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Arsenic And Old Lace -- Why Did Mortimer Think Putting Teddy Away Solved Everything?

Updated on April 22, 2013
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I had another of these epiphany’s after watching Arsenic and Old Lace one time too many. I started wondering why Mortimer wanted to have his brother Teddy committed to Happydale Sanitarium. Exactly how did that solve the problem of his aunts poisoning old men and burying them in the cellar?

Mortimer is probably the only sane Brewster as the Brewster clan fell off the Crazy Tree. He believes his aunts, Abby and Martha, are riding the Sanity Train with him. That is, until he married next door neighbor, Elaine, and comes home to tell his two beloved aunts about it. He’s looking around for note for his latest book when he opens the window seat and finds a dead body. To his horror, his aunts tell him they consider it a charity of theirs to go around poisoning old men with elderberry wine when they come in answer to their advertisement for a room for rent. Then they have Mortimer’s brother, Teddy, bury the body in the cellar. This latest victim makes number twelve.

From then on, Mortimer tries to go about having his brother committed to Happydale Sanitarium. It seems he hopes if all the dead bodies are discovered in the cellar, he can pin the blame for everything on Teddy. Just how does this stop his aunts from killing more old men?

Teddy is probably the most harmless of the crazy Brewster clan. He goes around believing he’s President Teddy Roosevelt. The only bad thing Teddy does is blow his bugle, which has the neighbors complaining to the police about it. Aside from that he’s completely harmless. His aunts have taken advantage of his illness to get him to bury their bodies for them by telling Teddy their Yellow Fever victims and the cellar is Panama and each lock he digs is actually a grave.

Teddy and Mortimer grew-up with a psychopathic brother named Jonathan. After hearing what Jonathan did to Mortimer when they were growing up: tying him to the bed post and torturing him; you have to wonder what Jonathan did to Teddy. Did Jonathan also torture Teddy or did Teddy just feel helpless watching Jonathan torturing his little brother and being too afraid to do anything to try and stop him? You can understand why Teddy would want to be someone else and he picked someone who was the most powerful man in the country: Teddy Roosevelt. It was how he coped with things.

I think it was Aunt Martha who said they tried to get Teddy to be George Washington for a change and he hid under his bed for days and wouldn’t be anyone. You hide under the bed when you’re scared. Is that what Teddy did while Jonathan tortured Mortimer? By trying to get Teddy to pretend to be someone else, his coping mechanism of being the powerful Teddy Roosevelt who was president and who was brave was threatened and he became Teddy Brewster again, scared and hiding under the bed.

A lot of the Brewster’s insanity may have come from being victimized by one crazy member. Jonathan mentions Martha having scars from her father [his grandfather] using acid on her. Like Teddy, there’s no real mention of what the father might have done to Abby, or if she just sat helplessly by unable to help her sister. And Jonathan seems to be the psycho of his generation. There seems to be on true psycho Brewster every generation who victimizes the other members of the family and it causes the other Brewster’s minds to snap. Even Mortimer doesn’t seem to have escaped his childhood totally unscathed as he has some very negative views on marriage, which may have been derived from seeing his own parents’ marriage.

Anyway, just why does Mortimer think putting Teddy away is going to stop his aunts from killing more old men? He tried to explain to them that what they were doing was wrong and against the law, but they just didn’t get it. They even told Jonathan he couldn’t bury his body in their cellar because they needed the room, pretty much declaring they intended to continue to go on killing old men. Teddy or no Teddy that wasn’t going to stop them from killing more old men. Did Mortimer plan to live with them and keep an eye on them 24/7 to make sure they didn’t keep doing what they were doing? Otherwise by having Teddy put away he was just creating a convenient scapegoat in case the bodies in the cellar were found. By putting Teddy away he was protecting his aunts from going to prison if all the bodies in the cellar were discovered, but he wasn’t doing anything to insure more bodies wouldn’t join the ones already there.

Mortimer got incredibly lucky that the aunts wanted to go with Teddy when Mr. Witherspoon came to collect him to take him to Happydale. That put an end to their charity work of poisoning old men. Otherwise, they would have just kept on doing it.

Mortimer also got lucky in discovering he wasn’t a blood-related Brewster. His mother became cook for the Brewster’s when she was already pregnant with Mortimer and Jonathan and Teddy’s father decided to marry her. With that news he felt he would be going for a ride on the Crazy Train with the rest of the blood Brewsters. However, like I said, he hasn’t escaped growing-up a Brewster, unscathed.

Mortimer was ready to let a lot of killers get away with their crimes in the name of protecting his aunts. He had Teddy put away so if what they were doing was discovered it could be blamed on Teddy. He was willing to let Jonathan get away with murder and not turn him into the cops, so long as he went away and didn’t threaten his plan to protect his aunts. To help his aunts commit themselves to Happydale, he allowed Dr. Einstein, Jonathan’s accomplice in all his crimes, to get away scot-free as long as he helped sign the commitment papers. When Elaine discovered the bodies, he managed to keep her quiet and to stop her from revealing it to the police. I’m sure once he had Elaine alone he would have convinced her that since his aunts had committed themselves there was no reason for anyone to ever know about the cemetery they had down in their cellar. That’s not exactly sane behavior.

The sane thing would have been to use what his aunts were doing to have them declared mentally incompetent and to have them put away in Happydale. That would have stopped anymore men from being killed by them. Mortimer’s way would have protected his aunts, but as soon as he went off to start a new life with Elaine, they would have continued to kill more old men. They didn’t think they were doing anything wrong. They thought they were doing a good service by poisoning lonely old men and putting them out of their misery. Mortimer was also insuring more people would be killed by offering to let Jonathan go and escape the police. That’s not exactly what you’d call sane behavior.

In short, Mortimer was his own kind of crazy, Brewster or no Brewster. His type was a little less crazier than the rest of his family. He was like his aunts: he appeared sane but his thinking was as warped as his aunts were. They thought they were doing something wonderful for these old men by killing them and Mortimer didn’t think about stopping his aunts from their hobby and was just concerned about protecting them from discovery.

As I said, Teddy was harmless. Putting Teddy away would give Mortimer a convenient fall guy if the bodies in the cellar were found. He’d use him so his aunts wouldn’t be discovered to be a pair of serial killers or have to pay for their crimes. But it would have done nothing to stop more old men from being lured into their lair, poisoned and buried in the cellar.


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