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]

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