The Real Serial Killer Behind the Play Arsenic and Old Lace

Many fictional crime stories are based, in part, on real events, and so have a background of interesting characters. Arsenic and Old Lace is one of them. It was based on a serial killer named Amy Archer-Gilligan—who, law enforcement says, murdered between 20 and 100 people, including some of her husbands. The dark comedy had a sinister, real-life protagonist.

The play, Arsenic and Old Lace, created in 1939 by playwright Joseph Kesselring, featured the charming, ditsy characters of Abby and Martha Brewster—two spinster sisters who ran a boarding house for “lonely, elderly gentlemen.” They helped these lonely men to the “Peaceful Great Beyond” by poisoning them with glasses of home-made elderberry wine laced with arsenic, strychnine, and “just a pinch” of cyanide. Darkly funny comedy, indeed, but the acts of the real person who inspired Kesselring were anything but funny.

The murderous little old ladies plot line in the loveable play and movie Arsenic and Old Lace was inspired by a real woman who took in boarders, promised lifetime care for the “elderly and chronic invalids,” and then poisoned them for their pensions. While Kesselring originally wanted to write the play as a dark drama, he was convinced by others in the theatre community that his story would be much more interesting as a comédie noire.

The Archer Home for Aged People and Chronic Invalids in Winston, Connecticut was owned and run by one Amy Archer-Gilligan. Her first husband, a seemingly healthy, robust man, died suddenly in 1910, but there was no investigation as it was deemed to have been from natural causes.

Amy married her second husband, Michael Gilligan, who died only three months after the wedding. His death certificate listed the cause of death as severe indigestion. Again, there was no reason to suspect Amy. Poor dear! How unfortunate that she lost not one, but two husbands! But, her friends and neighbors should have saved the tears and the pity; Amy was a murderer.

Several other residents of the Archer Home for Aged People and Chronic Invalids became victims of what was called “a sudden, unexplainable demise.” However, that explanation didn’t sit well with the sister of Franklin Andrews, one of the dearly departed residents of Archer Home. She found the death of her healthy 61-year-old brother to be highly suspicious.

Getting no response from the district attorney of the area with whom she shared her suspicions, she went to the Hartford Courant. They decided her suspicions were a story in the making. For several months, that newspaper did a vigorous investigation of the deaths at the Archer Home. Their investigations eventually provided the basis for a year-long police probe.

Two years after his death, the body of Franklin Andrews was exhumed at the request of the local authorities. The subsequent autopsy of his body found enough arsenic in it to kill several men. The original cause of death, listed as gastric ulcers, was removed from his death certificate and replaced with the ominous “death by poisoning.” When other exhumed bodies showed the same type of poisoning, the Hartford Courant ran an article about the murders under the headline: “Police Believe Archer Home for Aged a Murder Factory!”

Amy Archer-Gilligan was arrested, had her trial by jury, and was convicted of multiple murders. There was ample evidence against her. The exhumation of Franklin Andrews, her second husband Michael Gilligan, and the many victims of “sudden, unexplainable demise” who had been residing at Archer Home showed clear signs of arsenic or strychnine in their systems.

Her defense statement that she purchased large quantities of arsenic to kill rats on her property did not win over the jury members to her side. Helping sway the members even more to a conviction of murder was her husband Michael Gilligan’s will, drawn up the night before his death and handwritten by Amy herself.

Originally sentenced to death, her conviction was overturned and she was retried two years later, with her lawyers pleading insanity. This resulted in a sentence of life in prison. But, Amy did not spend the rest of her life in prison.

Similar to the story end for Martha and Abigail Brewster, the deadly but good-intentioned sweet ladies in Arsenic and Old Lace, Amy Archer-Gilligan was transferred to a mental hospital. Unlike Martha and Abigail, however, who ended up in the pleasant and peaceful Happy Dale Sanitarium, where patients were treated as delightful if “slightly off” guests, Amy ended her days in the overcrowded Connecticut Hospital for the Insane, where methods to cure patients included restraints, electro-shock therapy, and lobotomies.

She died at age 89 in her sleep. Cause of death? “Natural afflictions of the aged.” No arsenic for that Old Lace!

 

Images via the Hartford Courant and the Ovguide.


Kristen Houghton is the author of nine top-selling novels, including the bestselling new series, A Cate Harlow Private Investigation. She is hard at work on book 3 in the series.

She is also the author of two non-fiction books. Her short stories appear in many horror and crime anthologies. Kristen is a former linguistics teacher.

Comments

  1. Andrez Bergen

    This is great – I had no idea!

  2. Kristen Howell

    I did not know this. Puts a whole new view on the play. I’m glad he wrote it as a comedy. too dark otherwise. Thanks Kristen, good article w/ good info.

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