Archer-Gilligan Murder House

October 26, 2011 — I think the one thing that’ll get humanity into the Universe Hall of Fame is that we can take shameful and inhuman acts of depravity and turn them into light comedy farce for the enjoyment of all. That takes talent. And some other things, probably. Take for example the horrid Archer-Gilligan murders, in which a nursing care provider in the early 1900s went on a decade-long killing spree of her wards, inspiring the fun-for-all-ages Broadway play and movie adaptation, Arsenic and Old Lace.

Amy Archer-Gilligan had a knack for caring for the elderly and opened her own private nursing home in 1907 in a large brick house in the town of Windsor, CT, with her husband, James Archer (later on, we’ll redefine knack a bit). James died three years later, leaving behind a nice insurance settlement, and Amy remarried in 1913 to Michael Gilligan, who died three months after the ceremony, leaving her with enough money in the will to continue her nursing home business. So that’s kind of a happily ever after (later on, we’ll redefine happily ever after a bit). In hindsight, many believe that her hyphenated surname was less of a moniker and more of a hit list.

Meanwhile, over the course of 10 years from the time she opened the Archer Home for the Elderly and Infirm, some 60 people died in the house, most of them after 1910. Seems like a high turnover rate, but old people die, right?

Yup, especially if they are fed arsenic.

Eventually, the body count got too high to ignore, corpses were exhumed and tested, purchase records of toxic substances were examined, and Archer-Gilligan was indicted on five counts of poisoning, including that of her second husband.

Only one count stuck, a resident of the home, but many believe that the stats on the back of her official serial killer card might be grossly underestimated and that most of the 60 deaths were due to her arsenic-tipped scythe.

Some people say her motives were economical. Every empty bed in the house was the chance for a new customer, and money makes the retirement home go round. Of course, murder’s never purely economical. Especially serial murder. You also have to be absolutely demented (no redefining the term, there).

Archer-Gilligan was sent to prison, and then moved to a psychiatric hospital, where she died in 1962 in her late 80s. She never got herself a slick serial killer name, but her nickname in real life was “Sister Amy” due to her standing in the community, and that’s as good a serial killer name as anybody’s ever come up with.

Oh, and this is what she looked like.

Two major memorials still stand to her atrocities. The first is the murder house itself, which sits in the idyllic town of Windsor at 37 Prospect St. The large brick house, like the other large houses in the neighborhood, has since been turned into apartment units, and the way it looms there seems to be the architectural equivalent of whistling innocently, with nothing really to give a clue as to the gentle violence that happened under its roof.

A strip of discolored brick that runs the width of the fa├žade of the house reveals the location of what was probably an overhang of some sort and one of the second-floor windows has been bricked solid in a permanent wink. But other than these two changes, most of the large house hasn’t changed. I assume fewer people die there these days, of course.

The other, more well-known testament to Sister Amy’s crimes is Arsenic and Old Lace. The story started out as a Broadway play in the early 40s, but gained even more attention as a Frank Capra movie released in 1944 (while Sister Amy was still alive) and starring Cary Grant, Peter Lorre, and a Boris Karloff look-a-like, a role Boris Karloff himself played for the stage version.

In the story, which takes place on a single Halloween night, the nursing home has been turned into a pseudo-boarding house, Windsor has been turned into Brooklyn, and Archer-Gilligan has been turned into two old aunts named Brewster with a reputation for being the nicest old spinsters that anybody would ever have the pleasure of being buried by.

In fact, they’re so dedicated to kindness that they end up putting old, lonely men out of their misery by lacing homemade elderberry wine with a mixture of arsenic, strychnine, and cyanide, all meted out with the care of an old family recipe and killing about a dozen men in the course of their polite reign of terror.

Actually, the entire Brewster family is a bit batty. Besides the two killers, there’s Teddy, who thinks that he’s Theodore Roosevelt, and Jonathan, a sadistic serial killer of the more classic sort who escapes from prison with Peter Lorre and holes up in his childhood home.

What happens next is a comedy of corpses, often over the top and just as often charming and witty, if stretched too long at two hours and centering on a miscast and mugging Cary Grant, the one saniac in the family.

Overall, the movie makes light of murder, mental illness, loneliness, and the Panama Canal. It’s a good time that’s made even better knowing it was based on the life of an actual serial killer, one whose house you can still trick-or-treat at.

Nobody will ever make a movie about your good deeds.

26 comments:

  1. the link to her photo has her dying in 1928.

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  2. Wikipedia article has her dying in 1962.

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  3. We definitely all need to get together and make sure she's dead...

