What is follows is an historical article that appeared in The Hartford Courant in 1916 about the arsenic murders carried out by Mrs. Archer-Gilligan. This story is the basis for the 1944 Hollywood film “Arsenic and Old Lace” starring Cary Grant and Priscilla Lane and directed by Frank Capra. The movie is based on the play by Joseph Kesseling of the same that appeared in 1939.
For a fee, Amy Archer-Gilligan promised to care for the elderly tenants of her Windsor home until they died.
Some inmates, as tenants at the time were called, paid a flat sum of $1,000 for life. Some arranged to leave their estates to Archer-Gilligan. Others paid a weekly fee.
For those who made weekly payments, there was an added benefit: Archer-Gilligan might not murder them.
The Archer Home for Elderly and Indigent Persons at 37 Prospect St. operated from the fall of 1907 until May 8, 1916, the day that state police arrived in Windsor to question Archer-Gilligan, search the home and ultimately arrest her for the murder of Franklin R. Andrews, an inmate who had died on May 30, 1914.
Archer-Gilligan reacted calmly to her arrest. “I will prove my innocence, if it takes my last mill,” she told the arresting officers. “I am not guilty and I will hang before they prove it.”
A Suspicious Loan
Andrews’ sister became suspicious about her brother’s death. As The Courant noted in its Page 1 story on May 9, 1916, “The arrest of the Windsor woman yesterday is the result of the suspicions aroused when Mrs. Nellie E. Pierce of No. 205 Vine St., Hartford, found in the effects of her brother, Franklin R. Andrews, after he died at the Archer House, a letter from Mrs. Archer-Gilligan asking for a loan, ‘as near $1,000 as possible,’ about which the woman had said nothing to her.”
Pierce questioned Archer-Gilligan about the loan and, at first, she denied receiving one. Later, Archer-Gilligan said it was a gift of $500. After a lawyer hired by Pierce demanded the return of the money, Archer-Gilligan paid it back, “not because she could not keep it but because she did not feel it worth quarreling over,” The Courant reported.
The questions continued. Andrews, 61, had been in good health and, on the day of his death, had been “seen about the Archer Home as usual,” The Courant reported. “He spent part of the day working on the lawn at the place.” He was dead before midnight.
Pierce became suspicious weeks later after finding the letter seeking a loan. She took her concerns about what was going on at the Archer home to Hartford State’s Attorney Hugh M. Alcorn and, after apparently not being satisfied with his response, to Clifton L. Sherman, managing editor of The Courant.
Sherman, intrigued by what Pierce told and other rumors he had heard about the Archer home, assigned Aubrey Maddock, the assistant city editor, to investigate what was happening in Windsor.
Using death certificates, then and now public documents, The Courant investigators determined that 60 people had died at the Archer Home since its opening in 1907. “Forty-eight of them, a number declared to be far in excess of the normal death rate at an institution of this kind, have been reported since January 1, 1911,” The Courant reported. Only 10 or 12 people lived at the home at a time.
The reporters also determined, again using public documents, that Archer-Gilligan had purchased substantial quantities of arsenic at pharmacies in Windsor and Hartford, which she said was to deal with a rat problem. The Windsor pharmacy was also selling Archer-Gilligan morphine, which she consumed with regularity.
Among the 60 people who had died at the Archer House was James Archer, Archer-Gilligan’s first husband, and Michael Gilligan, who died less than three months after marrying Archer-Gilligan. He left her an estate of about $4,000.
The Courant presented its evidence to the governor, and state police began a quiet investigation into the doings of Archer-Gilligan at her Windsor home.
During that investigation, the remains of two of Archer-Gilligan’s tenants were exhumed, including that of Andrews. Later, three more bodies were exhumed.
‘They Are Old People’
On the day of her arrest, police asked Archer-Gilligan about the excessive number of deaths in her home. She replied, “Well, we didn’t ask them to come here but we do the best we can for them. They are old people, and some live for a long time while others die after being here a short time.”
And when asked about the financial arrangements she made with her inmates, she said she barely got by. “I am a poor, hard-working woman and I can’t understand why I am persecuted as I have been during the last few years. This is a Christian work and one that is very trying as we have to put up with lots of things on account of the peculiarities of the old people.”
Andrews’ body had been buried in a Cheshire cemetery for two years when he was dug up on May 2, 1916, a week before Archer-Gilligan’s arrest for his murder.
