Amy Archer-Gilligan: Famous Female Serial Killer
Life was difficult for the elderly during the early 1900s. At this time, the younger generations, which often included their children, had begun to move to bigger cities to chase economic opportunity. They would then have their own families in these distant locations. This left senior citizens with no one to help them as their health began to fail. Well, some grandparents in Connecticut thought they had found a solution to their problems.
It started when they received a postcard in the mail. On the front was an attractive two-story brick house with luscious plant life climbing up its sides. It had chairs and tables next to it bathed in sunshine, and the path leading up to it seemed so inviting. On the top right were the following words: "The Archer Private Home for Elderly People. Windsor, Connecticut." Optimistic, they'd then start packing their bags, headed for this seemingly perfect destination.
A while later, they'd feebly walk up that path to 27 Prospect Street and knock on the door. Sister Amy, a small lady in a checkered dress with a white bow at her throat would open it and welcome them in. She'd smile sweetly and tell them she'd been expecting them. The door would shut behind them once they walked inside. As they put their bags down they might have let out a sigh of relief, thinking the worst of their troubles were now over.
Sadly, they'd be wrong. The life insurance policy that they signed over to Sister Amy to become an Archer Home resident bought them much more than a comfy place to live out the rest of their lives. More than friendly caregivers and comforting companions. Much more than hot, home-cooked breakfasts. In the end, none of it was worth it. Of course, there’s no way they could have known this until it was too late.
Things Went Well, At First
For most residents, things would go well at first. They'd spend their time doing things like chatting with the other residents, reading their favorite books, and basking in the sunshine during the warmer months. Over time, some grew particularly close to Sister Amy, the proprietor of the home and a struggling widow with a young child. She would sometimes tell residents about her problems. She had many of them, and despite going to church, all her prayers didn’t seem like enough to help her current situation.
Things became difficult for her upon the death of her husband in 1910, James Archer, who had been her business partner. She tried to mourn him while being confronted with the harsh reality of balancing a budget while owing back taxes. She was also desperate to provide a good life for her daughter. Mary was a student at Windsor’s Campbell School for Girls, which cost $410 in tuition and fees. Then there were her piano lessons for another $50 annually.
As she told residents this, they may have felt pity as they remembered feeling scared and alone. That is until they found Sister Amy and came to live with her at the Archer Private Home.
And Then They Died
Some would give her some money to tie her over, and she'd quickly stop crying. She'd start smiling.
She'd come back later with something delicious to eat or drink. They might believe it was a gesture of thanks. More accurately, it was a type of going-away present.
Soon, their hands would tingle strangely. They'd begin to throw up, not just once, but many times. Then they'd begin convulsing. Eventually, they'd pass out, and once they'd lose consciousness, they'd never wake back up again. Sister Amy had murdered them.
The Real Sister Amy And Her Murder Factory
The Archer Private Home for the Elderly opened in 1907. Not long after, residents began dying. As the years went by, they'd die more and more often. As a result, the two-story brick building that looked so great on postcards became known as a murder factory.
Now, you may be wondering what the evidence was that pointed to murder and not mere coincidence or average death rates among the aging population. Well, while older people are more likely to pass away, those at the Archer Home died at much higher rates when compared to other similar businesses. In fact, the numbers were almost the same as one that had seven times as many residents, meaning it had seven times the death rate per its population.
In less than a decade, 60 people had passed away. Twelve died before 1911 and 48 more from 1911 to 1916. This was quite an eerie coincidence; the last five years were ones that were particularly stressful on Amy’s finances. Could it be that she was murdering residents to collect on their insurance policies and to make room for more residents to receive yet further income? As the body count continued to climb, it seemed likely and then almost certain.
It was beginning to look very suspicious. Among the deceased was a younger 60-year-old man who was capable of doing work around the home and completing various errands. Other than some minor disabilities, Franklin Andrews was in excellent health. The thing about Franklin is that he began to notice how often residents died and included this in letters he wrote to his family.
Then in May of 1914, he collapsed, and two days later was dead of a supposed gastric ulcer. However, before his collapse, he had been up and around doing maintenance on the home without problems. When relatives were collecting his belongings, his sister found evidence of a loan for $500 he had made to Sister Amy. Already suspicious, she became convinced of foul play.
Following The Trail of Arsenic
She went to the state attorney and local newspaper. At this point, the state attorney didn’t do anything. An employee for the paper, on the other hand, did. Carlan Goslee, who worked for the Hartford Courant, often created the announcements in the obituary section. Like Franklin before his death, Carlan was also questioning the frequency with which Archer Home residents were winding up dead. It was highly suspect that Amy’s second husband, Michael Gilligan, had died the prior year as well after only three months of marriage. And, of course, after claiming Amy as his sole beneficiary.
