True Stories Inspire Crime Thriller

Have you ever wondered where crime novelists get their ideas? Sometimes, a work of fiction, tweaked and changed by the author, is based on a real-life crime. As the author of the series, A Cate Harlow Private Investigation,  I am a voracious reader of mysteries and crime thrillers. I love reading about crime. One of the things I look for is the truth behind the fictional story. Many fictional crime stories are based in part on real events and so have a background of interesting characters. Arsenic and Old Lace is one of them. It was based on a serial killer named Amy Archer-Gilligan who, law enforcement says, murdered between 20 and 100 people, including some of her husbands. The dark comedy had a sinister real life protagonist.

The play, Arsenic and Old Lace, created in 1939 by playwright Joseph Kesselring, featured the charming ditsy characters of Abby and Martha Brewster, two spinster sisters who ran a boarding house for 'lonely, elderly gentlemen.' They helped these lonely men to the Peaceful Great Beyond by poisoning them with glasses of home-made elderberry wine laced with arsenic, strychnine, and just a pinch of cyanide. Darkly funny comedy indeed, but the acts of the real person who inspired Kesselring were anything but funny.

The murderous little old ladies plot line in the loveable play and movie Arsenic and Old Lace was inspired by a real woman who took in boarders and promised lifetime care for the 'elderly and chronic invalids' which she barely provided. Her real aim was to gain access to their monthly pension checks which were deposited into the boarding house bank account.

While Kesselring originally wanted to write the play as a dark drama, he was convinced by others in the theatre community that his story would be much more interesting as a comédie noire.

The Archer Home for Aged People and Chronic Invalids in Winston, Connecticut was owned and run by one Amy Archer-Gilligan. Her first husband, a seemingly healthy, robust man, died suddenly in 1910, but there was no investigation as it was deemed to have been from natural causes.

Amy married her second husband, one Michael Gilligan, who died only three months after the wedding. His death certificate listed the cause of death as severe indigestion. Again, there was no reason to suspect Amy. Poor dear! How unfortunate that she lost, not one, but two husbands! But her friends and neighbors should have saved the tears and the pity; Amy was a murderer.

Several other residents of the Archer Home for Aged People and Chronic Invalids became victims of what was called 'a sudden, unexplainable demise.'  However, that explanation didn’t sit well with the sister of one of the dearly departed residents of Archer Home, a man by the name of Franklin Andrews. His sister found the death of her healthy 61year old brother to be highly suspicious. Getting no response from the district attorney of the area, with whom she shared her suspicions, she went to the Hartford Courant. They decided her suspicions were a story in the making. For several months that newspaper did a vigorous investigation of the deaths at the Archer Home. Their investigations eventually provided the basis for a year-long police probe.

Two years after his death, the body of Franklin Andrews was exhumed at the request of the local authorities. The subsequent autopsy of his body found enough arsenic in it to kill several men. The original cause of death, listed as gastric ulcers, was removed from his death certificate and replaced with the ominous cause “death by poisoning.” 

When other exhumed bodies showed the same type of poisoning, The Hartford Courant ran an article about the murders under the headline “Police Believe Archer Home for Aged a Murder Factory!”

Amy Archer-Gilligan was arrested, had her trial by jury, and was convicted of multiple murders. There was ample evidence against her. The exhumation of Franklin Andrews, her second husband Michael Gilligan, as well the many victims of “sudden, unexplainable demise” who had been residing at Archer Home, showed clear signs of arsenic or strychnine in their systems.

Her defense statement, that she purchased large quantities of arsenic to kill rats on her property, did not win over the jury members to her side. Helping sway the members even more to a conviction of murder was her husband Michael Gilligan’s will, drawn up the night before his death, and handwritten by Amy herself.

Originally sentenced to death, her conviction was overturned and she was re-tried two years later with her lawyers pleading insanity. This resulted in a sentence of life in prison. But Amy did not spend the rest of her life in prison.

Similar to the story end for Martha and Abigail Brewster, the deadly but good-intentioned sweet ladies in Arsenic and Old Lace, Amy Archer-Gilligan was transferred to a mental hospital. Unlike Martha and Abigail, however, who ended up in the pleasant and peaceful Happy Dale Sanitarium where patients were treated as delightful if “slightly off” guests, Amy ended her days in the overcrowded Connecticut Hospital for the Insane where methods to cure patients included restraints, electro-shock therapy, and lobotomies. She died in her sleep at the ripe old age of 89 . Cause of death? “Natural afflictions of the aged.” No arsenic for that Old Lace!

Happy writing, crime novelists!

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