away.
Her Concerns Were Ignored
Unfortunately, the district attorney ignored Nellie’s concerns, but the Courant reporters continued their own investigation because they saw a huge story in the making. For several months, reporters did a vigorous investigation of the deaths at the Archer Home. They started by looking at death certificates.
All the death certificates showed that the residents seemed to experience sudden deaths sometimes because of stomach issues. They started comparing death rates at the Archer Home to those of other nursing homes and found that the numbers were much higher at Archer Home.
Along with the high death rates, Carlan had previously discovered that Amy frequently purchased arsenic from a local drug store. She claimed it was for killing rats and bed bugs. In the early 1900s, arsenic was still regularly sold at drug stores, with little regulation.
Interestingly, arsenic was a poisoner’s first choice because it was easily accessible and mimicked common gastrointestinal issues. If given in small quantities over time, arsenic produces a gradual decline in health and is easily attributed to natural illness. The information helped reporters connect the dots.
Getting the Authorities’ Attention
On May 9, 1916, The Hartford Courant published several articles about the “Murder Factory.” It caused the police to finally take a real look into the deaths at Archer Home. The Courant’s investigation provided a basis for a year-long police probe into what Amy might have been hiding.
Besides the high number of deaths, the police needed more proof that Amy was actually killing these men. There was enough speculation because of the money she received after they died, but investigators needed physical evidence to arrest her.
Exhuming the Bodies
Two years after his death, Franklin, along with Michael and three other residents, were exhumed. At the time, morticians often used arsenic when preparing bodies, so its presence in a corpse’s system wouldn’t necessarily lead them to conclude that they were poisoned. However, the levels were off the charts.
Investigators found that Franklin’s stomach contained enough arsenic to kill several people, leading them to believe that someone had poisoned him. The other four bodies – of Alice Gowdy, Charles Smith, Maude Howard Lynch, and Michael – also had signs of arsenic and strychnine poisoning.
Gathering More Evidence
Once they figured out that the five residents had been poisoned, they spoke to local pharmacists who could testify that Amy had been purchasing arsenic in large quantities. She apparently had a “rat problem” and needed it to kill the rodents.
The police also looked into Michael’s will and established that it was actually a forgery written by Amy. The handwriting matched hers exactly. While the investigation showed that Amy was purchasing the arsenic, the police ran into a small problem because they had another possible suspect.
The Other Suspect
The police originally were told that Amy purchased the arsenic, but it appears that she didn’t buy it all. The doctor and some of her patients had signed off to purchase it. This new discovery led investigators to Dr. King, who signed off on the arsenic purchases.
Evidence started to pile up against Dr. King, but suspicions were turned back towards Amy when someone suggested that the police take a closer look at the records of all the arsenic purchases. The police realized that Dr. King was not the one to blame.
She Was Finally Caught
Investigators soon realized that Amy had been sending her patients to buy the arsenic so she could cover her tracks. In May 1916, the police had enough evidence against her and arrested Amy. They initially charged her with the five deaths of the bodies that had been exhumed.
There was ample evidence against her, but her lawyers managed to reduce the charges to a single count for the murder of Franklin Andrews. The defense kept claiming that Amy was only using the arsenic to get rid of rodents, but it didn’t win the jury over.
She Put Herself in Jail
Helping sway the jury even further towards a conviction was her husband Michael’s will. The prosecution showed another document written by Amy and compared it to the will. It was a perfect match. She had basically dug her own grave.
The jury had everything they needed to prove Amy was guilty. On June 18, 1917, she was found guilty and sentenced to death. It was a harsh sentence for a woman, especially since she was technically only charged for one murder, but it wasn’t the end for Amy.
When she received her sentence, Amy’s lawyers filed an appeal. She was granted a new trial in 1919, where her lawyers pled insanity, and they had some help in swaying the judge. During her marriage to James, Amy had a daughter. Mary Archer agreed to testify at the new trial.
Mary said her mom was addicted to morphine and was never in a stable frame of mind from the time she could remember. Her charges were dropped to second-degree murder, and Amy was sentenced to life in prison instead of death.
She Didn’t Spend Her Life in Prison
Like Abby and Martha Brewster in Arsenic and Old Lace, Amy didn’t spend her life in prison as the court had ordered. Instead, she was transferred to the overcrowded Connecticut General Hospital for the Insane in 1924, not too far from the Archer Home.
The hospital where Amy spent the rest of her life used methods such as restraints, electro-shock therapy, and lobotomies to “cure” their patients. At 89-years-old, Amy died in her sleep of natural causes. There was no arsenic involved in her death.
One of the immediate impacts of Amy’s case was the change in Connecticut’s standards for elderly care. In 1917, the state introduced a bill requiring elder care facilities to have licenses. The facilities were also subject to inspections and had to submit annual death reports.
There is no way to fully know how many of the residents Amy actually poisoned and how many died from other causes. However, the state didn’t want there to be another “Murder Factory” in Connecticut. It also encouraged surrounding states to revise their laws for elderly care.
An Intrigued Playwright
The story of the Archer Home murders caught the attention of Kesselring when he was writing Arsenic and Old Lace. Amy was arrested and sent to jail when he was in his early teens, but the story stuck with Kesselring for years.
Years later, Kesselring reached out to Hugh Alcorn, the attorney for Hartford County. Alcorn was the prosecutor in Amy’s trial, and he gave Kesselring access to the court documents related to her case to help him write his play. He was initially writing it as a heavy drama.
