"Jolly Jane" Toppan

Criminals like Jane Toppan are often called "Angels of Mercy" or "Angels of Death."  This crime generally involves someone who is a nurse or takes on the role of a caregiver in the in the process kills their patients in one form or another.  In modern times we have seen these cases throughout the years, generally involving nurses in hospitals or doctors offices.  In Jane's case, when her crimes came to light in 1901 she had been an in-home nurse.

Jane Toppan was born about 1857 and was named Honora Kelley.  She was the youngest child of Bridget and Paul Kelley.  Her mother died when she was very young.  Her father obtained, or maintained, a reputation that likely was more legend than fact. He was apparently an alcoholic and was notorious for his antics and thought to be unbalanced.  Later rumors were that he eventually ended up in an asylum after he was found working for a tailor and was attempting to sew his eyelids shut.  Again, many of the things about Paul Kelley cannot be officially confirmed. It seems the only things that can be confirmed is that he was an alcoholic and likely abusive to his children in some way.  It has never been confirmed if he was sexually abusive to them but that is often the case history of serial killers.  What we do know is that just a few years after his wife died Paul took his two youngest children, 8 year old Della and 6 year old Honora to a local orphanage for female children in 1863.  There are few records of their stay but it was recorded that the children arrived dirty and apparently neglected.  The only other real record of their time at the orphanage is that in November of 1864 Honora was placed as an "indentured servant" (remember, she is about 8 years old at the time) at the home of Abner and Ann Toppan of Lowell Massachusetts.  She was apparently never formally adopted but took on the name of Jane Toppan.  

Growing up she was teased by schoolmates about her Irish Catholic background and for the rest of her life denounced it.  She often made up stories to distance herself from that heritage.  It was also known early on among classmates that when she did something wrong she often lied and put the blame on others.  This did not bode well for her in the area of making any sort of friends.  By most reports Ann Toppan was also fairly abusive to Jane.  The Toppan's had a daughter, Elizabeth, who by all accounts was close with and cared for Jane, at least from Elizabeth's perspective but Jane was extremely jealous of her and harbored a life long resentment towards her that she apparently hid behind a smile and charm.  

At the age of 18 Jane was officially released from her job as an indentured servant and according to the agreement was given $50. Apparently however Jane continued to live in the home for another 10 years working still for Ann Toppan until her death and then later for Elizabeth who was later married to Oramel Brigham. Sometime within this time period Jane had fallen in love and was engaged.  However, her suitor had taken a job in another area and while there had met another woman and fell in love, breaking off the engagement with Jane.  She would use this episode later in life as her excuse of her behavior and actions.

In 1885 she left the Brigham household and began training as a nurse at Cambridge Hospital.  The circumstances surrounding this are not clear.  Some reports state she left because there was a disagreement between Jane and Elizabeth and she was dismissed but even those reports agree that Elizabeth had told Jane she always had a home in her house.  

Once at Cambridge, her lack of the ability to make friends continued.  Just as she had done as a child, she continued to make up stories and was thought to be a pathological liar among co-workers.  She was not well liked among fellow students but had used her charm with a few of the doctors.  This apparently gave her more and easier access to patients, patients in which she began using as guinea pigs in her experiments.  She began testing the effects of morphine and atrophine.  She would often bring a patient to the brink of death, nurse them back to health and then test again to which many then died.  She was popular with the patients however, and thus she was given the nickname "Jolly Jane."  In most cases, after overdosing a patient she would then climb in bed with them and attempt to soothe them as they died. It was never determined for certain if there was any sexual activity involved.  After her arrest Jane did say however that the act of climbing into the bed itself and holding the victim close to her as they died brought her a sort of sexual satisfaction.  This act alone makes Jane different than many women serial killers. Most women serial killers kill for material or monetary gain.  Men serial killers are generally the ones that kill for sexual reasons.

In 1889 Jane left Cambridge and went to Massachusetts General Hospital where she "experimented" on more patients but she was fired after a year.  She then went back to Cambridge but was soon fired once again for "prescribing opiates recklessly."  This was a charge that had been suspected for quite some time, at least among fellow nursing students and had finally caught up with her. She had also been suspected of petty thefts when it came to especially her patients.  It appears that many of their personal items were stolen.  It does not appear that she stole much of monetary value so when it comes to patients it may have been more along the lines of souvenirs although there is evidence that she pawned many of the items.

By the time she was dismissed from Cambridge the second time, she had technically completed her courses and from my research was entitled to her diploma but never received it. At that point she decided to become a private nurse. Financially that was a good decision as private nurses made better money than those working in a hospital.  

It appears that Jane's passion for poisoning took on a life of its own at this time.  In May of 1895 she poisoned her elderly landlord Israel Dunham.  She then moved in with his wife, Lovey to which she was poisoned and died by the fall of that year. It is doubtful that she did not continue to poison people as time went on but the next confirmed poisoning did not occur until August of 1899.  This time the victim was her foster sister Elizabeth Toppan Brigham.  As she had done with other victims she made it appear they had taken sick and even though a doctor was often summoned the victim would appear to get well and then get sicker again and eventually die. She was able to continue her poisoning under everyone's nose as she would usually mix the concoction in water and no one could tell what she was doing as she appeared to be devoted to her patient and no one suspected a thing. After Elizabeth's death Jane told Oramel that Elizabeth had stated she wanted her to have a watch and a few other items. The distraught Oramel did not think twice of this and gave her the items for her only to pawn them.  

