Windsor, Connecticut owns the legacy of America’s deadliest female serial killer, Amy Archer. Between 1908 and 1916, Archer, murdered at least 22 people. True Crime author, M. William Phelps chronicles Archer’s life and crimes in The Devil’s Rooming House: The True Story of America’s Deadliest Female Serial Killer.
Amy and James Archer opened the Archer Home for Elderly People and Chronic Invalids in 1907. Pioneers in the Connecticut home healthcare field, they offered “Life care for $1,000,” or weekly rates between $7 and $25 for food, shelter and medical care. Then, patients in asylums, institutions and similar facilities were often referred to as “inmates.”
Archer walked the town as a Bible-carrying Christian reinforcing the community’s admiration for her caretaker calling. Townspeople called her “Sister Amy.” Truth was, Archer had no interest in religion and, as time would tell, had no formal training as a nurse. Inmates at the Archer Home were dying at unprecedented rates. Archer’s husband James expired mysteriously in February 1910. Most of Archer’s victims succumbed to a deadly elixir of freshly squeezed lemons, warm water, a touch of sugar to liberate the bitterness-and arsenic. Archer killed residents to create faster bed turnover to increase revenues and help her chronic debt challenges. Bodies were removed in the night and swiftly embalmed to prevent investigation.
Michael Gilligan, a respected townsman and twenty years senior to Archer, became smitten with her; and they soon married. He too died an untimely death; allowing Amy to quickly file a claim in Probate Court for his assets.
Carlan Hollister Goslee, was a twenty-two-year-old freelance reporter for the local newspaper.A friend of the Archer’s, he was the first to suspect Amy’s crimes. Clifton Sherman, editor of the paper knew Goslee’s story was big. He displayed utmost professionalism, refraining from printing the expose’ until undeniable evidence was discovered, which took years.
May 8 1916 brought Archer’s arrest at her home. By now, “Sister Amy” had become the “Witch of Windsor.” Her trial began in June 1917; and Archer did not take the stand. The all-male jury (women didn’t begin serving jury duty until later that year) convicted her of first-degree murder. She was sentenced to hang at a Connecticut state prison; only to have her fate commuted by the Governor. A second trial found Archer using the insanity plea. Another twist not present in the original proceedings allowed Archer lifelong institutionalization vs. execution.
Phelps not only details Archer’s story, but concurrent events that shaped New England’s history. The region experienced a record-breaking heat wave the first two weeks of July 1911. To avoid pain, residents slept outside on their mattresses, businesses closed and people drowned. An estimated 2,000 deaths were attributed to the crisis. Reading Phelps’s account of the heat wave makes you appreciate today’s ubiquitous air conditioning; which wasn’t commonplace in the US until after World War II. Imagine too the extra discomfort Archer’s inmates must have experienced in addition to subpar care.
Sixteen pages of black and white photos complement Phelps’s narrative. They depict key characters, including Archer, the general store where the arsenic was purchased and Archer’s would-be hanging room.
In 1941, playwright Joseph Kesselring debuted Arsenic and Old Lace on Broadway; which was based on Archer’s story. His literary genius created a comedic account of an historical tragedy. Reading Phelps’s conclusion where he chronicles the 66 “reported” Archer Home deaths; you realize Archer’s actions were no laughing matter. It’s a powerful visual to see her murderous trail on paper.
In March 1962, Archer died at a Connecticut state institution where she’d lived for almost 40 years. Interestingly, the local newspaper ran her obituary on page 6, almost as an afterthought.
Phelps has written several books about serial killers and 8 books covering female murderers. He admits, through time, some details of the Archer case were lost. Still, his nearly six-years of thorough research rewards you with a captivating account of America’s deadliest female serial killer.