True Crime: The Devil’s Rooming House, by M. William Phelps

4.0 out of 5 stars Black widow

America’s deadliest female serial killer performed her deeds a century ago. As with most of such murderers, Amy Archer Gilligan, proprietor of a home for the aged in Windsor, CT, projected a benign image of generosity and good citizenship. And, as with many woman who kill, she used poison as her weapon of choice. Gilligan was formally accused of  five murders, but tried and convicted for only one. In all likelihood, she was responsible for more than forty deaths in her nursing home.

M. William Phelps, whose forte lies in his outstanding investigative and research skills, has unearthed all of the evidence that is currently available, and for the first time, presented it in book form. As Gilligan’s story formed the nucleus of the ever popular “Arsenic and Old Lace”, it’s more than surprising that it hasn’t been done before now. Phelps sets the stage for the real life drama by recording details of life in turn of the century Connecticut, and shines a spotlight not merely on Amy but also on the individuals – reporters, attorneys, physicians, druggists – who, over the course of five or so years, slowly discovered the truth underlying  vague but persistent rumors that something was not quite right at the Archer Home for Elderly People and Chronic Invalids.

Investigative journalism and forensic studies have been around for much longer than the television programs that now celebrate them. In his concluding chapters, Phelps also discusses the ethics of creating comedy and humor from the tragedies of others. This is a fascinating account well worth reading.

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