Her next confirmed poisoning occurred in December of 1899.  This one was different than most of the others.  The victims name was Mary McLear.  She had apparently already gotten sick and her doctor had recommended Jane as a home nurse.  The doctor only knew of Jane by reputation as by this time she was well sought after. Again, her attitude and charm had won unsuspecting people over.  It appears that after her death Jane stole most of the victims clothing.  The following February Jane poisoned one of her few friends, Myra Conners. 

Jane's next three victims survived, but likely because she wanted them to. The first two were her new landlords, Melvin and Eliza Beedle.  She poisoned them, but only enough to give them stomach issues so she could nurse them back to health.  Just after she did the same to their housekeeper, Mary Sullivan.  It is believed that she poisoned Sullivan so she could make her look bad to the Beedle's and obtain her job, which apparently worked.

For many years up to this point Jane had spent summers in Cataumet, an island off the coast.  She would rent a room from the Davis family who owned a hotel in the area for many years.  She had become close to the family but over the years had made deals with the family when she wanted to stay longer or could not afford the rent.  In the summer of 1901 Mattie Davis, the matriarch, decided that the $500 owed to them by Jane was due.  Her plan was to first visit Jane and retrieve her money and then travel to accompany her daughter, Annie Gordon back to Cataumet to spend the summer.  As she was leaving the train station Mattie Davis had fallen.  Soon after arriving at Jane's place Mattie fell ill.  Seeing as she was elderly, that the weather was extremely hot and the fact she had fallen just earlier seemed to all be reasons enough to those around to believe her death could and was contributed to all these things.  Jane had summoned Annie Gordon when Mattie fell ill and she stayed while she lingered for approximately a week.  She finally passed away on July 5, 1901. Both Annie, and Jane, who Annie was grateful to for caring for her mother, accompanied Mattie's body back to Cataumet.  

This was the beginning of the downfall for Jane. This is where her fetish got the best of her and finally got her caught.  Jane stayed on at the Davis home helping care for Mattie's husband Alden and by appearances take care of the grieving family. Amazingly it seems no one thought about the money that Mattie had gone to retrieve.  Over the next month and a half Jane not only poisoned Annie Gordon (d. 7-29-1901), her father, Alden Davis (d. 8-8-1901), and Alden's other daughter, Mary Gibbs (d. 8-19-1901) she also started at least three fires in the Davis home, all that were extinguished quickly. There was talk that she had been obsessed with fire at an early age, as a lot of serial killers are, however, there are no other references to her starting or being fascinated by fire.  

A few days after Mary Gibbs died, her husband returned from sea but Jane had already left the area and headed back to the Lowell area to the home of Oramel Brigham.  Mary Gibbs' father in law was also suspicious and asked that the deaths be looked into. Jane had already put her new plan into action at the Brigham home.  Her goal was to attempt to show Oramel that she was useful and either to become romantic involved with him or at the very least become his housekeeper.  For one, Oramel had not seen Jane as anything more than his late wife's sister, for two, just after Jane arrived so did Oramel's sister, Edna, visiting while traveling.  A few days later both Edna and Oramel became ill. Like the Beedles, Oramel was only poisoned enough to allow Jane to bring him back to health but Edna died.  At this point Oramel apparently suspected Jane of ill will and was not happy with her but before he could turn her out she made a suicide attempt on September 29th.  He allowed her to recover, just barely, before he turned her out onto the street.  By now there was already talk in Cataumet and bodies were being exhumed.  She began reading about what was going on in the newspaper.  Leonard Wood, a leading toxicologist in Massachusetts was now on the case. Police were watching her until some results came through.  At this point she went to go stay with a friend, Sarah Nichols and was there when she was arrested on October 29, 1901.  She was arraigned on October 31st.  Her trial was continued repeatedly until June of 1902. Part of the reason for this was because initial reports claimed that the Davis victims had died from arsenic poison. Jane was likely laughing at this assumption since she had not used arsenic.  It was soon discovered that the arsenic found was not from the victim being poisoned but from the embalming fluid used after death. It was Mary Gibbs' father in law who first suspected and mentioned morphine.  

In December 1901 she was officially charged with four counts of murder.  By March the newspapers were declaring that the "experts" had found her to be insane.  On June 23, 1902 after a trial lasting only eight hours, the jury took twenty minutes to declare her not guilty by reason of insanity. It was suspected that this was exactly what Jane planned... to be declared insane... so that she would be (as she was) committed to an asylum to which she believed she would be released after possibly ten years.  It is reported that this is why she was quoted as saying her ambition was "to have killed more people...helpless people....than any other man or woman who ever lived."  She also reportedly told doctors that she did not understand why she did not feel empathy towards people and that she felt like if she had been married and had children she would not have killed.  So ultimately she blamed her killing on the failed engagement. Leading up to the trial it had been discovered about her childhood and the issues of her father's mental condition but it was also reported that one of her older sisters, Ellen, had suffered a mental breakdown at some point an also went to an asylum.  

In the end Jane Toppan did spend the rest of her life in the asylum.  Throughout the next 30 plus years, until her death on August 17, 1938 at the age of 84, her mental health truly did being to deteriorate. At one point, just a few years into her sentence it was thought she would not survive much longer as ironically she had stopped eating food prepared for her because she was convinced that it had poison in it. It will never truly be known if Jane Toppan was insane or she faked it but few dispute that over the years her sanity was no longer a question.


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