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When Joseph Kesserling's play Arsenic and Old Lace was first produced in 1939, the dark comedy about a pair of eccentric spinsters poisoning lonely men and burying the bodies in their basement became an unlikely hit. Later adapted by Frank Capra into a 1944 comedy movie starring Cary Grant and Boris Karloff, the film is still considered a classic. Despite the humourous overtones of the movie, few people realize that the play and film are both based on a real-life case that is not quite so lighthearted.
The woman at the centre of the case was born in 1868 in Milton, Connecticut (other sources say 1873). Though little is really known about her early childhood, Amy E. Duggan apparently had a normal enough childhood until her marriage to James Archer in 1897 and the birth of a daugher shortly afterward. By 1901, she and her husband were estabished as caretakers for an elderly widower, John Seymour, at his home in Newington, Connecticut. After Seymour died in 1904, the Archers stayed on at the house caring for elderly boarders until the Seymour family sold the house in 1907. Moving to Windsor, Connecticut, Amy and her husband pooled their savings and purchased a large brick house which they renamed "The Archer Home For Aged People."
One of the first private homes for the elderly in the United States, the Archer Home allowed residents to pay on a weekly basis or a special flat rate of $1000 for which the Archers guaranteed care for as long as the residents lived. Known to her residents as "Sister Amy", Amy Gilligan had a reputation for humane care and the Archer Home was never short of people wanting to live there. Though neither of the Archers had any formal training in geriatrics, their business was apparently successful enough until John Archer died in 1910 of Bright's Disease. Within three years, Amy had remarried a wealthy widower, Michael Gilligan, who had children of his own. This marriage was destined to be short, though since Michael died February 20, 1914 of an "acute bilious attack" (i.e., severe indigestion). That Michael had left his entire estate to his wife raised few suspicions. At least, not at first.
What did attract attention was the large number of deaths taking place at the Archer Home from 1907 to 1917. Up to that time, the cause of death was always listed as "old age" and the local physician, Dr. Howard King, had no reluctance signing the death certificates. When relatives of the dead residents became suspicious, they took a closer look and discovered that most of the deaths happened over a five-year period (1911 to 1916). While the deaths typically involved elderly clients with known health problems, one death stood out in particular. Franklin R. Andrews had suddenly collapsed and died on May 29, 1914 despite being apparently healthy. Though the official cause of death was gastric ulcer (despite his having no history of ulcers), Andrews' sister, Nellie Pierce, learned that he had given money to Amy Gilligan shortly before his death, apparently after she coerced him to pay her. Nellie and other relatives of Amy's dead clients noticed a sinister pattern of deaths occurring shortly paying her the special flate rate that supposedly guaranteed lifelong care.
When the district attorney refused to investigate, Nellie Pierce went to the local newspaper, The Hartford Courant. After running a series of articles on Amy's establishment, which was described as a "Murder Factory", police finally took an interest in the deaths. One police officer even went undercover as a resident to investigate the care patients received first-hand. Police took a closer look at Michael Gilligan's death as well. Once the bodies of Michael Gilligan, Franklin Andrews and several other questionable deaths were exhumed, autopsies found strong traces of either arsenic or strychnine. Local merchants also reported that Amy Archer-Gilligan had purchased large amounts of arsenic from them (she claimed it for killing rats). Michael Gilligan's will in which had apparently left his wife his entire estate was also found to be a forgery.
Amy Archer Gilligan went on trial for five counts of murder which her lawyer successfully argued down to a single count, the murder of Franklin R. Andrews. While newspapers and law authorities openly speculated that she had killed as many as twenty people, proving this in court was another matter. Not that this stopped newspapers from pinning the nickname of the "Connecticut Borgia" on her. Dr. Howard King spoke on her behalf since he refused to admit that he could have overlooked so many murders. Despite his defense, the evidence against Amy was overwhelming.
On June 18, 1917, Amy was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. After appealing this decision, she was granted a new trial which took place in 1919. This time around, she pleaded insanity with her daughter, Mary Archer, testifying that her mother was addicted to morphine, and various other problems. The insanity bid failed but a jury found her guilty of second-degree murder. This spared her the death penalty though she would still be imprisoned for life.
Whether due to preexisting mental heath issues or the rigours of prison life, Amy Archer Gilligan deteriorated in prison to the point of her being declared temporarily insane in 1924. She was transferred to the Connecticut Hospital for the Insane in Middletown (now the Connecticut Valley Hospital) and would remain there until her death from natural causes on April 23, 1962. Actual records of Amy Gilligan's time in the asylum are limited though she was reportedly a model inmate with no real behavioural problems reported.
While there have been other murder cases similar to hers, it was Amy Archer Gilligan who apparently inspired Joseph Kesserling to base Arsenic and Old Lace on her murders. Not that he considered her life story particularly funny though. In his play, the murders are committed by two eccentric sisters who kill their victims because of sympathy rather than for profit. Though there was little actual resemblance between Amy Gilligan and the Brewster sisters of the play (and subsequent film), the connection was enough to ensure that her strange life would earn a place in literature.
Her own opinion about Arsenic and Old Lace was never recorded for posterity.
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