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While working at Cambridge Hospital as a nurse trainee, Jane Toppan impressed her co-workers with her friendly demeanour and cheerful disposition. This caused them to nickname her “Jolly Jane.” However, behind the scenes, Toppan enjoyed torturing her patients by switching their medications to opioids and experimented on them with morphine and atropine.

The Angel of Death

Some Nurses Shouldn’t be Trusted…?The Stout Brunnet was no Florence Nightingale.

Female serial killers are relatively rare, but often more fascinating than male killers. Jane Toppan, known as an Angel of Death, is one of those killers.The conviction and confession of ?trained nurse, Jane Toppan, in Massachusetts, adds another to the notable cases of human crime. In fact, it stands alone in some respects; there is no closely parallel case. This woman, who seems to have had the confidence of both physicians and patients during her career, enumerates thirty-one individuals whom she has poisoned while under her professional care, and mentions still others in whom her attempt was unsuccessful. That this woman should have passed for a model nurse, showing most, if not all, the good qualities of such a functionary, apparently loyal and reliable, and kind and attentive to those whose murder she was plotting, seems incomprehensible, but it is psychologically possible, as everyone with extended experience with morbid mentality can testify. Homicidal impulses can exist with the most perfect apparent amiability, though this case is unique in some of its features.

Jolly Jane Toppan was never going to have a perfect life. Surrendered to a Boston orphanage and hired out to a foster family by the age of six, she was doomed to, at best, a life of servitude. But no one could have anticipated the dark places her life would lead.

Toppan supposed that a trip to the altar would have spared her from a life of infamy as one of America?s most prolific female serial murderers.

?If I had been a married woman,? she once mused, ?I probably would not have killed all these people.?

But then, she had never experienced marriage.?Toppan, a nurse, killed as many people in greater Boston from 1885 to 1901. With forensic toxicology in its infancy, she got away with morphine murders for years because she knew more about overdose poisonings than most doctors and detectives.

Jane Toppan?first tried to kill herself before the age of 20, after her fiance left her at the altar. She attempted suicide several more times before deciding to become a nurse. In order to qualify for the nursing program, she had to hide the fact that she had suicidal tendencies. Although she clearly wasn’t mentally stable, the nursing school accepted her.?

Jane Toppan, born Honora Kelley, was an American serial killer. She confessed to 31 murders in 1901. She is quoted as saying that her ambition was ?to have killed more people, more helpless people, than any other man or woman whoever lived.?

Toppan, grew up in the imposing grey house at the corner of Third and Vernon streets in Lowell’s Centreville neighbourhood.
Though scant records survive of Jane Toppan?s early years, it is known that her parents were Irish immigrants, and her mother, Bridget Kelley, died of tuberculosis when she (Jane Toppan) was very young. Her father, Peter Kelley, was well known as an alcoholic and eccentric, nicknamed by those who knew him ?Kelley the Crack? (crack as in ?crackpot?). In later years Kelley would become the source of many local rumours concerning his supposed insanity, the most popular of which being that his madness finally drove him to sew his own eyelids closed while working as a tailor. The story?s authenticity is dubious, but it accurately reflects the prevailing opinion of Peter Kelley as an extremely unbalanced person.

His four daughters lived briefly with their paternal grandmother before they were relegated to a local orphanage. In 1863, only a few years after his wife?s death, Kelley brought his two youngest children, the eight-year-old Delia Josephine and six-year-old Honora, to the Boston Female Asylum, an orphanage for indigent female children founded in 1799 by Mrs Hannah Stillman.Peter Kelley begged the Boston Female Asylum to take his two youngest daughters. When the board examined the shabby dress and poor hygiene of the young girls, it was decided that these children had been subject to neglect and possible abuse. The vote was unanimous to allow the children to stay at the asylum. Kelley surrendered the two young girls, never to see them again. Documents from the asylum note that the two girls were ?rescued from a very miserable home.?

