Arsenic and Old Lace: The True Story

13 Feb

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.


11 responses to “Arsenic and Old Lace: The True Story

  1. Jonathan Quist

    February 13, 2010 at 8:35 pm

    Fascinating. Her motives were not so pure as Abby and Martha’s.

    Present-day viewers who know Arsenic and Old Lace solely from the Frank Capra film may not know this bit of trivia: In the film, Jonathan Brewster, played by Raymond Massey, is captured when one of the police finally recognize him from his description: “He looks like Karloff.” The gag was repeated several times – “Didn’t I see you in the movies?”

    The line drew howls on Broadway, where the role of Jonathan Brewster was originated by Boris Karloff himself, 8 years after his portrayal of Frankenstein’s monster made his name synonymous with cinematic horror.


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      February 14, 2010 at 10:13 am

      That’s funny stuff. Thanks for the info.



  2. joannaaslinn

    February 14, 2010 at 6:22 am

    Love info like this, the type of tidbit you drop during a conversation and people just look at you in awe, wondering, how could she possibly know that? Thanks for posting!

    Joanna Aislinn
    The Wild Rose Press


  3. Heather Moore

    February 14, 2010 at 10:20 am



  4. Jonathan Quist

    February 15, 2010 at 6:51 pm

    One of my life’s ambitions is to some day play Teddy Brewster, no matter how rinky-dink the community theatre production. The first time an opportunity arose, I lived in a town whose library owned the complete series of Burns Mantle’s “Best Plays” series of annual books, which included critiques, script excerpts, and Mantle’s take on the theatre season in general. Arsenic and Old Lace received prominent mention in “Best Plays of 1939”.

    The other related tidbit was that an attempt was made in the 1950’s to produce a musical version. Unfortunately, a satisfactory show was never produced, and the musical rights are no longer available.


  5. Susanne Alleyn

    February 21, 2010 at 7:12 am

    I may be one of the only women in history to have played Jonathan (in an all-girls’ high school production). And my best friend played Teddy. No wonder I became a mystery writer. 🙂


  6. Brenda

    July 9, 2010 at 2:15 pm

    This is soooo fascinating. Thanks!


  7. david clark smith

    February 16, 2011 at 9:47 am

    It is a fascinating story. However, the author has the wrong town. Arsenic and Old Lace took place in Windsor, CT, not Winston,CT as reported. The Hartford Courant had a follow-up story and gave the actual street address.I am trying to find that now.


  8. julianna ritz

    April 13, 2011 at 5:52 pm

    the frank capra rendition gets an A+ rending from me: BEST ACTING, BEST CAST, BEST SCENE. iT MAKES ME WANT TO BE A NEIGHBOR AND A RESIDENT OF THAT TOWN. i suppose it is my favorite picture of the thousands of movies I’ve seen and it is a lot, at 75!


  9. Eric Traska

    December 11, 2013 at 11:24 am

    A friend of mine lived in a rent apartment next door to the home of Amy Archer-Gilligan, needless to say, boys being boys we had many “adventures” in the Neighborhood.



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