Thursday, January 9, 2014

Arsenic and Old Lace: The True Story

Arsenic and Old Lace opens January 17, 2014 at Slidell Little Theatre

By Don Redman

Insanity. Greed. Serial killings. All ingredients for a side-splitting comedy? As fantastic as it may seem, the real-life events of a drug-addled, psychotic serial killer were the inspiration behind the dark comedy Arsenic and Old Lace, set to open later this month at Slidell Little Theatre.

Originally written as a drama, the laugh-out-loud comedy that has been keeping audiences in stitches for decades was in fact inspired by an actual serial killer who may have dispatched as many as 60 elderly victims to their demise.

Playwright Joseph Kesselring created the sisters Abby and Martha Brewster to fill the role of “Sister” Amy Archer-Gilligan, a real-life serial killer whose victims may have numbered somewhere between 20 and 60, including some of her husbands. In the play, the two psychotic sisters run a boarding house and knock off a series of elderly men using elderberry wine laced with arsenic, a poison favored by the non-fictional Amy Archer-Gilligan who also ran a boarding house for the elderly.

Kesselring’s initial script was a heavy drama and was only later revised into a comedy at the insistence of producers Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse (who were well known as play doctors). The result, The New York Times declared opening night 1941, was a play "so funny that none of us will ever forget it.”

But the inspiration behind the classic comedy was anything but funny.

Amy Archer-Gilligan
Convicted of just one murder, "Sister Amy"
is suspected of having killed 20-60
elderly men under her care 
According to Mara Bovsun, a journalist and author who has written extensively about serial killers, Amy Archer-Gilligan and her first husband, James Archer, were first employed in 1901 as live-in caretakers for John Seymour an elderly widower in Newington, Connecticut.

After Seymour’s death in 1904, his heirs turned the residence into a boardinghouse for the elderly and employed Amy and James Archer as caretakers for the residents. According to a description of the mansion pictured on the website Historic Buildings of Connecticut, the house operated under the name of “Sister Amy’s Nursing Home for the Elderly” until 1907 when the residence was sold and Amy and her husband were forced to move on.

The couple moved to Winston, Connecticut, where they purchased a house and converted it into a new nursing home –  the Archer Home for Aged People – which according to Bill Ryan, a reporter writing in The New York Times in 1997, served as an early model of health care for the elderly in Connecticut.

“She offered some enticements for living there,” Ryan wrote. “Most of her clients were elderly men and they could get lifetime care simply by signing over their life insurance policies to her or by giving her $1,000, a healthy amount of money at the time, when they checked in.”

Whether Amy’s killing spree began with her first husband remains a mystery, but after his death in 1910 of “natural causes,” Amy cashed in his freshly-issued life insurance policy and continued to operate the nursing home. Up to that time, the mortality rate at the Archer Home for Aged People averaged about three deaths a year.

By 1913, the year Amy remarried, events had turned decidedly darker – and deadlier – at the Archer Home for Aged People, prompting a newspaper from the period to later famously declare that the home had become “a murder factory.”

According Mara Bovsun, Amy’s second marriage to Michael Gilligan, a widower, didn’t last very long: “He died just three months after the wedding of what was called an ‘acute bilious attack,’ a fancy word at that time for severe indigestion.”

But thanks to a very timely revision of Michael Gilligan’s will – written the night before his sudden and unexpected death – Amy Archer-Gilligan was again financially set to continue providing care to the elderly.

Despite the attending physician’s determination that Michael Gilligan had died of natural causes, suspicions continued to mount, especially among loved ones of the dearly departed.

By 1916, the mortality rate at the Archer Home for Aged People had soared 250 percent, from an annual average of three deaths per year to 10 per year. According Mara Bovsun, a whopping 80 percent of the deaths at the nursing home occurred during a brief span of five years, from 1911 until her eventual arrest in 1916. Of the 60 deaths recorded over 10 years at the Archer Home, 48 had occurred since 1911.

The Murder Factory today
Photo by J.W. Ocker
According to an investigative report from the era by the Hartford Courant, there were 15 deaths recorded at the Archer Home in 1912, 13 in 1913, and 11 in 1914. Stunning numbers considering that there was an average of only 10 or 12 residents at any given time.

Still, all deaths had occurred naturally, according to Archer-Gilligan’s favorite attending physician, Dr. Howard King.

