History’s Most Terrifying Female Serial Killers, Part III: Jane Toppan

Today’s entry falls roughly in the same time frame as the previous two. The turn of the century seemed to be something of a hotbed for killers. Or perhaps information about our recent past is just more readily available, meaning we’re simply more aware of events the likes of which had been occurring since the dawn of time. It was certainly easier to evade detection for long stretches before modern technology made a number of these stories impossible to reproduce today. In 2018 if someone disappears from social media for more than 48 hours people start to wonder. Information traveled much slower in the 1800’s, making it frightfully easy to disappear without anyone realizing for months.

This week’s killer is a tough pill to swallow. A successful, and for a time beloved nurse who took a chilling turn to sadism with the unfortunate patients in her care. You may want to have a bed pan handy, you’re about to meet “Jolly Jane” Toppan, the woman who makes Nurse Ratched look like Patch Adams.

Jolly Jane Jail Pic 1
“Jolly Jane” Toppan. Source

Not unlike other killers of her ilk, Toppan’s tumultuous childhood seemed to lay the groundwork for her future turn to violence. Born Honora Kelley around 1857, she was the youngest of four girls. A family of poor, Irish immigrants, life was not easy for the Kelleys. While she was still very young, Honora lost her mother to a bout of tuberculosis.

Her father, Peter Kelley, was an abusive alcoholic who struggled with his waning sanity. Those around him knew him by his less than flattering nickname “Kelley the Crack;” as in “crackpot.” Living up to this moniker, Peter is said to have once sewed his own eyelids shut while working as a tailor.

In 1863, he brought Honora and her older sister Delia to the Boston Female Asylum and skipped town. This particular asylum placed orphaned or abandoned girls with well-to-do families looking to adopt. Honora ended up an indentured servant to the wealthy Toppan family of Lowell, Massachusetts.

She took the name Jane Toppan after some time living with the family. This new name meant a second chance for her, an opportunity to craft a new identity from scratch. Jane reportedly did very well in school and had many friends. When she turned 18, she was released from her indenture.

In 1885, around twenty years after her adoption, Jane began studying to become a nurse at Cambridge Hospital. Here, her gracious demeanor and outgoing personality earned her the nickname “Jolly Jane.” By all appearances she was flourishing, but lying in wait just underneath her sparkling facade was Honora, daughter of “Kelley the Crack.”

It is during her residency at Cambridge that Jane began performing twisted experiments on several of her patients. She seemed fascinated with death; during her training colleagues noted her apparent obsession with autopsies. This fascination drove Jane’s experiments on her patients.

She would first administer a dangerously high dose of sedative, completely immobilizing her chosen guinea pig. Once rendered helpless, she would often lay with the person and hold them. Jane is one of the few female killers motivated, at least in part, by sexual thrill. Her victims were conscious through long stretches of this experience but unable to move a muscle.

She would alternate drugs, bringing them close to death with a meticulously measured overdose, and then pull them back from the brink with something to revive them. She would repeat this process over and over, employing her medical expertise to keep her victims teetering between life and death.

An article about Jane published in a 1902 issue of the Indianapolis Journal describes this brutal tug-of-war:

“She said that the paroxysms of desire were intermittent and there were times when patients were quietly dying that her better nature would become uppermost and she would try to check approaching death. She might nurse the patient ever so carefully and seek to effect a cure. Then would come a craving to administer poison, and this amounted to the strongest uncontrollable impulse, which only physical restraint would stop, and then would render her patient unconscious. In the presence of death she would gleefully fondle the patient, stare into the eyes as if it were to see the inner workings of the soul, do all possible to intensify the agony of the patients, and then when the end came she would become herself again.”

Jane was very good at what she did. She preyed on the weak and the elderly of her hospital’s population, those whose deaths wouldn’t come as a shock. No foul play was suspected of any of the deaths at Cambridge Hospital.

After a brief stint at Massachusetts General Hospital, where the killings continued unchecked, Jane took to private nursing. Doctors recommended her to their wealthy clients for home care. She was a great success, despite the unusually high mortality rate of her patients, and traveled from one rich household to another.

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Massachusetts General Hospital. Source

Around this time, Jane lured her foster sister Elizabeth to come visit her after she had complained about feelings of depression. Jane made an attempt at alleviating Elizabeth’s ills with a picnic at the beach, but ended up poisoning her with strychnine.

In 1901, Jane set her sights on the elderly Alden Davis and his family. She created a vacancy in the house when she murdered the man’s wife, and promptly moved in to care for him in his time of loss. After only a short time in the Davis home, Jane claimed the lives of Alden and two of his daughters.

She left what remained of the Davis family and spent some time back in her home town to seemingly take a stab at relative normalcy. She sought the affections of her late foster sister Elizabeth’s widower, Oramel Brigham after inserting herself into his home. Although he made it clear he was not interested, Jane made several attempts to win him over. Most notably poisoning him just enough to be able to nurse him back to health. He was less than charmed and she was ordered out of the house.

While Jane had been busy making ham-fisted attempts at expressing love, one of Alden Davis’s surviving family members ordered a toxicology report on his body. When it was discovered he had been poisoned a police detail was assigned to Jane. After a brief investigation she was arrested for murder on October 26.

