“Arsenic & Old Lace” To Be Windsor, Connecticut Tourism Focal Point
Posted on April 14, 2013
By:Jacqueline Bennett newsandviewsjb
(2013 update-the committee has decided to hold off on the Arsenic & Old Lace project)
The acclaimed Broadway play “Arsenic & Old Lace,” a dark comedy later made into a movie starring Gary Grant, will be the focal point of a tourism initiative in Windsor, Connecticut. May of 2014 marks the one hundredth anniversary of the death that led to an investigation which revealed Amy Archer-Gilligan, the proprietor of a home for the aged located in Windsor during the early 20th Century, to be a serial killer. She was alledged to have poisoned an estimated sixty victims including two of her husbands, as well as, boarders at the home.
“Most people do not realize that this is a true story that happened right here in Windsor,” Jane Garibay, Executive Director of the Windsor Chamber of Commerce, said during an initial brainstorming session held April 10 at the chamber office in historic Windsor Center.
The brick house then called “The Archer Home for the Elderly and Infirm” where most of the murders occurred still stands just walking distance from the center and it has residents.
“Do the people who live there know about the spirits (that occupy the space) ?” Garibay wondered.
Marty McMahon, Chairman of the Windsor Chamber of Commerce Tourism Committee, noted the idea of commemorating the place in the history of Connecticut’s first town that “Arsenic & Old Lace” holds has been mulled over for quite awhile. It was pointed out that Salem, Massachusetts has managed to create a tourism element out of the Salem Witch Trials allowing visitors to become educated about the trials and that era in American history. However said McMahon, WCC members have to tread cautiously forward with the “Arsenic & Old Lace” concept wanting to balance sensitivity to the fact that people died at this woman’s hand with the theatrical notoriety of the killings.
“This is a very,very dark comedy,” said Christine Ermenc, Executive Director of the Windsor Historical Society.
With that in mind the WCC wants to create a small, temporary memorial to the victims that would likely be displayed on the Town Green – which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places – during a weekend dedicated to marking the upcoming anniversary in May or June of 2014. In addition, the hope is to dovetail refurbishment of the old Plaza Theater in downtown Windsor with the event such that the Windsor Jesters, Connecticut’s oldest continuously performing community theatre group, might stage the play there. Another possibility is to have characters dressed in period costumes moving about town and possibly tap Wesleyan University’s School of Film Studies to offer a talk in Windsor about dark comedies.
“If we publicize this well I think we will attract people from all over New England,” Garibay said.
“Theater buffs, movie buffs, literary thriller buffs,” agreed McMahon.
“Perhaps we could hold an Elderberry Wine making contest,” suggested chamber member Paula Pierce.
Archer-Gilligan’s so-called “weapon of choice” was Elderberry Wine tainted with arsenic. According to various published accounts of the murders – such as a detailed true crime piece written in 2010 for the New York Daily News (www.nydailynews.com) – born in 1873, it is believed that Archer-Gilligan poisoned her first and second husbands. Reportedly, it was in 1907 that she and her first husband, James Archer, bought the Windsor residence and opened it as a home for the aged. In 1910 he died of Bright’s disease described as kidney failure brought on by an unknown reason. Three years later, Archer-Gilligan remarried, this time to Michael Gilligan who died only three months after their wedding of a “bilious attack” of acute indigestion.
Subsequently, boarders passed away.
“How soon depended on their payment plan. Those who paid monthly lived longer but those who paid (for their stay) in full did not,” said Windsor Town Councilman Randy McKenney.
It was the death on May 29, 1914 of boarder Franklin R. Andrews that proved to be the turning point.
The NY Daily News story reports that he was seen working on the lawn outside the Archer house on the morning of May 29th but by the following evening he was dead. His sister brought her suspicions to a district attorney. In the face of what was said to be an unsatisfactory response she then approached the Hartford Courant. An investigation by the newspaper led to a “probe” by law enforcement that resulted in the bodies of Andrews and four other victims being exhumed, according to the NY Daily News. In June of 1917 the paper reported, Archer-Gilligan was brought to trial and four weeks later found guilty and sentenced to the “gallows” but upon appeal was granted another trial at which the insanity defense and input from her daughter garnered Archer-Gilligan life in prison. Later, she was transferred to a mental hospital in Middletown where she remained until her death in 1962 at the age of 89.
“But she was actually very popular in Windsor. The people in town liked her, they knew her as a mother trying, on her own, to support her daughter,” said Garibay, adding that would be another interesting historical aspect.
Playwright Joseph Kesselring met with critical and audience success on Broadway in the 1940s, changing the actual crime story into a tale about two elderly women who knock off their boarders using Elderberry Wine. In the film version, Cary Grant starred as the women’s nephew.
The “Arsenic & Old Lace” Tourism Sub-Committee is looking for ideas and participants. The next meeting is scheduled for 5:00 p.m. on May 8 at the Windsor Chamber of Commerce, 26 Broad Street, 860-688-5165.