Capt. Robert T. Hurley of the state police testified at Archer-Gilligan’s trial that he and the doctors who examined Andrews’ body arrived at the cemetery about 9 p.m. The grave had already been opened by cemetery workers.
“The box was taken from the grave,” The Courant reported on June 26, 1917, during the trial. “It was taken with the body from the grave and carried by the handles to the tool house. The body was well preserved, as was the clothing. The stomach, before the autopsy, appeared to be bloated.”
Dr. Arthur J. Wolff performed the autopsy by the light of two lanterns. He removed several organs, including the stomach. Further analysis revealed the presence of arsenic.
A former tenant, Loren B. Gowdy, 71, testified at Archer-Gilligan’s trial that he and his wife, Alice Graham Gowdy, 69, inquired about moving into the Archer House in May 1914. The couple wanted to move into the room occupied by Andrews and a roommate on June 1, and Archer-Gilligan told them that she could arrange it.
Andrews died on May 30, 1914. On May 31, 1914, Archer-Gilligan sent a telegram to the Gowdys telling them that their room was ready.
The Gowdys moved into the Archer House a few days later and Archer-Gilligan received payment of $1,000, $500 for each. Alice Gowdy died on Dec. 4, 1914, and after her body was exhumed, arsenic was detected in her body.
Loren Gowdy moved out of the Archer House and was alive two years later to testify against Archer-Gilligan at her trial.
Although she was tried only for the murder of Andrews, Archer-Gilligan had been indicted for the poisoning murders of five people: Andrews; Alice Gowdy; Archer-Gilligan’s second husband, Michael Gilligan; Charles A. Smith, who died on April 9, 1914; and Maud Howard Lynch, who died on Feb. 2, 1916. All but Lynch died of arsenic poisoning. Lynch was poisoned by strychnine.
Authorities suspected that Archer-Gilligan actually killed at least 20 of her tenants.
The trial began on June 21, 1917, in Hartford. Alcorn was the prosecutor, and Benedict M. Holden defended Archer-Gilligan. The trial drew large crowds and was covered widely in the press.
One of the people who followed the case was playwright Joseph Kesselring, who took inspiration from the Archer-Gilligan case in writing “Arsenic and Old Lace.”
On July 13, the jury began deliberating and took only four hours to find Archer-Gilligan guilty.
Archer-Gilligan was sentenced to die by hanging on Nov. 6, 1917. Meanwhile, her lawyers appealed. Gov. Marcus H. Holcomb granted a reprieve as the appeal progressed.
The Supreme Court of Errors, as it was known, found that the trial judge had erred and ordered a new trial. The second trial began in Middletown on June 12, 1919, and her lawyers mounted an insanity defense.
The trial came to an abrupt end on July 1, 1919, when Archer-Gilligan pleaded guilty to second-degree murder.
Alcorn insisted that Archer-Gilligan was guilty of premeditated murder and expressed confidence that the jury would agree, but agreed to the plea to second-degree murder.
The defense offered psychiatrists and psychologists, who were then known as alienists, to testify to Archer-Gilligan’s mental illness. They also brought up Archer-Gilligan’s use of morphine.
“We believed and still believe, her mentality of such a grade that, aggravated by her use of morphine, as the evidence showed, she was not capable of premeditating the murder of Franklin R. Andrews to the extent that it could be called first-degree murder,” Holden said.
In accepting the plea, Judge John E. Keeler said, “I am satisfied that, from the evidence they have heard and from my instructions to them, the jurymen would have been satisfied that during the period when she is claimed to have planned and executed the murder of Franklin R. Andrews, there were some doubts as to her sanity, her ability to premeditate and act with the expressed malice the law demands for murder in the first-degree.”
Archer-Gilligan was immediately sentenced to life in prison and began her sentence at the state prison in Wethersfield.
Five years later, on July 17, 1924, Archer-Gilligan was declared insane and transferred to the “state hospital for the insane at Middletown.”
Playwright Kesselring traveled to Hartford to meet with Alcorn, who gave Kesselring access to court records. Kesselring was struck by the extraordinary image of a sweet, church-going lady quietly poisoning people off, The Courant reported in 1974, as the Hartford Stage Company presented “Arsenic and Old Lace.”
Alcorn attended the comedy’s premier on Broadway in 1941 and didn’t care for the show. “He couldn’t understand all the laughter over something he thought was a deadly serious matter,” one of his sons told The Courant.
Archer-Gilligan spent the remaining 38 years of her life at Connecticut Valley Hospital, where she died on April 23, 1962, at the age of 94.
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