No records of Delia and Honora?s experiences during their time in the asylum exist, but in less than two years, in November 1864, Honora Kelley was placed as an indentured servant in the home of Mrs Ann C. Toppan of Lowell, Massachusetts. ?Delia was in the hospital until 1868 when she placed as a maid in Athol, New York at the age of 12. Later she turned to prostitution, and eventually died a penniless alcoholic, in squalid conditions.

Abner Toppan and his wife, from Lowell, Massachusetts, legally adopted Nora during 1859, changing her first name to Jane. The girl excelled in school and seemed completely normal prior to being jilted by her fiancee, years later. After that, she twice attempted suicide and suffered through a period of odd behaviour that included efforts to predict the future through an analysis of dreams. (A sister, Ellen, joined their father in the lunatic asylum after suffering a mental breakdown in her twenties.)

While going through her nurse training, Jane Toppan had to witness several autopsies in action. Most of her fellow students were sickened by the procedure, but not Toppan, who enjoyed the autopsy process. It was noted by several of her superiors she had some sort of obsession with death. This was a warning sign of what was to come, although no one thought her possible of killing at the time.

‘Brilliant and aggressive.’ Jane was a mischievous child, prone to lying and petty theft, but very smart.?Jane suffered shame and humiliation at the hands of her foster mother. Although
Ann?s daughter Elizabeth never mistreated Jane, due to the abuse at the hands of her Mrs Toppan, Jane developed a bitter hate and jealousy for her foster sister. Most of all, Jane envied the fact that Elizabeth would eventually get married one day. According to unsubstantiated love stories, Jane was once courted by a Lowell office worker who even gave her an engagement ring engraved with the image of a bird.?The relationship soured when he moved to another town and fell in love with his landlord’s daughter, a young woman he eventually married.
In order to overcome this abuse, Jane developed a vivacious personality and denied her Irish heritage by making derogatory Anti-Irish and Anti-Catholic statements in the protestant circles in which she moved. While some of her schoolmates liked her a great deal, others despised her as an outrageous liar: she spun tails of her heritage and would often pin her troublesome deeds on other children. Due to her unhappiness with her situation and the unlikelihood that she would never marry, Jane grew unattractively plump.

“In her school work, as in her profession in later years, she was one of the leaders of her class — brilliant and aggressive in all things,” read the Aug. 18, 1938, Sun story about her death.

When she turned 18 and graduated from Lowell High School, Jane was given $50 from the Toppans as per her indentured agreement. She stayed at the Toppan house for a decade, working for her foster sister Elizabeth (Toppan) Brigham and her husband Oramel, the deacon of a Lowell church.

It was reported that although Elizabeth always treated Jane well, Jane resented Elizabeth because she was beautiful and admired. Elizabeth’s mother, Ann, was said to have verbally abused her foster daughter.

In 1885, Toppan left Lowell for Cambridge Hospital, where she trained to be a nurse.

Jane Toppan explained to authorities she received a sexual thrill out of torturing her victims. Her ability to adjust their medications in order to bring them back to life or kill them gave her a perverse sort of pleasure. While it is known that she laid in bed with them while conducting her ghastly experiments, no one knows for sure if she actually had sex with them.

Toppan, a bratty but brilliant student turned effervescent nurse, was nicknamed “Jolly Jane” by her patients. Her only shortcoming as a nurse? All of her patients died.

During her residency, she used her patients as guinea pigs in experiments with morphine and atropine.

Her childhood memories looked like the video from The Ring. The odds against her turning out normal were astronomical. And no, she didn’t kill them quickly. Jane toyed with her victims, administering alternating doses of morphine and atropine — medicine’s most potent downer and upper, respectively. She delighted in delivering her victims as close to death’s door as possible via morphine, only to yank them back to life with a stimulating shot of atropine. Then, with the victim teetering between life and death, Jane joined them in bed, embraced them, and sometimes even stroked their hair as she injected the lethal dose.

