The Devil’s Rooming House

The True Story of America’s Deadliest Female Serial Killer, M. William Phelps, Lyons Press.

Amy Archer is distinctive among serial killers in that her murder spree can be attributed, at least in part, to a failed business plan. When Amy and her husband James moved to Windsor, Connecticut, and opened the Archer Home for Elderly People and Chronic Invalids in 1907, it was one of the first private nursing homes in New England. Not surprisingly, Sister Amy — a seemingly God-fearing, bible-toting, caretaker of the aged — was initially embraced by the community. But after the undertaker started showing up at the Archer Home a little too frequently, locals began looking upon her with suspicion.

As veteran true crime writer M. William Phelps relates in the “The Devil’s Rooming House,” there was a fatal flaw, so to speak, in the Archer Homes business model. The couple charged residents — or inmates, as they were referred to at the time — $1,000 for life[time] care, a healthy per-bed fee, assuming that inmates passed on after a relatively short stay. But after the business began experiencing financial problems, Sister Amy ramped up the rate of turnover by poisoning inmates — though not before pressuring her victims to sign over their assets, and hastening them to the drugstore to buy the arsenic that would send them to their graves. Perhaps intoxicated by the killings — accomplished by spiking lemonade with the poison — Amy went on to off James and a second husband, Michael Gilligan, largely for financial considerations.

Phelps does a fine job relating Sister Amy’s story, examining her methods, her motives and the role of in-house physician, Dr. Howard Frost King, who looked the other way as bodies piled up at a rate of approximately one per month over a period of six years. Equally compelling is Phelps’ treatment of the hero of the story, a twenty-something freelance newspaper reporter, Carlan Hollister Goslee, who investigated in earnest on behalf of the Hartford Courant after discovering that the Archer Home was purchasing enormous quantities of arsenic from the local drug store. But the author’s clumsy effort to paint a portrait of early twentieth-century New England — by relating the impact of a heat wave, for instance — only serves to distract from the main story line.

In the end, of course, Phelps reveals how Sister Amy was brought to trial on (just) five counts of first-degree murder, her deeds exposed by Goslee, private investigator Zola Bennett (who went undercover in the house, which the Courant later referred to as a Murder Factory), and the presence of arsenic in the organs of exhumed bodies. Sentenced to hang by a jury of her peers, the convicted murderess was granted a second trial after the Supreme Court of Errors found that the prosecutor had terribly disobeyed the judges ruling not to include details of [a particular victim’s] death in the States case. Ultimately, Archer pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to life at Wethersfield state prison, though she spent all but the first five years in an insane asylum, finally passing away in 1962.

Some good did come out of the case, however, as Amy Archer-Gilligan singlehandedly inspired the Connecticut legislature to work on passing a bill to regulate invalid homes, imperative legislation considering the subsequent growth of the nursing home industry. And as the author notes in the final chapter, it’s ironic that at the time of Amy’s death, her only child, Mary Archer, was living as a patient in a convalescent home.