Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

ANGELS OF DEATH: THE FEMALE NURSES

Benign Exploitation

Several nurses have viewed the field of patient care as a way to con people out of their money and enrich themselves.  One of the most clever was Amy Archer-Gilligan. 

Map of Connecticut with Newington marked
Map of Connecticut with Newington marked

Although she had no qualifications, Archer-Gilligan billed herself as a nurse in 1901 and opened a nursing home for the elderly in Newington, Connecticut.  Her devoted patients called her Sister Amy.  Six years later, she moved to Windsor, ten miles away, and opened another elderly care facility, the Archer Home for the Elderly and Infirm.  It was here that she came up with a scheme.

Sister Amy persuaded some of her patients to pay an insurance premium of $1000, for which she promised them lifetime care, no matter how long they lived.  It seemed too good to be true, and it was.  Many of her patients turned over the money, and once she had it in her possession, she made sure they took up no more of her resources.  Smothering or poisoning them, she explained their deaths to the local physician who signed the death certificates as old age.

Dr. Howard King apparently saw no reason to be suspicious, despite the rising death toll at Sister Amy's 14-bed facility, and he continued to sign off on each fatality.  Between 1911 and 1916, there were 48 deaths, and in fact, both of Sister Amy's successive spouses had died, too, one of them within a year of marrying her.

By 1914, authorities started to get suspicious.  An undercover officer signed himself into Sister Amy's nursing home.  He listened to her spiel and collected evidence of fraud and foul play, and then took his findings to his colleagues.  They exhumed the bodies of Amy's second husband and some of her former patients.  Finding high doses of arsenic in the body tissues, they charged Amy Archer-Gilligan with six counts of murder.  Consulting with physicians, they discovered that an average death toll in such a small place would be eight to ten, not forty-eight.  How could Dr. King not have noticed?

Oddly, he sided with the killer, claiming that the poison had been planted in those bodies to frame her. 

Nevertheless, Archer-Gilligan stood trial, and her defense amounted to this: She was a good Christian, which prohibited her from doing such things.  Although she was only convicted of the most recent murder, she was given a life sentence.  She ended up serving it in an institution for the insane.

Another nurse, Anna Marie Hahn, had a similar idea, but she pursued it more like a grifter.  She came to America from Germany in 1929 and settled in Cincinnati, Ohio.  There she began to administer health care to several elderly men, ingratiating herself into their wills.  Most of them were wealthy, and she was soon showing off their "gifts" of appreciation.  By the mid-1930s, she had acquired one estate and was taking what she could from the homes of two other patients who had died.  Since the final hours of these men had not been easy, word came to the police that there was something suspicious going on.  The latest victim was exhumed.

It turned out that the "nurse" had used arsenic and a strong purgative to dispatch her charges.  A search of Hahn's home revealed a cabinet full of poisons, which led to the exhumation of her other patients.

At her trial, Hahn's own husband turned on her, telling the court that she had tried to persuade him to insure his life for a large amount of money.  He refused and then suffered from severe stomach cramps soon thereafter.

While Hahn admitted to swindling and theft, she claimed to be innocent of the three murders.  Yet the jury convicted her and she had the honor of being Ohio's first female executed in the electric chair.

Killing for money is a mundane motive, but it makes more sense than those nurses who promise to nurture and heal, and then kill for excitement.

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