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.

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“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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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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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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