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  4. Like Wikipedia is a good source for "factual" information.

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  5. Jonathan was played by the great Raymond Massey, an Oscar-nominated actor who was far more than just a "Boris Karloff look-a-like".

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  6. Oh, I absolutely agree. And Massey was chilling in this pic. The way he used his eyes was just infernal. My summation of his role was mostly for the sake of expediency of explanation. I didn't want to delve too far into the Karloff back story and running gag, so I summed it up that way. Thanks for bringing it up, though. Needed to be said.

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  7. Amy started her nursing home in Newington, CT and later moved to Windsor. The Newington home, also now apartment units, is rumored to be haunted, but of course with that history, rumors are rampant.

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  8. I don't mind the mugging Cary Grant because that's what he did in most of his films. Arsenic and Old Lace is in the vein (haha!) of You Can't Take It With You. We attempt screwball comedies these days but that time has passed, and so has Cary Grant, of that I am sure.

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  9. Boris Karloff playing the Boris Karloff look-alike was a terrific joke in the Broadway play; I can imagine that got a huge laugh from the audience. I'll never understand why they didn't cast him in the movie.

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  10. On the second floor, that looks to be a closed up door that went out to the porch rather than a window.

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  11. ctgng - Boris Karloff was not cast because the play was still on-going. While the play producers were fine with the two sisters leaving for the film, they felt no one would come to play without Karloff. He was not released from his contract to do it.

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  12. I agree that referring to Raymond Massey as, "a Boris Karloff look-a-like" does the great actor an incredible mis-deed. In fact it makes this article sound as if it were written by a child. And Cary Grant was most assuredly NOT "miscast". If the author were to be tortured slowly over a period of days before being allowed to die, he would still only be as dead as the man in Singapore.

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  13. Do we know where Sister Amy is buried? You know, like you said, just be be sure?

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  14. Saniac; nicely put! and I agree Massey s/have been properly credited; we're all not ijits, sir!

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  15. was the movie filmed in the house that the munsters was filmed. I did see the movie and that house on the inside reminded me of the munster house atleast the floorplan before the munsters lived there ofcourse

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  16. Have you ever visited the "Hex Murder" house? And for a bonus, the 7 Gates of Hell are nearby too! My bosses father is one of the "killers" who was convicted and spent time at the Eastern State Penitentiary. She told me the story and the very next day I went out to take photos.
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/starycat/5603410243/
    The scary thing is that there are two huge birds on the roof (left side)...I swear they weren't there when I took the photos! I'm enjoying your stories on ths snowy OCTOBER day!

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  17. I wonder if Capra didn't make it two old ladies because of Missouri's Bertha Gifford, who used the same tactic at the Morse Mill Hotel? She "lost" a couple husbands, too, but preferred to "ease the suffering" of sick children.

    I can only hope these two ladies weren't pen pals!

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  18. @Twasel, yes, Raymond Massey was fabulous and more than just a "Boris Karloff look-alike" but that was the POINT to the character...that he was a Boris Karloff look-alike. And as others have pointed out, it was because Boris played the role. It isn't doing Raymond a disservice and it isn't taking anything away from his portrayal to refer to the characterization as BK look-alike. In fact, to me it showed that he played the role well. But truth be told, I sure would have preferred Boris in the role because it was written FOR him.

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  19. Also, the date of death is NOT 1928. She is listed in the 1930 census as a patient living in Middletown, Middlesex, CT. (genealogy geek here...I checked ancestry.com and she is listed as Gilligan, Amy E Archer.) So she definitely did not die that early.)

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  20. "...miscast and mugging Cary Grant..."

    You are such a loser......and conceited.

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  21. To the Anonymous Posters who were obviously either related or in love with Cary Grant and Raymond Massey - Get off of it. This is OTIS, it isn't IMDB. Go cry in their forums about people "slighting" actors who have been dead longer than you have been alive. - Don.

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  22. It's difficult to believe that a horror story of epic proportions took place in a nursing home, and converted into a comedy onstage. I think this story is as odd as things can be.

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  23. I've heard of bad hospice services, but this definitely takes the cake!

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  24. I just saw the house this evening. It's spooky

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  25. "Miscast"???? "Mugging"??? Really?? Cary Grant did a SUPERB job in this movie! His timing was flawless, his pratfalls were stellar. He was the best thing about this movie! We are all welcome to our own opinions. Having said that, my opinion is that you need to stay out of the movie critic business.

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  26. I'm reading the devil's room house too bad they didn't turn The Archer House into a Museum

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