‘Arsenic and Old Lace’: The Real Murders Behind the Halloween Classic Film


“Insanity runs in my family; it practically gallops.” That’s what Cary Grant famously declares in the 1944 movie Arsenic and Old Lace, based on the hit Broadway play. The macabre comedy, set on Halloween, followed the discovery by Grant’s character that his aunts had secretly been murdering renters at their boarding house. It’s a pretty grim subject for a comedy, especially considering that it was inspired by real events.

While working on Arsenic and Old Lace, playwright Joseph Kesselring traveled to Connecticut to examine court documents relating to Amy Archer-Gilligan, a convicted murderer who had run a boarding house for the elderly. Sixty-six people died at that house between 1908 and 1916. When investigators exhumed five of the bodies—including her second husband’s—autopsies revealed they had been poisoned with arsenic or strychnine.


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