Daily Archives: February 13, 2010

Arsenic and Old Lace: The True Story

Few people know that the stage play Arsenic and Old Lace was based on real events. The central character in the murders, Amy Archer-Gilligan, was a very clever serial killer whose victims numbered somewhere between 20 and 100, including some of her husbands.

Playwright Joseph Kesselring created the characters Abby and Martha Brewster to fill the role of Amy when he penned his comical play in 1939. In the play, the two sisters ran a boarding house and knocked off a series of elderly men using Elderberry wine laced with arsenic. Arsenic and Old Lace has long been a staple of community theaters throughout the world and has been made into more than one movie, the most famous being the Frank Capra production, starring Cary Grant.

The real-life case is not a comedy. Amy Archer-Gilligan operated the Archer Home for Aged People in Winston, Connecticut. After her first husband died in 1910 she remarried but her second husband Michael Gilligan didn’t last very long. He died just three months after the wedding of what was called an “acute bilous attack,” a fancy word at that time for severe indigestion. His death and that of many other residents finally led to a 1916 article in the Hartford Courant under the headline “Police Believe Archer Home for Aged a Murder Factory.” A police investigation soon followed.

Amy was ultimately tried and convicted. The evidence against her included: the exhumation of Michael Gilligan and several deceased residents of her facility, all showing either arsenic or strychnine in their system; Amy’s purchase of a large quantity of arsenic, which according to her was to “kill rats;” and Michael Gilligan’s will, which had been drawn up the night before his death and appeared to have been written by Amy.

She was originally sentenced to death in 1917 but this conviction was overturned and she was retried in 1919, this time using the insanity defense and ultimately getting life in prison. In 1924 she was declared insane and transferred to a mental hospital where she remained until April 1962 where she died at the age of 89.

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