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]

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.

Release Records Of Famous Killer – Hartford Courant

State has no business hiding records of real-life “Arsenic and Old Lace” murderer

Amy Archer Gilligan may have murdered dozens a century ago. What’s with the secrecy?

It’s absurd for the state to hide the medical records of Amy Archer Gilligan, one of Connecticut’s most notorious murderers.

Those killings happened a century ago. She has no family left. Who or what is the state protecting at this point?

Dozens of mysterious deaths at her Home for the Elderly and Infirm, starting in 1907, inspired the play “Arsenic and Old Lace” and a 1944 Frank Capra movie of the same name. Still, state officials are fighting tooth and nail on spurious privacy grounds to keep secret the records of her 38-year stay — until her death in 1962 — at Connecticut Valley Hospital, a state-run psychiatric facility.

This isn’t the first time the state has insisted on hiding historic information of public interest. It’s also blocking a Connecticut historian from seeing the records of certain shell-shocked Civil War soldiers. A bill last year that would allow the release of medical records 50 years after a patient’s death was amended to black out all names, making the files useless.

The federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act now allows access to medical records (with no blacking out) 50 years after a patient’s death. Why can’t Connecticut? The new HIPPA rule balances privacy interests with “the need for archivists, biographers, historians and others to access old or ancient records on deceased individuals for historical purposes,” according to HHS.gov.

Ms. Archer Gilligan was found guilty of poisoning her husband and a guest at her Windsor nursing home. But she was suspected of killing dozens more victims in what The Courant described upon her arrest in 1916 as her “murder factory.” She’s a figure of morbid public fascination to this day.

East Hartford author Ron Robillard wants to know how the state treated her at what is now CVH. He filed a freedom of information request seeking medical and dental records. The FOI Commission ordered the records released.

But a trial court agreed with the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services that the records be kept confidential. The case is now before the state Supreme Court, which heard arguments on Jan. 14.

DMHAS argued that disclosing records would set a dangerous precedent that might discourage people from seeking psychiatric help. Such secrecy, in fact, only adds to the stigma of mental illness and impedes greater understanding.