(She would alter their prescribed dosages to see what it did to their nervous systems.) However, she would spend a lot of time alone with those patients, making up fake charts and medicating them to drift in and out of consciousness and even get into bed with them.

It is not known whether any sexual activity went on when her victims were in this state but, when Jane Toppan was asked after her arrest, she answered that she derived a sexual thrill from patients being near death, coming back to life and then dying again.

After her arrest, the nurse admitted deriving sexual pleasure from the control she held over life and death and often curled up in bed with her patients and held them as they died.

Once Toppan was captured, Amelia Phinney, who had been a patient at Cambridge Hospital in 1887, went public with her tale. She said nurse Toppan gave her some bitter-tasting medicine after her surgery and as she drifted into unconsciousness, Toppan climbed into bed with her and began kissing her all over her face.

Before Toppan had the chance to kill Phinney, someone entered the room. The next morning Phinney wrote the incident off as a dream until she read of Toppan’s arrest 14 years later.

Jane Toppan was a nurse on a killing spree — confessing to murdering 33 of her patients in 1901. Her method was poison through injection and upon confessing, was declared insane and committed.

Jane Toppan would administer a drug mixture to patients she chose as her victims, lie in bed with them and hold them close to her as they died. This is quite rare for female serial killers, who usually murder for material gain and not sexual satisfaction.

She was recommended for the prestigious Massachusetts General Hospital in 1889. While there, she claimed several more victims before being fired the following year. She briefly returned to Cambridge but was soon dismissed for prescribing opiates recklessly.

Once again, she had excelled in her class work, but supervisors and colleagues were disturbed by her obsession with autopsies. Dismissed after two patients died mysteriously in her care, she left the hospital without her certificate, forging the paperwork necessary to find work as a private nurse. Over the next two decades, she was hired by dozens of New England families, caring for the ill and elderly in several states, but few of Toppan’s patients managed to survive her “special” treatment.

She then began a career as a private nurse, which flourished despite complaints of petty theft.

Jane Toppan began her poisoning spree in earnest in 1895 by killing her landlords. In 1899, she killed her foster sister Elizabeth with a dose of strychnine.

The picnic along the Cape Cod shore started with cold corned beef and taffy.

It ended unexpectedly for one of the two revellers, with a cool summer tonic of mineral water and … strychnine.

Three years later, in the summer of 1902, the killer confessed: “I held her in my arms and watched with delight as she gasped her life out.”

In 1901, Jane?moved in with the elderly Alden Davis and his family in Cataumet to take care of him after the death of his wife (whom Jane Toppan herself had murdered). Within weeks, she killed Davis and two of his daughters. She then moved back to her hometown and began courting her late foster sister?s husband, killing his sister and poisoning him so she could prove herself by nursing him back to health. She even poisoned herself to evoke his sympathy. The ruse did not work, however, and he cast her out of his house.

The surviving members of the Davis family ordered a toxicology exam on Alden Davis? youngest daughter. The report found that she had been poisoned, and local authorities put a police detail on Jane Toppan.

On October 26, 1901, she was arrested for murder.

By 1902, she had confessed to 31 murders. On June 23, in the Barnstable County Courthouse, she was found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed for life in the Taunton Insane Hospital.

Soon after the trial, one of William Randolph Hearst?s newspapers, the?New York Journal, printed what was purported to be Toppan?s confession to her lawyer that she had killed more than 31 people, and that she wanted the jury to find her insane so she could eventually have a chance at being released. She wanted to murder more people, innocent, helpless people, than any one ever had or ever would.

Whether or not that was truly Toppan?s intention is unknown. She remained at Taunton for the rest of her life.

In 1901-02, after Jane Toppan was detained, she confessed to dozens of murders. Jane was extremely dangerous and lifted more than a little off its hinges: they would spend the rest of their lives in Taunton State Hospital to spend dying in 1938 at the age of 81.