Where Does Arsenic and Old Lace Take Place?
In Kesselring’s version of the story, the plot revolves around the Brewster family, most of whom are homicidal. The play’s hero, Mortimer Brewster, is a drama critic who must deal with his murderous family and the local police in Brooklyn, New York.
Brooklyn isn’t too far from Connecticut, but Kesselring didn’t want his play to be exactly like the real story. While Amy acted alone in her crimes, Kesselring introduced Abby and Martha, Mortimer’s aunts who poison men in their boarding home and bury them in the cellar.
When Does Arsenic and Old Lace Take Place?
While the events at the Archer Home took place between 1907 and 1917, Kesselring’s play is set in 1941, the year it opened on Broadway. The 1944 film adaptation, starring Cary Grant, follows the same storyline with just a few minor changes.
The Broadway show and the film both include Mortimer, his killer aunts, his delusional brother Teddy, his alcoholic brother Johnathan, and the plastic surgeon, Dr. Herman Einstein. In the end, Martha and Abby end up at the peaceful Happy Dale Sanitarium, like Amy ended up in a mental hospital.
He Had to Make Changes
When Kesselring first wrote the play, he wanted it to be a serious and dark drama. However, the producers, Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, convinced Kesselring that it would be much more effective as a dark comedy. They were known as “play doctors,” so he made the changes.
Lindsay and Crouse also helped name the play. They reportedly adapted the title from Frank Sullivan’s humor collection called Broccoli and Old Lace. The play stayed on Broadway from 1941 until 1944, with 1,444 performances. When it opened in London, it was performed 1,337 times.
Not a Fan
After helping Kesselring with the case files, Alcorn decided to attend a performance of Arsenic and Old Lace. He was under the impression that it would be a serious play because Kesselring hadn’t told him about the changes suggested by the producers.
Although it was a hit with audiences and critics, Alcorn reportedly wasn’t a fan of the show. He apparently didn’t like that the serious subject matter involving the murders of people’s family members was turned into a comedy. At least everyone else in the audience enjoyed the show.
The Film Was Also a Hit
When the film adaptation of Arsenic and Old Lace premiered in 1944, it received uniformly positive reviews from critics. The New York Times summed it up by saying, “As a whole, Arsenic and Old Lace, the Warner picture which came to the Strand yesterday, is good, macabre fun.”
Many critics noted that the film captured the color and spirit of the hit play. It was not only a critical success, but it was also a box office hit. The film earned $2.8 million in America and $1.9 million abroad.
A Halloween Classic
Many decades later, Arsenic and Old Lace is considered a Halloween classic. However, not many people realize it was inspired by real and unfortunate events. Over the years, it has been revived on Broadway several times and is still widely performed.
Arsenic and Old Lace has also been translated into many languages. While the events that took place at the Archer Home were horrific, the comedic twist in Kesselring’s play made the subject lighter and more digestible for most people. Everyone needs to laugh sometimes.
Someone Believed Amy Was Innocent
Ruth Bonito was a member of the historical society in a town close to Windsor, Connecticut. In the ‘90s, she looked into Amy’s case and came up with a theory not often heard of when referring to the Archer Home. She believed Amy might have been innocent.
Bonito said that all the evidence against Amy was circumstantial. While she did buy the arsenic, Bonito believes she used it to kill the rats in her home. Amy never confessed to any of her crimes, and the high death rate wasn’t proven to be related to poisonings.
Could She Have Been a Good Person?
During her deep dive into Amy’s case, she found that Amy was a church-going woman who donated a stained-glass window to a Windsor church. Bonito wondered if that kind of woman would murder people with arsenic. However, seemingly good people can do bad things.
Additionally, Bonito questioned the post-exhumation arsenic found in the stomachs of Amy’s possible victims. She believed the morticians used more arsenic than usual when they were embalming the bodies. While morticians did use arsenic, other experts don’t think Bonito’s ideas meant Amy was innocent.
Amy Had a Copycat
The Archer Home story might have ended in the 1910s, but another woman may have copied Amy. In 1988, an inquiry into the disappearance of a mentally disabled man resulted in the discovery of several dead bodies in a Sacramento boarding house.
Dorothea Puente also ran a boarding house, and she murdered nine elderly and mentally disabled residents to cash their social security checks. Unlike Amy, she couldn’t easily get her hands on arsenic, so she suffocated most of her victims with a pillow.
Life in Prison
Dorothea was caught in 1988 after the police looked into the disappearance of tenant Alvaro Montoya. She was charged with nine murders and received two life sentences. Like Amy, her only daughter testified at her trial. There were many similarities in their cases.
She was sent to a woman’s correctional facility in California, where she maintained her innocence for the rest of her life. Dorothea insisted that all the boarders died of natural causes. In 2011, Dorothea died in prison at 82-years-old.
Still a Fascinating Topic
In Connecticut, people are still fascinated by the events that took place at the Archer Home. The house still sits on Prospect Street, not far from the town’s center. Today, the three-story brick home has been converted into apartments, but the history of the home remains.
At the Windsor Historical Society, people used to stop by to look at the files about Amy. While everything is on the internet today, schoolteachers in the area are questioned about the case, and students visit the old home. One thing is for sure, Amy Archer-Gilligan does have a certain attraction.