According to M. William Phelp, author of The Devil's Rooming House: The True Story of America's Deadliest Female, a book about Archer-Gilligan, by 1912 Amy Archer-Gilligan had become a “morphine junkie” (her daughter, Mary, would later testify about her mother’s drug addiction and frequent “drug-induced stupors”).  Archer-Gilligan reportedly was able to purchase 20,500 morphine tablets over a three-year period, according to Phelp.

But in 1914 the drug abuse and the escalating death toll at the “Murder Factory” had been largely ignored by the public and may have continued to be ignored had it not been for the apparent greed on Archer-Gilligan’s part, an insistent sister of a victim, and an in-depth investigation by the local newspaper.

Her last victim was Franklin Andrews, who at 59 years of age, was not the typical boarder at the Archer Home. According to author William Phelp, Andrews suffered from crippling rheumatoid arthritis and in 1912 he checked himself into the home to avoid being a burden to his family. He paid Archer-Gilligan $2,500 upfront, with the understanding that he would live there and be attended to for the rest of his live.

The rest of his life lasted about two years.

“The morning of May 29, 1914, Andrews was seen cheerfully working on the lawn at the Archer house,” writes Bovsun. “By the following evening, he was dead.”

As with all the victims of the Murder Factory, Dr. King determined that Andrews had died of natural causes.

But shortly after Andrews’ death, according to Bovsun, his siblings came into possession of a number of Andrews’ letters and personal papers and discovered that “Archer-Gilligan had been badgering Andrews for money” just days prior to his death.

Phelp’s book includes a letter Andrews had written to his cousin in 1913 – about a year after having moved into the Archer Home – in which he expresses his alarm about the mortality rate at the home. There had been 18 residents at the home when Andrews moved in – 17 had since died within a year.

According to Bovsun, Andrews’ sister Nellie Pierce took her suspicions to the district attorney, but was unable to convince him of foul play. So she turned to the local newspaper – the Hartford Courant.

It took the newspaper several months to complete its investigation, but the resulting series of articles written about what the paper called “A Murder Factory,” reportedly prompted the state police to finally launch an official investigation.

The body of Franklin Andrews was exhumed and an autopsy confirmed the presence of arsenic at levels that could “kill several men,” Bovsun writes. The medical examiner also reported that there was no evidence that Andrews suffered from “gastric ulcers” as Dr. King had reported in the certificate of death.

The discovery prompted additional exhumations of her second husband and a few former residents under Archer-Gilligan’s care. All five showed signs of having been poisoned, either arsenic or strychnine.

According to Bovsun, additional evidence, including purchases by Archer-Gilligan of large quantities of arsenic that she claimed was used to “kill rats,” and her second husband’s apparent forged will – allegedly handwritten by Archer-Gilligan the night prior to her husband’s death – all were used to build a case against her. She was subsequently arrested in 1916 and charged with the murder of five men.

Mike Mayo writes in his book American Murder: Criminals, Crime and the Media, that  Archer-Gilligan pleaded innocent to all charges and that Dr. King, who apparently had never witnessed an unnatural death at the Archer Home, made the bizarre claim that “the bodies had been tampered with by ‘ghouls,’ and the poison added after death.”

A jury convicted Archer-Gilligan in 1917 of murdering the five men, but the conviction was overturned on appeal. The defense attorneys successfully argued that the entire trial had been about just one case – the murder of Franklin Andrews.

Archer-Gilligan was granted a new trial in 1919, and this time her defense was insanity. Alienists, the term for psychiatrists at the turn of the 20th Century, testified to her insanity and her daughter described Archer-Gilligan’s morphine addiction.

Perhaps sensing a looming date with the gallows, Archer-Gilligan pleaded guilty to second-degree murder of Andrews and was sentenced to life in prison.

Throughout the remainder of her life – or while she remained lucid – she maintained her innocence and denied having ever poisoned any of the residents under her care.

Writer Colin McEnroe revisited the case in 1997 in a special edition of the Hartford Courant. He reported that Archer-Gilligan spent five years in the state prison before being declared insane and shipped off to a mental hospital.

“That was in 1924,” writes McEnroe. “Archer-Gilligan went to the hospital and spent another 38 years, mainly sitting in a chair, in a black dress trimmed with lace, holding a bible and praying.”

“Sister” Amy Archer-Gilligan died in 1962, at the age of 93 of natural causes.


 By M. William Phelp

By Marva Bovsun

By Bill Ryan

By Colin McEnroe

Photo by J. W. Ocker

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