By 1902, she had confessed to 31 murders. When her sanity was called into question during her trial she replied:

“How can I be insane? When I killed those people I knew that I was doing wrong. I was perfectly conscious that I was not doing right. I never at any time failed to realize what I was doing. Insanity is complete lack of mental responsibility, isn’t it?”

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Source

Despite her claims to the contrary, Jane was found not guilty by reason of insanity. She was committed for life to the Taunton Insane Asylum. There she took her turn as a patient until her death on August 17, 1938.

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Source

Sources:

http://murderpedia.org/female.T/t/toppan-jane.htm

Indianapolis Journal, Volume 52, Number 176, Indianapolis, Marion County, 25 June 1902

http://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/jolly-jane-toppan-killer-nurse-obsessed-death/

http://www.the13thfloor.tv/2017/01/27/the-twisted-but-true-tale-of-serial-killer-nurse-jolly-jane-toppan/

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History’s Most Terrifying Female Serial Killers, Part I: Lavinia Fisher

Recorded history has an unfortunate tendency to bury or simply ignore the achievements of women in our world. Before the 2016 film addressing this issue, Hidden Figures, few knew of the brilliant work of three African American women that gave NASA an edge in the space race. Their story is one of many that may never see the light of day. Much in the same way women’s achievements and contributions to mankind have been swept under the rug of history, their crimes are often overshadowed by their more notorious male counterparts.

Researching serial killers, one has to scroll a ways down past the Dahmers and Gacys of the world before hitting on a single female. Other than perhaps Eileen Wuornos, famously portrayed by Charlize Theron in Monster, the serial killer deck is overwhelmingly stacked in favor of men when it comes to notoriety. The celebrity attached to killers is very real, and has led to countless films, books and television shows seeking to explore the minds of these individuals.

Such fame has, for the most part, eluded women who kill, despite their murders being just as intriguing as and often more terrifying than the men standing in the serial killer spotlight. Perhaps we’re just more comfortable with the idea of a man committing violence, as it fits more comfortably with traditional gender roles. These killers don’t fit this preconceived notion. We’re more content with the woman as nurturer archetype.

This is a big part of what makes the women in this series so unsettling. A number of them worked as nurses or caretakers, people you might be quick to trust with your own well-being or that of a loved one. These women knew how to exploit this trust and draw their victims close. These killers you never see until it’s too late.

Part I: The Legend of Lavinia Fisher

LaviniaFisher
Image Credit: swordandscale.com

We’re starting things off with a woman widely cited as America’s first female serial killer: Lavinia Fisher. Long before H.H. Holmes and his “murder castle,” Lavinia and her husband John owned and operated the original hotel of horror, the Six Mile Wayfarer House near Charleston, South Carolina in the early 1800’s. Like Holmes’ castle, the hotel came fully equipped with all the trappings of an evil lair. Complete with hidden rooms and passages and a bed designed to fall through a trap door at the flip of a switch.

According to legend, Lavinia would employ her considerable looks and charm to lure men to the parlor of the hotel and offer them tea. After imbibing the drug-laden beverage, the victim would be put to bed and subsequently swallowed by the trap door on a one-way trip to the basement. Rumors began to circulate after a number of men disappeared with their last known location being the Wayfarer House. Absent proof, Lavinia and her husband initially evaded prosecution, claiming ignorance of the whereabouts of the men in question after they left the hotel.

It wasn’t until a man by the name of John Peeples came for a stay that things took a turn. As was her method, Lavinia offered Peeples some tea, and they sat and talked. Fortunately for the intended victim, he didn’t much care for the Fisher’s particular brand of tea, and took an opportunity when Lavinia wasn’t looking to dispose of it in secret, as not to offend his host. Believed to be sufficiently drugged, Peeples was led to a recently vacated room where he remained awake in a chair by the door, unable to shake an uneasy feeling about his conversation with Lavinia. After some time, Peeples was startled by a loud bang as the bed across the room suddenly disappeared. After peering down into a dark basement through a newly opened hole in the floor, Peeples hastily escaped out of a window and made for the Charleston police station.

The subsequent investigation turned up enough evidence to convict the couple, and the two were sentenced to death by hanging. While jailed in the same facility, awaiting an appeal for their conviction, Lavinia and John set to planning their escape. This took the form of a long rope fashioned from bed sheets they tied together. The attempt was almost a success, but the makeshift rope broke after John reached the ground. Unwilling to leave his wife trapped in the cell, John turned himself back in and the two were kept under much heavier security.

Charleston Jail
Charleston Jail Image Credit: zulkey.com

On the day of their execution, February 18, 1820, John went quietly, offering an apology to anyone he had offended in life before he was hanged. Lavinia on the other hand offered no such apology, opting instead to arrive to her execution dressed in her wedding gown. According to the law at the time, a married woman could not be executed, which is why John was first to hang, rendering her a widow. When it came time for her last words, Lavinia addressed the crowd, inviting any man present to marry her in a last ditch effort to stay her fate. When no one took a knee for her, she turned on them shouting, “If any of you has a message for the Devil, tell me now… for I will be seeing him in moment.” With that she took her own life, opting to jump from the hanging platform rather than wait for the executioner. According to witnesses of the event, Lavinia left this earth with a chilling sneer frozen on her face as she hung.