Jane Toppan, Massachusetts Serial Killer Nurse – 1901.Despite the 31 people she confessed to killing – from her former landlords, her “foster sister” Elizabeth Toppan and numerous patients – she said she wanted to kill more. She claimed her entire goal was “to have killed more people – helpless people – than any other man or woman who ever lived…” She clearly did not meet this goal, although she turned out to be quite a prolific killer who certainly lived on in infamy.

Jane Toppan, ?the modern Lucretia Borgia,? who the title by a most remarkable series of murders is in the insane asylum at Taunton, Mass., haunted terrible visions of many victims. It is a little more than four years since she was committed to the asylum and in those four years since has become a physical wreck. She was then in the best of bodily health ? a buxom, smiling woman, not at all one?s idea of a degenerate afflicted with an incurable desire to kill. She weighed over 209 pounds.

Since she been at the asylum her mania has developed from a desire to kill into a hard belief that all the attendants, the doctors,? her lawyers, even her relatives are in league to kill her. Her certainty that they are all trying to poison her has driven her to decline food. She is dying of self-starvation. She has faded to a mere skeleton. She weighs only a little more than sixty pounds. The authorities have found it necessary to resort to artificial feeding. Death, they say, may come at any time and is sure to come soon.

Jane Toppan is one of the most remarkable criminals within the memory of the present generation. She is known to poisoned thirty-one persons This she has confessed to and her confession is supported by incontestable evidence. They were not enemies, real or fancied, these victims of hers. She had no grudge against them. For the most part, she called them friends. They had been kind to her. She had nothing to gain by their death.

The methods were practically the same in each instance The poison employed was according to her story always morphia and in those cases which she chose to bring to a fatal finality a staggering dose of atropia. She cannot remember the details in all cases, she declares, ?because poisoning had become a habit of her life.? It seems to have been merely ?habit.? She killed without malice, without conceivable motive.

And yet, complete moral degenerate that she was a homicidal maniac of the most pronounced type, Jane Toppan is said to be of sturdy New England stock. Certainly, the famous Bertillon system of measurement to detect in her single evidence of inherent criminality and by heritage she should have possessed the traditional Puritan conscience. In appearance, she is a quiet motherly person and by profession was a trained nurse.

Yet, in spite of appearances for twenty years previous to her detection, Jane Toppan?s outwardly placid life was torn with one great and secret and insatiable passion ? the slow murder by poison of those whom she loved best. With the exception of her foster sister,?all of her victims were either her patients or families of her patients. In her ministrations about their sick beds she invariably grew fond of all her patients. When the fondness reached the stage of a deeper affection she adopted a very paradoxical method of dosing them with deleterious drugs to impede their progress toward speedy recovery.

With innumerable of the hundreds of people whom she nursed in these twenty years, Jane Toppan?s feelings did not grow beyond what might be called the flirtation stage. Before her affection had time to assume the full strength of passion she had grown tired and satiated.

Just how many persons, and who they were with whom death, wearing a mask of this gentle and smiling ministrant, survived, these ghastly flirtations will for obvious reasons never be made public. The only one whose identity is known absolutely is O. M. Brigham, of Lowell, the husband of Miss Toppan?s foster sister. Soon the death of Mrs Brigham, as a result of poison administered relative, the bereaved husband was stricken by a similar malady.

Miss Toppan, who had been visiting the family remained a?nurse her widowed brother-in-law.

For a long time, he lingered, his condition varying from day to day, sometimes reaching almost the point of death, then taking a sudden change for the better and quite as reverting to former conditions of coma and unconsciousness. It was a long game which Nurse Toppan played with her brother-in-law and in the end, she magnanimously allowed him to win and he was then alive and well, a well-known and highly respected resident of Lowell.

