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