One of America's First Nursing Homes Was a Killer's Playground
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
In her early nursing home, Amy Archer-Gilligan had free rein to kill.
By J. Bennett
The local paper called it a “Murder Factory.”
The residents at the Archer Home for Elderly and Indigent Persons were dying at an alarming rate: Forty-eight of them between 1911 and 1916. That might not seem like an unusual figure for a nursing home — these folks were old, after all — but as it turns out? They were being poisoned.
The Archer Home was located at 37 Prospect St. in Windsor, Connecticut. It was operated by a prim, churchgoing widow named Amy Archer-Gilligan. Actually, she was a widow two times over: She opened the home with her first husband, John Archer, in 1907.
Nursing homes were a relatively new type of facility in the early 20th century — in that sense, it could be said that Archer-Gilligan was a health care pioneer — so government oversight was essentially nonexistent. In 1909, the Archers were sued by the family of a tenant, or inmate, as they were curiously called at the time, for “lack of care given” to said tenant, according to an authoritative article published by the Windsor Historical Society and written by its executive director, Christine Ermenc. The Archers settled out of court for $5,000, a tidy sum back in those days, especially when one considers that the going rate for lifetime care at Archer House was $1,000. (Other tenants paid by the week and perhaps enjoyed a longer lifespan.)
Reporters at the Courant did some digging. They noted the disturbing death rate at Archer Home over the previous half-decade.
John Archer passed in 1910, leaving Amy with a 12-year-old daughter to support and a surprise bill for back taxes. As the bodies began piling up at Archer Home — a phenomenon that had gone largely unnoticed thus far — Amy married a widower named Michael Gilligan in late 1913. He died just a few months later, in February 1914. Before he passed, he’d found the time to draw up a new will. In it, he left his entire estate to his new wife. His family was less than thrilled.
A few months later, in May 1914, an Archer Home inmate named Franklin Andrews dropped dead. He’d been working outdoors on the property that day. His sister, Nellie Pierce, suspected foul play. Andrews had written to his sister mentioning numerous deaths of fellow residents. Among her brother’s possessions, Pierce found letters in which Archer-Gilligan repeatedly asked Andrews for cash.
Pierce took her suspicions to the Hartford Courant. Editor Clifford Sherman logged the tip. Reporters at the Courant did some digging. They noted the disturbing death rate at Archer Home over the previous half-decade. They also noted a pattern: Many of said deaths were linked to stomach ailments.
The reporters soon discovered that Archer-Gilligan had procured a staggering quantity of arsenic just prior to her second husband’s death — along with regular doses of morphine, which she herself consumed. It was starting to seem that Archer-Gilligan wasn’t merely a cold-blooded serial killer. She was also high as a kite.
The police were informed. Andrews’ body was exhumed. His corpse had been in its grave for two years when it was unearthed. “The body was well-preserved, as was the clothing,” the Courant reported on June 26, 1917. “The stomach, before the autopsy, appeared to be bloated.”
Dr. Arthur J. Wolff performed the autopsy — by lantern light, no less — and discovered traces of arsenic. Alice Gowdy, the resident who had occupied Andrews’ room after his death, died just six months after her arrival at the Archer Home. Her autopsy revealed arsenic as well. Three more bodies were exhumed and found to have been poisoned — including that of Michael Gilligan, Amy’s second husband.
Five murder indictments followed. For reasons that remain unclear, Archer-Gilligan was tried only for Andrews’ death. But she was suspected of killing anywhere from 24 to 48 people. “I am not guilty and I will hang before they prove it,” Archer-Gilligan reportedly told the police as they hauled her off.
Her trial attracted huge crowds. An aspiring playwright named Joseph Kesselring followed the case as a teenager, eventually using it as inspiration for his 1941 Broadway smash Arsenic and Old Lace, starring Boris Karloff. The play was later adapted into an equally successful film starring Cary Grant.
Amy Archer-Gilligan, then 43, was found guilty in July 1917 and sentenced to death by hanging. But she appealed — Connecticut Gov. Marcus Holcomb granted her a reprieve — and was given a new trial in 1919. This time, her lawyers rolled out an insanity defense. She ultimately pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison.
Oddly enough, she was declared certifiable five years later. She died on April 23, 1962, at the Connecticut General Hospital for the Insane in Middletown.
The Murder Factory still stands. The former Archer Home has been remodeled into apartments and Amy Archer-Gilligan’s century-old crimes are largely forgotten. “Most dwellers are unaware of the story,” Ermenc says. “Every once in a while, we get visitors to our library, sometimes high school students, sometimes out-of-towners, who come specifically to get more information about Amy Archer-Gilligan or the trials, but it is a trickle, not a stream.”
- J. Bennett, OZY Author Contact J. Bennett