|“||[W]e had tea together and crackers, and after that [Michael] took these terrible cramps and groaning and he only lasted an hour... he died of double pneumonia.||”|
Little is known of Archer-Gilligan's early years. According to most versions, she was born Amy E. Duggan on October 31, 1873 in Milton, Connecticut. Her parents had ten children, of which she was the eighth. It's been suggested that mental illness run in the family, because one of her brothers was committed to an asylum in 1890, and a sister was paralyzed after she leaped from the family home's roof. Archer-Gilligan claimed to have attended a private school in New Milford and trained as a nurse in Manhattan's Bellevue Hospital, but no record of either was found. For a time, she worked as a bookkeeper.
In 1897, Archer-Gilligan married her first husband, James Archer, and they had a daughter named Mary J. in either December 1897 or in 1899. In 1901, the couple became live-in caretakers for an elderly widower named John Seymour. Seymour lived in Windsor while his sole remaining relatives were in California. After Seymour died in 1904, his heirs rented the house to the Archers and allowed them to turn it into an elderly home named "Sister Amy's Boarding Home for the Elderly". However, Seymour's family decided to sell the house in 1907. Using their own savings, the Archers purchased another house in the same location and established their new business there, the "Archer Home for the Elderly and the Infirm" ("Archer Home for Elderly People and Chronic Invalids", according to other versions). Residents could either pay fees of $7 to $25 per week, or a flat fee of $1000 for being taken care of for the rest of their life. They were also encouraged to make Archer-Gilligan beneficiary of their states so they could manage their finances "more easily" after they passed. She attended church weekly, made generous donations to the Catholic Church, and was generally thought of as a pillar of the local community.
The Archers had their first legal troubles in 1909, when the family of a resident sued them for $5,000, claiming that they kept their relative in unsanitary conditions. Another resident who complained against his living quarters around the same time was removed after Amy signed him for a mental asylum.
Murders, Arrest, and Incarceration
Archer died on February 10, 1910, only a few weeks after Archer-Gilligan took a life insurance policy on him. His death was attributed to Bright's disease, a catch-all term used at the time for several unrelated kidney conditions. However, Archer had never been diagnosed with any while he was alive. Archer-Gilligan continued to manage the retirement home alone for three years when she married Michael W. Gilligan, a widower who had repeatedly shown interest in investing in her business. Three months later, on February 20, 1914, Gilligan died from what was determined to be a severe indigestion. A will written during their brief marriage dictated that all of Gilligan's possessions should go to his wife and none to Gilligan's four adult sons from his previous marriage. This will was revised after Archer-Gilligan's conviction and determined to have been forged by her.
Mortality rates also increased dramatically among the residents of the nursing home after Archer's death. While only twelve people died from 1907 to 1910, forty-eight died between 1911 and 1916. Among the deceased was Franklin R. Andrews, a healthy 61-year-old man who was seen gardening in the home just a few hours before he died. Andrews's death was attributed to a gastric ulcer, but his siblings were suspicious, and moreso after they learned from Andrews's past correspondence that Archer-Gilligan had been pressuring him for money. It was later found that many other nursing home's dead residents had passed away after donating a large sum to Archer-Gilligan. Nellie Pierce, a sister of Andrews, shared her suspicions with the local district attorney, but he ignored her. She then took her story to the newspaper The Hartford Courant, which ran it as a story titled Murder Factory.
The police exhumed the bodies of Archer, Gilligan, and three former tenants, all of which tested positive for either arsenic or strychnine. Drugstore employees confirmed that they sold large quantities of arsenic to Archer-Gilligan or her tenants acting in her name, supposedly to kill rats and bedbugs in the home. At the same time, a female private investigator, Zola Bennett, was hired by the Connecticut State Police to go undercover in the house as a resident, gathering evidence of the living conditions inside and Archer-Gilligan swindling of her residents. Archer-Gilligan was arrested and tried for five murders, but four of the charges were dropped before sentencing. On June 18, 1917, she was found guilty of the remaining charge, Andrews's murder, and sentenced to death. However, Archer-Gilligan appealed and was granted a retrial in 1919, where she pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. She was found guilty again, but this time, she was sentenced to life in prison. In 1924, she was declared temporarily insane and transferred to the Connecticut Hospital for the Insane in Middletown. She remained interned there until her death in 1962, due to natural causes.
Archer Gillian's crimes were the direct inspiration of the Brewster Sisters in the 1939 black comedic play, Arsenic and Old Lace.
Archer-Gilligan always killed for profit. She would purchase life insurance policies on her victims, then convince them to include her in their will, or otherwise fake their wills to name her as beneficiary. Afterwards, she would lace their meals with arsenic or strychnine, and count on their deaths being attributed to old age and illnesses. In many cases, the victims themselves were sent on errands to W.H. Mason's drugstore to buy the poison that would later be used to kill them. She had bodies taken out of the home and buried or embalmed as soon as possible with the excuse of not "upsetting" the other residents. The victims were examined post-mortem by Dr. Howard King, who was Windsor's only medical examiner and was also employed by Archer-Gilligan as the elderly house's resident physician. Archer-Gilligan would also always send flowers and condolescences to the family of the victim, and sometimes pay for the funeral services herself. As her murders increased in frequency, she began to target younger and healthier people, leading to her eventual discovery and arrest.
- February 10, 1910: James Archer, 50 (her first husband)
- 1911: Hilton Griffith, 81
- 1912: Fifteen unnamed people
- 1913: Thirteen unnamed people
- February 20: Michael Gilligan, 58 (her second husband)
- April 9: Charles Smith, 87
- May 29: Franklin R. Andrews, 61
- December 3: Alice Gowdy, 69
- Unspecified dates: Five unnamed people
- 1915: Seven unnamed people
- Maud Lynch, 33
- Five unnamed people
- Note: Some suspect Archer-Gillian to be responsible for more than 60 deaths in total.
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