HARTFORD — Nearly a century after she poisoned her husband with arsenic, Amy Archer-Gilligan was at the center of arguments before the state Supreme Court on Wednesday over whether her medical records should be made public.
The state Freedom of Information Commission has ruled that some of Archer-Gilligan’s records from the 38 years she spent in what is now known as Connecticut Valley Hospital should be released. They were requested by an East Hartford man writing a book about Archer-Gilligan, who was the inspiration for the 1939 play, “Arsenic and Old Lace,” and the Frank Capra movie several years later.
Valicia Harmon, the commission’s attorney, argued to the seven Supreme Court justices that there is still plenty of public interest in Gilligan 52 years after her death and that her medical records would provide a snapshot into the treatment given to a historical figure.
Assistant Attorney General Jacqueline Hoell argued that the more than 200 pages are privileged psychiatric records and should remain sealed, just like they would be for any other patient under the state’s care or if she had been in a private facility.
“Legitimate public concern for how someone is treated is not the equivalent to curiosity and that is essentially what we have in this case,” Hoell said.
Archer-Gilligan, who pleaded guilty to poisoning at least one of her husbands as well as a client of her Windsor nursing home by slipping arsenic into their food, died in 1962. Her only child is also dead, leaving no known relatives.
Investigators suspected that she had at least three more victims — and possibly dozens more — who died of arsenic poisoning in the early 1920s.
The justices spent more than an hour listening and questioning the lawyers before a full gallery. Their questions touched on what defines a public figure and why patients in state mental health facilities would have different expectations of privacy than those in private institutions.
They also asked if the state even has the authority to determine whether the records of someone who has been dead for so long and has no heirs should be made public.
“Does the department have standing to waive the privilege of a deceased patient to allow their records to be released?” Justice Andrew McDonald asked.
Hoell argued that releasing Archer-Gilligan’s records would set a precedent that would eventually apply to anyone treated at a state psychiatric facility. Hoell represented the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.
“The department is obligated to protect the records that they are required to protect by law,” Hoell said. “All of her records are covered by psychiatric privilege, and to allow her records to be released would turn that privilege on its head.”
But the FOI commission’s attorney said that Archer-Gilligan’s case is a special one because she was a widely known public figure who has long been dead.
“We are not saying that everyone who goes to CVH will eventually have their records released,” said Harmon. “This was not an ordinary person but an historical figure, and the public has an interest in how the state cared for and treated Mrs. Gilligan.”
Justice Richard Palmer quizzed Harmon about whether Gilligan’s records should be treated differently because she was in a state-run hospital rather than a private facility.
“Why should the distinction as to whether a person is in a public or private hospital make a difference?” Palmer asked. “If it really comes down to treatment a person got, why should it come down to whether they are in a public institution?”
Harmon said that the fact she was in a state-run institution is a key factor.
“Should we ignore the opportunity to take a look, a snapshot into her treatment from 1924-1962, just because it isn’t a private institution?” Harmon said.
Harmon also argued that there was no one to harm by releasing Gilligan’s records. She has long been dead and there are no next of kin or anyone who would be harmed or embarrassed by release of the records.
But Hoell said “the passage of time shouldn’t impact whether records remain confidential” no matter whether the person is famous or not.
Ron Robillard filed the freedom of information request with the Department of Mental Health Services seeking all of Archer-Gilligan’s psychiatric and medical records. He is writing a book about Archer-Gilligan and is trying to find out how the state treated the mentally ill 90 years ago.
The state originally told Robillard that the records had been destroyed but later discovered that someone had kept them in a vault in the commissioner’s office at the hospital.
“It does make you wonder why they kept her records in a vault all this time when they could have been destroyed years ago,” Robillard said.