But problems were apparent even before then as far back as 1909 when Sister Amy was in business with her first husband. Both were sued for the questionable care they had provided for one elderly resident. It was more than mere accusation as they ended up paying the family $5000 in damages, worth over $130,000 in modern currency. It’s almost certain that Carlan and other employees at the town paper were also aware of all this. Not to mention, the fact that nearly everyone involved had died from some digestive ailment and with virtually no warning, both which highly suggested poisoning. So, when Andrew’s sister came with her suspicions about his death, Carlan decided enough was enough and took action.
He scanned the poison records of local drugstores and what he found changed everything. Before her second husband had died, Sister Amy had bought large quantities of arsenic at a Windsor drug store. Though she claimed she needed it for rats and bedbugs, at this point few believed her innocence. After all, the amount she purchased wasn’t at all typical for a rodent or bug problem. It was enough to kill more than one hundred adult humans. Upon this discovery, the police had corpses of prior residents unearthed and studied. Franklin, Amy’s latest victim, had so much poison in his system that it could have done away with six men. Scientists also discovered arsenic in more than 24 other bodies.
Believe it or not, it was not an unusual crime for the time, and Sister Amy was far from the only murderer giving her victims arsenic. From the mid-1700s to the early 1900’s it was featured in hundreds of cases in courtrooms. It was the preferred poison among 19th century Britain for many reasons, such as its ability to mimic natural sicknesses as well as being almost tasteless and odorless. It also left the body relatively quickly after being ingested. It was less likely to be detected if given in small amounts over time, instead of in large quantities all at once. In the first case, victims could survive a long while, while in the second they could die within hours.
Not The First and Not The Last
Arsenic was believed to create such a problem of knocking off wealthy relatives, that at one point it was called the inheritor’s powder. Cartoons brought light to the problem through uncomfortable mockery with one depicting a small child ordering over a pound of it for her mother. The man behind the counter then casually asked if her mother needed anything else.
Even Charles Dickens created a sketch of a man purchasing the poison to wipe out his family and those to whom they owed money. Scenarios like these are why legislation was put into place monitoring the sale of poison that required businesses to record the buyer’s information. Similar rules brought down Amy Archer-Gilligan. Before they were passed and implemented, she may have gotten away with it all, and no one could have proven anything.
May 8, 1916, was a day of justice when police finally arrested Amy. In June of the following year, she received a death sentence. However, it turns out that Amy would never hang for her many crimes. After an appeal, she underwent a second trial. She was then sentenced to life in prison before those in charge had her committed to the Connecticut General Hospital for the Insane in Middletown. She most likely was quite out of her mind.
After all, Sister Amy had nine siblings, and at least two were insane as well, one committed before and the other committed after her trial. Sister Amy died at the mental hospital in 1962. On her death, her notoriety never died with her. After all, murder is bad enough but was especially terrible in this case since the targeted victims were elderly, often without anyone else in the world and therefore particularly vulnerable.
Answering For Her Crimes
Her crimes had been ones of opportunity. While nursing and retirement homes are ordinary today, at the beginning of the 1900s, there were all but unheard of. Traditionally, as people got older, they remained with their families who would take care of them and provide for them in their old age. However, with the growth of large cities, younger generations left farms and rural communities by the droves. They also left behind their aging family members. Grandmothers and grandfathers would then struggle to survive and often became the responsibility of their communities.
Amy helped fill a growing void. However, for obvious reasons, she wasn’t the great person many who entered her facility or worshipped beside her in church first thought her to be. Though, it did take time for suspicions to mount. After all, due to the novel nature of her business, there were no regulatory agencies in place to ensure best practices.
Literally no one, except those within the home, truly knew what was going on. Sister Amy was virtually free to do as she pleased with little fear of discovery until Carlan did some investigating. Up until that point, there was no real evidence against her. And, even then, there was still shock and disbelief that she could do these things. After all, a petite religious woman and mother was not what most pictured when they thought of a serial killer who could murder dozens of elderly citizens.
Following Sister Amy’s trial, many were concerned about the welfare of the aging population and with good reason. Connecticut soon mandated inspections and annual reports of deaths by businesses involved in their care. And a playwright known as Joseph Kesselring immortalized the case in a play called Arsenic and Old Lace. Though he made it a dark comedy with two murderous little old people.
This went from a Broadway show to a star-studded movie. Both were highly successful then and, when they run today, remain quite popular. This goes to show how the intrigue surrounding a little homicidal lady, or in the case of Kesselring’s work, ladies, is still intense and likely won’t ever fade.
© 2019 Schatzie Speaks