‘Arsenic and Old Lace’ case prompts FOI fight

A journalist’s research into a sensational murder case nearly a century old has prompted a complex freedom of information case over missing psychiatric records, Marie P. Grady reports at the Connecticut Law Tribune.

The case involved suspected serial killer Amy Archer Gilligan, owner of a Windsor old age home who was accused of poisoning her lodgers. It inspired a hit play, “Arsenic and Old Lace,” and a subsequent movie. Although she was suspected of killing as many as two dozen victims, Gilligan was charged in five murders and, in 1919, pleaded guilty to one. She was sentenced to life in prison, and eventually was committed to what is now Connecticut Valley Hospital, where she died in 1962.

In doing research for a book on Gilligan, veteran journalist Ron Robillard sought records of her treatment at the state mental hospital. Robillard was first told that the records had been destroyed, then that they had been stored in a locked vault by a hospital administrator, and then that they were missing and “assumed” destroyed.

Robillard has asked the state Freedom of Information Commission to rule on whether CVH has conducted an adequate search for the records–a request that the hospital, represented by the attorney general’s office, is opposing. Meanwhile the state librarian, who is responsible for enforcing the laws regarding public records, has asked the attorney general’s office whether he should pursue what happened to the records.

Robillard told Grady the information he is seeking could shed light on one of the hospital’s most famous patients, and the care of others. Even if he doesn’t get the files, he said he hopes that the case brings attention to a flaw in public record-keeping.

“What we have now is what might charitably be called a record that is MIA,” he said.