Not so fortunate however was Miss Florence Calkins whom Mr Brigham employed two years later as his housekeeper and who was taken suddenly ill upon the occasion of Sister-in-law Toppan annual visit to Lowell, which continued regularly even after the death of Mrs Brigham and long after the death of Miss Calkins. The latter died after a few days? illness, in January, of 1900, and it so happened that upon the occasion of Sister-in-law Toppan?s next visit to Mr Brigham?s house, in 1901, she met as a fellow-visitor to the latter?s sister, Mrs Edna Bannister, of Tunbridge, Vt., Mrs.? Bannister was on her way to the Buffalo Exposition, and had stopped off in Lowell for two days. She was taken ill within a few hour of her arrival died the following day in Jane Toppan?s arms.

It was not until August 1901, when Mrs May E. Gibbs, of Cataumet, Mass., one of Miss Toppan?s patients under circumstances which the authorities regarded as suspicious, that the nurse was suspected. Detectives were set at work unearthing her record. Experts watched her quietly without letting her know that she was under observation. She was arrested and convicted in the spring of 1902. She was adjudged insane and committed to the Taunton Asylum, where she finally confessed to a long list of murders.


?I feel,? she said, after her imprisonment, ?absolutely the same as I always have been. I might say I feel hilarious, but perhaps that expresses it too strongly. I do not know the feeling of fear and I do not know the feeling of remorse, although I understand perfectly what these words mean. Now I cannot sense them at all. I do not seem to be able to realize the awfulness of the things I have done, though I realize very well what those awful things are. I try to picture it by saying to myself, ?I have poisoned Mary, my dear friend; I have poisoned Mrs Gibbs, I have poisoned Mr Davis, but I seem incapable to realize the awfulness of it. Why don?t I feel sorry and grieve over it? I don?t know. I seem to have a sort of paralysis of thought and reason.?

Among Jane Toppan?s last victims were Mrs Mary E. Davis, Cataumet, Mass.; Mrs Annie Gordon, Mrs Davis, daughter, Chicago; Alden P. Davis, the father; May E. Gibbs, a daughter.

After her arrest in 1901, she confessed her crimes to killing 31 people. Prior to her confession, authorities had only 11 murders they could pin on her. It is unknown whether her body count was actually 31, or if she was exaggerating for effect.

For nearly two years after she had been the asylum, visitors to the hospital were unable to observe in her any trace of insanity. The question was nearly always asked, ?Why is she here? She seems as sane as her attendants.? And they were astonished to learn who she really was. But now her mental delusions are constant, and an outsider would doubt the appropriateness of her incarceration.

She has abandoned the careless, cheerful frame of mind in which she has heretofore been and is now fretful, peevish, even ugly, fault-finding, fearful of eating because of suspected poison, complaining of her treatment, morose ? everything but remorseful. The intellectual insanity, following the moral insanity with which it is now believed Jane Toppan has been afflicted from birth. She has dwindled to a mere skeleton. Her death is a question of weeks, perhaps even days.

Jane Toppan was then now forty-seven years old. Of her earliest life very little is known. Her name was originally Honora Kelly. She and one of her sisters were placed in a foundling asylum by their father, an eccentric man of bibulous habits.? The sister is a responsible and capable woman. There were two other sisters, one of whom is a chronic insane patient, the other dead after leading a dissolute life.

She was taken from the asylum by a Mrs Toppan, who is said to have given her kind and Christian training, which was quite thrown away on her. Her incorrigible propensities, her deceitful habits, her capacity for making trouble, proved too much for Mrs Toppan and she was sent away.

And yet she is said to have come from good stock ? her father, the black sheep of a respectable family. Dr R. H. Stedman, of Boston, one of the three alienists on whose report she was sent to the asylum instead of the electric chair, has been watching her case with interest. He has a series of photographs, taken from time to time.

This case of Jane Toppan will be ever a medico-legal classic. As a child she was noted as a mischief-maker; her foster mother was obliged to send her from home because she continually told lies. Yet when she became a nurse she developed qualities which made her agreeable, even loved, and when she was arrested some of her former patients evinced far more concern than herself. Indeed, from the day of her arrest, Jane Toppan has never shown fear of consequences, much less remorse for her murders. Poison had become a habit of her life, she told the examining physicians.

