Today in 1944, a Broadway comedy based on one of Connecticut’s most infamous true crime tales wrapped up a wildly successful, multiyear New York run after over 1,400 shows.
The unlikely inspiration for “Arsenic and Old Lace,” written by Joseph Kesserling in 1939, was the story of Amy Archer-Gilligan, a twice-widowed caretaker who ran the Archer Home for Aged People in Windsor, Connecticut. She was convicted of poisoning at least 20 of her patients.
Born in 1868, Archer-Gilligan and her first husband opened their own elder care facility in 1907 after years of experience caring for aged patients across Connecticut. The Archers guaranteed a lifetime of care for patients in return for either a large lump sum up front or being made beneficiaries of residents’ wills and life insurance policies. Over the next 10 years, however, locals began to notice that many of the patients at the Archer home were dying under mysterious circumstances — including Amy’s own husbands. After James Archer’s death in 1910, Amy married the wealthy Michael Gilligan, who also died only three months later from “acute indigestion.”
Franklin Andrews, by all accounts a hale and hearty resident of the Archer Home, perished suddenly in 1914. His relatives alerted local authorities after they discovered a loan made out in Andrews’ name to Archer-Gilligan shortly before his death. The resulting investigation found extremely high levels of arsenic in the bodies of over two dozen former patients of the Archer Home for Aged People. After interviewing Archer-Gilligan’s neighbors — who recalled her purchasing exorbitant amounts of arsenic at a local store for an alleged rodent problem at her institution — police arrested Archer-Gilligan and accused her of fatally poisoning her patients.
Amy Archer-Gilligan’s trial was inherently scandalous and received national attention; the Hartford Courant’s headline of May 9, 1916 screamed “ARCHER HOME FOR AGED A MURDER FACTORY.” Archer-Gilligan was convicted and originally sentenced to hang, but successfully appealed her case on a technicality. After the retrial, she pleaded guilty to a reduced charge and was sentenced to life in prison, but was soon moved to a state mental hospital in Middletown, where she eventually died in 1962.
In 1939, playwright Joseph Kesserling used the story of the Archer Home for the Aged as a loose model for “Arsenic and Old Lace,” a farcical black comedy that revolved around two elderly sisters who murder old men with poisoned wine. The play received rave reviews; the New York Times’ theater critic wrote that the production was “so funny that none of us will ever forget it.”
On June 17, 1944, the final curtain fell on the popular Broadway version of “Arsenic and Old Lace” — but the play would soon find new life as a Hollywood blockbuster directed by Frank Capra and starring Cary Grant, released later that same year.
“Windsor’s ‘Murder Factory,‘” connecticuthistory.org
David Owens, “Windsor Woman Poisoned Multiple Tenants of Her Home for the Elderly,” Hartford Courant
Mara Bovson, “The True Crime Story Behind Classic Comedy ‘Arsenic and Old Lace,'” New York Daily News