Editorial: Keeping ‘Arsenic and Old Lace’ Killer’s Records Secret Is Nuts – Hartford Courant

Federal law allows public access to medical and psychiatric records 50 years after a patient’s death “for historical purposes.” But not Connecticut.

Not even when the patient is as historic a figure as the murderer who inspired the movie and theater classic “Arsenic and Old Lace.”

The state Supreme Court this week denied a researcher’s request for the records of Amy Archer-Gilligan — even though she was suspected of killing dozens at her Windsor nursing home a century ago, she died more than 50 years ago and she has no family left.

Ms. Archer-Gilligan was a patient at the Connecticut General Hospital for the Insane, now the Connecticut Valley Hospital, from 1924 until she died there in 1962. Her records are in the hands of the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.

This burial of information of great public interest is wrong.

Her records may aid in understanding the infamous killer. The records would illuminate how state psychiatric patients were treated in the mid-20th century — exactly the sort of light that government-transparency laws were meant to shed.

Too bad, said the court majority: State law exempts psychiatric records from disclosure.

State mental health officials had argued that disclosing Ms. Archer-Gilligan’s decades-old records “might adversely affect patients’ willingness to provide information regarding their medical history and status.” That is implausible and even ludicrous. No proof was given.

The Supreme Court ruling is, sadly for those interested in Connecticut’s past and government’s inner workings, in line with other recent reversals on pioneering 1970s open-records legislation.

A few years ago, for example, the legislature blocked research into the records of Civil War veterans treated at Connecticut Valley Hospital. The state’s mental health commissioner had argued that “records of this nature are very sensitive.” After a century? Sensitive for whom? Where’s the evidence?

A later bill allowing the release of medical records 50 years after a patient’s death was amended to black out all names, making the files useless to historians. It wasn’t taken up by the House.

Such secrecy only adds to the stigma of mental illness and keeps Connecticut in the dark about its past.

[Original Story]

OUR VIEW: Secrets and old lace – The Bristol Press

Records related to the mental hospital incarceration of a serial killer who inspired the play and 1944 movie “Arsenic and Old Lace” don’t have to be made public, the state Supreme Court ruled in a decision released Monday.

The Associated Press reported that a majority of five justices ruled that documents were exempt from disclosure requirements. The ruling reversed a trial court, which had backed the state Freedom of Information Commission; they said Amy Archer Gilligan’s privacy rights ended with her death in 1962 and invasion of privacy is not an issue.

As AP noted, the Supreme Court justices cited a “broad veil of secrecy created by the psychiatrist-patient privilege” to bar the disclosure under state law.

On the one hand, we’re happy to know that our private matters are protected from prying eyes, at least while we are alive. The court’s majority decided that “each and every one of the documents at issue — whether psychiatric, medical, dental, administrative or otherwise — must be shielded from the public, basing its decision primarily on where the documents were created, with almost no regard for their content,”  Justice Andrew J. McDonald wrote.

On the other hand, we’re concerned that this ruling may be a bar to historical research, even long after the person’s death. Historians have probed into the life and motives of everyone from the Founding Fathers to Adolph Hitler to shed light on the past. Even in this case,  McDonald acknowledged an “enduring and legitimate public interest in the case of a notorious serial killer,”

Exploring that interest is author Ron Robillard, who in 2010 requested records about Gilligan’s years in the psychiatric hospital, where she was confined after poisoning a resident of her nursing home with arsenic. He said  he sought the records because Gilligan’s perspective has not been told to the public.

(Full disclosure: Robillard is a friend of this newspaper and a former editor here.)

We think there ought to be a balance between these two viewpoints — perhaps a designated period of time after the death of the person in question, or of their immediate family until private truths can be disclosed.

But how can we forever shut the door on history?

Old lace and a new case – Meriden Record-Journal

Published: January 25, 2015 | Last Modified: January 25, 2015 01:01AM
Is a person who was convicted of poisoning two people in the 1920s — who then spent the rest of her life in a state-run psychiatric hospital and has no known living relatives — still entitled to have her medical records kept private?

That’s the question now before the Connecticut Supreme Court in the case of Amy Archer-Gilligan, who pleaded guilty to poisoning her husband as well as a client of her Windsor nursing home by putting arsenic in their food. She was also suspected of killing at least three other victims, possibly dozens more, by the same method.

East Hartford author Ron Robillard has filed a freedom of information request with the state Department of Mental Health Services, seeking Archer-Gilligan’s psychiatric and medical records for a book he is writing. Those records could shed light on how this state treated the mentally ill during the 38 years between 1924 and 1962 at what is now Connecticut Valley Hospital in Middletown.

In general, such records are protected by law, including the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), but the Freedom of Information Commission ordered Archer-Gilligan’s records released, arguing that a federal policy also calls for the disclosure of personal records 50 years after the death of a person, and that condition has been satisfied in this case. The FOIC says that the public has a valid interest in these records because she was a public figure.

Which may seem odd to most of us, who don’t recognize her name. What we do recognize, though, is the name of the play, and subsequent Hollywood movie, that are widely believed to be loosely based on her story: “Arsenic and Old Lace.” So one thing the court will have to decide is whether the activities of the elderly Brewster sisters in that play — basically, poisoning the guests at their home for the elderly and burying them in the basement — makes Amy Archer-Gilligan a public figure.

Clearly she was not the Brewster sisters; they are fictional characters invented by playwright Joseph Kesselring in the 1930s. But it is widely believed that Archer-Gilligan provided the model for the play’s characters and plot.

The court may also have to decide whether a person’s right to privacy of medical records extends beyond death. Arguments that it does include the simple point that privacy is privacy, and that’s that.

Assistant Attorney General Jacqueline Hoell argued that the more than 200 pages are privileged psychiatric records and should remain sealed, just as they would be for any other patient in the state.

Hoell argued that disclosing Archer-Gilligan’s records would set a dangerous precedent that might discourage people from seeking psychiatric help, and she cited a difference between “legitimate public concern” and mere curiosity.

Arguments that privacy isn’t necessarily forever include the idea that there’s a historical imperative to sometimes investigate the past in order to make a better future; that taking a hard look at possible past abuses could prevent their recurrence and is therefore a good thing. Valicia Harmon, the commission’s attorney, told the Supreme Court justices that there is still plenty of public interest in Archer-Gilligan and that her medical records would provide a snapshot into the treatment given in the past.

Does public attention make you a public figure? Probably. Should Archer-Gilligan lose her privacy because she was an infamous figure and was sentenced to hang before being committed to a mental hospital, and then had a play written about her? Probably — but we’ll have to await the court’s decision.

Supreme Court Hears ‘Arsenic and Old Lace’ Records Case – CTnow.com


Amy Archer-GilliganPerhaps one of the most unassuming serial killers of all time, she ran the Archer Home for Elderly and Indigent Persons in Windsor from 1907 to 1916. During this time 60 people died at the Archer Home, among them her first and second husbands. (Courant Archives)


5:03 p.m. EST, January 14, 2015

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.

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