Jane Toppan lived to the ripe old age of 80. At the time of her death, she was a patient at Taunton State Mental Hospital in Taunton, MA. After her 1901 arrest for murder and subsequent confession, the jury found her not guilty by reason of insanity, and sentenced her to spend the rest of her life in a mental institution. She spent 36 years there, and the nurses and doctors caring for her eulogized her as a “quiet old lady.”

In planning and carrying out her homicidal acts she was, she asserted, always calm and clear-headed. After administering the poisons she experienced great relief and went to bed and slept soundly. In telling of her crimes she exhibited no bravado but showed that she had no appreciation of the enormity of her acts. ?Why don?t I grieve over it and feel sorry?? she said.

The world shuddered when Jane Toppan was arrested and her crimes were told in print. Dr Stedman has evidence to substantiate twenty of the murders to which she confesses; the other eleven are beyond investigation. In two instances she claimed to have been seized with compunction and to have sent for another nurse. One of the patients was saved in consequence. In another instance, she took the opportunity to repeat the dose and make sure of her victim. The whole gamut of human motives was run over by the investigators in vain. There was neither avarice nor hatred to inspire her. It was an irresistible propensity which impelled her to kill her best friends and to commit the four crimes of arson to which she also confessed.

All her poisoning was done with opium, with a fatal dose of atropine, and the draught was so given in Hunyadi water as to be unsuspected by the patient and by the physicians as well.

After about two years in the asylum her insanity, which had been purely moral, began to develop into an intellectual insanity. She was continually soothing supposed patients, urging them to take imaginary doses, and crying out that they were dying. Soon she became convinced that the attendants and physician, even her sister and her lawyer, were members of a ?gang? which was trying to poison her. Here is a letter that she wrote Dr Stedman on the subject:

?Taunton Lunatic Hospital, July 1,1904. —- ?Doctor Stedman: I wish to inform you that I am alive, in spite of the deleterious food which has been served me. Many efforts have been made to poison me ? of that I am very sure. I am thin and very hungry all the time. Every nerve is calling for food. Why can?t I have help? I ate a pint of ice cream and four oranges Saturday and Sunday.??? (Signed) JANE TOPPAN


Again she wrote to one of her friends:

?Dear: I am the victim of nerve paralysis, the result of food. I have to eat or I am fed with a tube with nerve-paralyzing food that I choose from the tray. Oh, I think that you and ? were criminals to put me through this. It was an awful thing to do any human being, and I have my opinion of everybody who takes a hand in it. I think it has been a noble (?) piece of work. I think as the nerves of my body get more benumbed my brain becomes clearer to the outrageous course that has been taken with me. I suppose the next thing, something will be given to put me out of the way altogether. That would be a mercy too.

(Signed).? ?JANE TOPPAN.?

And in a letter to her own sister at Chicago, she wrote:

?Do you know the supervisor put some poison in my tea. A patient saw her and told me, and didn?t touch it. The lady heard the superior say she had fixed J. T. this time.?

In that belief?it has been almost impossible to get her to take food. She has, naturally, grown weaker, and weaker. And as her strength has waned the victims of her past have been more frequent and more terrifying. Sometimes now, it is not the attendants, but some of her victims who have returned to deal with her, even as she dealt with them. And she cowers in abject fear before vengeance which she believes is pursuing her ? all unconscious of the punishment which really has overtaken her.

In her confession, Jane admitted to feeling no guilt. ?No, I have absolutely no remorse,? she said. ?I have never felt sorry for what I have done. Even when I poisoned my dearest friends, as the Davises were, I did not feel any regret afterward. I have thought it all over and I cannot detect the slightest bit of sorrow over what I have done.?

Why did she do it?

Henry Stedman, a leading alienist of his time, put a candle to the woman?s ear and diagnosed ?moral insanity.?

But Toppan blamed a heart cleaved by spurned love.

After that, she said, ?I still laughed and was jolly, but I learned how to hate, too.?

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