Amy Archer-Gilligan: Hidden Evil and Deadly Secrets Come Out

My last blog featured Carl Roland, who tried to escape arrest by sitting on a construction crane for three days. This week’s case is that of Amy Archer-Gilligan. For a decade in the early twentieth century, she poisoned at least five people and possibly many more.

Amy Archer-Gilligan

Born Amy E. Dugan in 1873, Amy Archer-Gilligan married twice. She and her first husband ran Sister Amy’s Nursing Home for the Elderly in Newington, Connecticut, as employees of the home’s owners. In 1907, the owners decided to sell the house. Amy and her first husband, James Archer, moved to Windsor, Connecticut. There they bought a house and opened the Archer Home for the Elderly and Infirm.

James Archer died in 1910 of kidney disease. Amy had taken out a life insurance policy on James a few weeks before his death. The proceeds from that policy allowed her to continue operating Archer Home.

Amy Archer-Gilligan
Amy Archer-Gilligan

Three years later, Amy married Michael W. Gilligan, a man of some wealth. Gilligan died only three months after he married Amy. During their short marriage, he had drawn up a new will leaving his entire estate to his new wife. (The document later turned out to be a forgery, written in Amy’s handwriting).

Amy Archer-Gilligan’s Murder Spree

Between the opening of Archer House in 1907 and 1917, 60 residents died there. While only 12 deaths occurred between 1907 and 1910, from 1910 to 1917, there were a staggering 48 deaths. One of those who died was Franklin R. Andrews. Andrews was apparently in good health, but he sickened and died after gardening at Archer Home on May 19, 1914. The coroner ruled his death was from a gastric ulcer.

The house in Windsor, Connecticut, where Amy Archer-Gilligan operated Archer Home for the Elderly and Infirm (Windsor Historical Society)
The house in Windsor, Connecticut, where Amy Archer-Gilligan operated Archer Home for the Elderly and Infirm (Windsor Historical Society)

Andrews had a sister, Nellie Pierce, who didn’t believe her brother died from natural causes. Andrews indicated to her that Amy had been pressuring him for money. It turned out that several other residents of Archer House died after they gave Amy Archer-Gilligan a large sum of money.

When the local district attorney failed to show much interest, Nellie Pierce wrote to the Hartford Courant. The first of a series of articles on the Murder Factory” appeared on May 9, 1916. It took a few more months, but the police finally began investigating the case.

The Hartford Courant edition of May 8, 1916 (Hartford Courant)
The Hartford Courant edition of May 8, 1916 (Hartford Courant)

Authorities exhumed the bodies of Michael Gilligan, Franklin Andrews, and three other boarders. All five died from either arsenic or strychnine poisoning.

Amy Archer-Gilligan Tried and Convicted Twice

Amy Archer-Gilligan initially faced five charges of murder. Her lawyers managed to a single count, the murder of Franklin Andrews. On June 18, 1917, the jury found her guilty, and the judge sentenced her to death.

Granted a new trial on appeal in 1919, Amy entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. The insanity defense failed, as it usually does, and she saw a jury convict her of murder again. This time, though, her sentence was life imprisonment.


In 1924, Amy Archer-Gilligan was declared temporarily insane and transferred to the Connecticut Hospital for the Insane at Middletown. She remained there until she died on April 23, 1962, at age 88.

The Archer-Gilligan case is credited with inspiring the play Arsenic and Old Lace (the 1944 film version starred Cary Grant).

You can read about Amy Archer-Gilligan in The Devil’s Rooming House by M. William Phelps.

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