No one can ever deny the charm and vivacity of Joseph Kesselring’s play Arsenic and Old Lace. The story is a black comedy about Abby and Martha Brewster, two charming old spinsters, who have somehow managed to murder 11 men without anyone finding out. The plot is thickened by their three nephews: Teddy, who thinks he’s Theodore Roosevelt, Jonathan, who has been confined to a prison for the criminally insane, and Mortimer, who, as the only “normal” one of the bunch, has to deal with his four loony relations.
Until recently, Arsenic and Old Lace was on the list of Broadway’s longest-running shows and, in 1944, it was made into a very popular movie starring Cary Grant.
Although the play is extremely entertaining, one cannot help but feel slightly disturbed by the thought of sweet little old ladies regularly committing murder. It is really not surprising that the story was inspired by true events.
Amy Archer-Gilligan was born on an unknown date in 1873. Absolutely nothing is known about her early life except that she married a man named James Archer in 1896 and gave birth to a daughter named Mary in 1900.
In 1901, the Archers moved to Newington, Connecticut and worked as caregivers for an elderly man named John Seymour. After Seymour’s death, the couple paid rent to his family until they sold the house. The Archers then moved to Windsor and opened a nursing home.
James Archer died of kidney disease in 1910. It was later noted that his wife was only able to keep the nursing home because she had recently taken out an insurance policy on him.
In 1913, she married a wealthy widower named Michael Gilligan. Three months later, Gilligan suddenly died of what was deemed severe indigestion. He had already changed his will and left everything to his wife.
Although Archer-Gilligan continued to run her home, the families of residents soon began to wonder at the unusually large number of deaths that took place. Between 1907 and 1916, a total of 60 people died in the Archer Home. In 1914, a 61 year old man named Franklin R. Andrews suddenly died the same day he had been healthy enough to work in the garden. After his sister, Nellie Pierce, studied his personal papers, she discovered that Archer-Gilligan had been relentlessly asking for money. Pierce turned the evidence over to the authorities and, after months of legal hassles, her brother’s body was exhumed. An autopsy revealed enough arsenic to kill several adult men.
The bodies of Michael Gilligan and several other residents were also exhumed and autopsies revealed that they had been killed in the same way. It was later discovered that Archer-Gilligan had forged her second husband’s will and that she regularly bought large quantities of arsenic and claimed that she used it as rat poison.
The initial trial in 1917 ended with Archer-Gilligan being sentenced to die. She appealed, however, and, after pleading guilty in 1919, was sentenced to life in prison.
Archer-Gilligan was an extremely well-behaved prisoner and, in 1924, was declared legally insane and transferred to a mental institution. Amy Archer-Gilligan died in 1962 at the age of 89.
It is widely felt that Archer-Gilligan’s widely publicized trial was the inspiration for Kesselring’s Arsenic and Old Lace, which premiered on January 10, 1941.
Source: NY Daily News Article