Arsenic and Old Lace: The Real Story

A scene from the movie, Arsenic and Old Lace, starring Cary Grant.
A scene from the movie, Arsenic and Old Lace, starring Cary Grant.

WINDSOR, CONNECTICUT, was a lovely town at the beginning of the twentieth Century. It did not seem likely to any of the residents that a dark cloud could be hovering nearby.

Iris knocked on the door. When Maribelle answered, Iris handed her the newspaper. “I thought you might want our copy of the newspaper. We are finished with it.”

“Oh, thanks. Come on in for our regular cup of coffee, Iris, dear.”

“What’s the matter Maribelle? You look worried.”

“Oh, can you tell? I am worried about Uncle Henry. He fell yesterday, at his home over on Greenbriar Street. He is okay, but it could have been a lot worse. He doesn’t have any children, and he is getting to the point where he needs supervision. We don’t have enough room here, or he could live with us. He is getting very forgetful.”

Maribelle sipped on her coffee for a minute and then she picked the newspaper up off the kitchen counter. She turned to the want ads. “Hmmm. There are several places here that say they take in the aged to live full-time, give them meals and such. I wonder…”

“Let me see. Iris took the paper from her friend hand and warned. Don’t put him in Archer’s, whatever you do.” Iris pointed to the small ad.

“Why not? I think I have heard of the widow-woman who runs it,” Maribelle responded. “When Mr. Archer was still alive, they started up the home. She is active in the community and is most free with her charity. She even donated a lovely stained glass window to a church in town.”

“You never can tell about people. No, you don’t want to put your Uncle Henry in that place. I’ve heard things.”

Amy Archer
Amy Archer

“Heard things? I can’t imagine. What kind of things?”

“I am not for passing on gossip. I am just trying to look out for you. I would want you to do the same for me. It seems that many of the people that check into that place check out permanently at short time later.”

“You aren’t serious! They are old. They are dying, anyway.”

“Maybe so, but it is mighty fishy. Mark my word. Beware. They have had the home in several locations and the rumors seem to follow them wherever they go. See if you can find out some people who had relatives in that place and talk to them on the sly.”

“Okay. Thank you for your advice. I may have to try to clear out a place for Uncle Henry right here. It will not be easy, but I may be able to do that.”

So, that is what Maribelle did — started clearing out a space for her uncle.

Three years later, in 1916, a big headline appeared in The Hartford Courant. It was as big as headlines get: Police Believe Archer Home for the Aged a Murder Factory. Maribelle gasped when she saw the picture under the headline. It was Mrs. Archer and she and her husband James had in fact been the proprietors of the Archer Home for the Aged. In 1910, James died of kidney disease and in 1913, Amy Archer married Michael Gilligan. He died three months later. He was not the only one to die. Between 1907 and 1916, it is thought that 60 people died at the hands of Amy Archer who often served the residents lemonade laced with arsenic.

No one would have ever been the wiser, if it had not been for the rumors and the diligence of Franklin Andrews’s sister. She was going through some of his papers and found out where Amy had been borrowing money from him. Andrews was in perfect health and out puttering around on the lawn shortly before his death. When his sister tried to get the district attorney to look into it he dragged his feet. The Hartford Courant picked up the slack until there was enough evidence collected to arrest Amy Gilligan.

The four week long trial included the autopsy reports of twenty four residents. Their exhumed bodies had all had massive doses of arsenic. Amy took a plea deal and was sentenced to an insane asylum in Middleton, Connecticut. She died there in 1962.

Photographs of her resemble the kindly grandmother on The Waltons.

The macabre Amy Archer-Gilligan case inspired the play, and later the movie, Arsenic and Old Lace. It was produced in 1944 by Frank Capra.

Oh dear. Pixilated takes on a whole new meaning.

Sara Marie Hogg is the author of Quite Curious, a collection of stories about the unknown and unexplained..

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  • William Burgdorf

    Truth is many times stranger than fiction. I’ve had the opportunity to play the role of Jonathan (the bad brother) in Arsenic and Old Lacy at Tyler Civic Theatre. It was a role that I thoroughly enjoyed!

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