Much of this particular version of the legend of Lavinia Fisher has been disputed or downright debunked, however it remains the most colorful telling of what transpired at the Six Mile Wayfarer House. For a different, perhaps more historically sound version of this story check out Sword and Scale’s article The Truth Behind the Legend of Lavinia Fisher. Stay tuned for further entries in this series, next week we delve into the story of the six foot tall, 200 pound killing machine Belle Gunness. See you then.

Sources:

https://www.legendsofamerica.com/sc-laviniafisher/

http://swordandscale.com/the-truth-behind-the-legend-of-lavinia-fisher/

http://www.historicalcrimedetective.com/charlestons-most-inhospitable-hosts-the-story-of-john-and-lavinia-fisher/

The Disappearance of Louis Le Prince

Episode 09 of the podcast: The Lost Colony got me thinking about other mysterious disappearances throughout our history. There’s just something so intriguing about a person or people simply disappearing into thin air. Without answers, all we are left with is our imagination; leaving plenty of room for morbid possibilities. When people suddenly vanish without a trace we generally don’t imagine them on a beach somewhere, sipping a margarita and living their best life. It’s safe to assume in most cases something has gone very, very wrong.

One such case is that of French inventor Louis Le Prince, who disappeared from a moving train on Sept. 16, 1890. If you are unfamiliar with Le Prince, don’t worry, you are not alone. It wasn’t until recently that his contributions to history were brought to light. Le Prince is now recognized as the true father of cinematography, a title previously held by an inventor you may be a little more familiar with, a Sir Thomas Edison.

Le Prince shot the world’s first moving picture with a single lens camera in Leeds, England in 1888, years before Edison’s work with the Kinetoscope. Although his brilliance and lasting effect on the way we live is undeniable, Edison did have a nasty habit of not giving credit where it was due. The phonograph and the x-ray are two more advances widely credited to Edison in the States that were based on existing designs by European inventors. His involvement in this case becomes a little more interesting later in the story.

 

On the date in question, Le Prince began his ill-fated trip at the Dijon station with his brother Albert, who would later confirm seeing Louis board the Paris-bound train. He had business to attend to in Paris, after which he planned on joining his family in New York. He was excited to show his wife the moving pictures he had captured in England and to begin the patenting process for his creation.

The journey was an express trip with no stops along the way. There were no reports of unusual behavior or untimely exits from any of the other commuters, yet when they arrived in Paris, there was no sign of Le Prince having ever been on the train. Friends waiting for him at the station found neither Louis nor his luggage after a thorough search of the premises.

Le Prince’s family, along with the French Police and London’s Scotland Yard performed extensive searches for Louis, but to no avail. No body and no clues were found at either train station or along the route to Paris. Le Prince’s disappearance remains a mystery to this day, though there have been theories.

Suicide had been proposed as a possible explanation, but Louis’s recent successes and plans to meet his family in New York don’t leave much room for motive. On top of that, it would have taken extremely careful planning to execute a complete disappearance, leaving nothing behind and no body.

If Le Prince didn’t remove himself from this mortal coil, we are left with the more likely scenario of foul play. There is a possible suspect in Louis’s brother Albert, being the last person to see him alive. Perhaps Le Prince never got on the train in the first place. Albert could have murdered his brother and simply lied about seeing him off at the Dijon station. Like the suicide theory however, this possibility lacks much in the way of motive.

Another theory involves our friend Thomas Edison, and includes some heretofore absent motive. You may recall before his disappearance Le Prince planned on traveling to New York to unveil his groundbreaking work with moving pictures. As we know, that trip never occurred, and instead it was Edison who patented what the world believed to be the first moving picture. Given Edison’s propensity for claiming other’s ideas as his own, the timing of Le Prince’s disappearance starts to look a little too coincidental.

These suspicions were not lost on Le Prince’s family, who brought litigation against Edison, sparking a war over his patent of the moving picture camera. Adolph Le Prince, Louis’s eldest son was called upon as a witness in these trials. He had worked closely with his father and his family believed he could shed light on Louis’s achievements, securing his legacy as the inventor of the device in question. Unfortunately, the case was awarded to Edison, and in yet another odd coincidence, Adolph was found dead while hunting ducks outside New York before an appeal could be made.

Since the trials and tribulations faced by the Le Prince family in the wake of Louis’s disappearance, it seems credit is finally being given where it is due. As historical details are brought to light, Le Prince is being recognized more and more as the true father of cinematography. We may never know for sure what happened on Sept. 16, 1890, but with his legacy now finding its place in our history, perhaps the spirit of Louis Le Prince can finally rest easy.

Sources: Did Thomas Edison Steal Inventions by Doug MacGowan

The Mystery of Louis Le Prince, The Father of Cinematography by Kieron Casey

The Mysterious Disappearance of Louis Le Prince, Father of Cinematography by Robert K Baggs