Arsenic and Old Headlines

As a former reporter for The Hartford Courant, I was intrigued to find a Courant story from long ago among episodes of the radio series “The Big Story,” and just had to track down the original criminal investigation. The broadcast drama turned out to be based on a 30-year-old serial killer case from 1916 and, more surprisingly, was at least part of the inspiration for one of the most famous “screwball comedy” movies.

The other serial hazard to the health here is the program’s tobacco company sponsor. Unlike some Big Story episodes in online archives, this one has its Pall Mall commercials intact.
And when a distraught woman arrives in the newsroom, the first thing the reporter does is offer her a cigarette.

Broadcast as “The Case of the Final Curtain” in 1947, the murder story was a piece of Connecticut criminal history, a murder case that ran through two trials and helped inspire the hit play and film “Arsenic and Old Lace.” That very funny movie has little to do with the serious tale you will hear on this radio program. In the film, the nephew of the murderesses (reality only needed one) is a theater critic for a newspaper, but getting the story is not his focus as much as getting his dear aunties into a comfortable asylum.

The Big Story episode, although crammed into a half hour, sticks closer to the facts than the Broadway play did — at least after a melodramatically imagined opening scene about a daughter sending her elderly Shakespearean actor father to the nursing home, with much hamming it up on his way to becoming one of the victims. Perhaps that was a tip of the radio writer’s theatrical hat to the Broadway critic in “Arsenic and Old Lace.”

In the radioplay, the rest home operator took an original approach to “managed care,” especially for clients who unsuspectingly paid for lifetime care in advance. If an old actor was among her original victims, that fact isn’t mentioned in the most recent book about the case.

In any case, there was nothing humorous about the original story — as is clear from its Courant “Murder Factory” May 9, 1916,  front page headline.

(The Courant is part of the Proquest Historical Newspapers project, which makes full-text scanned copies of the newspaper available on a pay-per-view basis or through libraries’ Proquest subscriptions. At the newspaper website you can search the archive and view headlines like the one above for free.)

The original 1916 story filled more than four eight-column pages of the 22-page paper. It profiled the police investigator who had worked on the case for 13 months, at one point saying he “used as the groundwork of his official investigation the material that had been secured by ‘The Courant.'” Elsewhere, the story says that the police investigation actually had started the previous year with a complaint to the state’s attorney, but “received a new impetus” from evidence gathered by The Courant.
The Big Story episode is presented in the name of Aubrey Maddock, at the time an assistant city editor at The Hartford Courant, but later a prominent Hartford businessman. By not giving the date of 1916, the radio series may have left listeners wondering about the competence of both the Connecticut police and medical profession.

As with many “Big Story” episodes, the broadcast drama amplified the role of the “Pall Mall Award” winning reporter. In the radio script, the doggedly persistent Maddock is the only one who gets suspicious about the amount of arsenic it takes to kill the rats at a nursing home, as well as the unorthodox removal of bodies after midnight.

He’s a confident and aggressive interviewer and seems to have had the story all to himself.

Columnist Colin McEnroe revisited the original story for The Courant in 2000 under this headline, A Page From History: We Were There. “Just how much The Courant had to do with driving this case forward is a matter of some confusion,” he concluded.

If I pursue this further, I’ll check the Hartford Times on microfilm and Springfield Republican for their coverage of the story back in 1916, to see whether the region’s other two large papers gave contemporary credit to The Courant. (The New York Times story the next day did make reference to The Courant’s having obtained and printed affidavits on some aspects of the case.)

Update: A year after this JHeroes post, former Courant reporter Rob Robillard looked back at the case, including the roles of an editor and another reporter in the investigation and reporting, particularly their use of public records: Death certificates and a poison-register that druggists were required to keep.

For those interested in pursuing the case, the story was told one more time as The Devil’s Rooming House: the true story of America’s deadliest female serial killer by M. William Phelps, Guilford Press, 2010.

Worldcat Synopsis:

“A silent, simmering killer terrorized New England in 1911. As a terrible heat wave killed more than 2,000 people, another silent killer began her own murderous spree. ‘Sister Amy’ Archer-Gilligan, who’d opened the Archer Home for Elderly People and Chronic Invalids four years earlier, would be accused of murdering both of her husbands and up to sixty-six of her patients with cocktails of lemonade and arsenic; her story inspired the Broadway hit Arsenic and Old Lace.”

About Bob Stepno

mild-mannered reporter who found computers & the Web in grad school in the 1980s (Wesleyan) and '90s (UNC); taught journalism, media studies, Web production; retired to write, make music, photograph sunsets & walks in the woods.
This entry was posted in 1900s, 1940s, movies, newspapers, The Big Story, true stories. Bookmark the permalink.

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