Jane Toppan was an infamous American serial killer, best known by her nickname Jolly Jane. Following her arrest in 1901, she confessed to have murdered 31 people and took the nation by storm saying that she wanted to kill more people than anybody ever had. Born and brought up in Boston, Massachusetts, she was a victim of a troublesome childhood. Her father was an infamous alcoholic who was called a mad-man due to several rumours that established him as a sadist. At the age of 9, she along with her younger daughter started living in a female asylum. While many records state that the father himself got his daughters there, some accounts say that they were ‘rescued’ from their house. At the age of 11, she started working as a servant in a rich Boston household and adopted their last name Toppan. Towards the late 1800s, she started her training as a nurse and overdosed several of her most vulnerable patients for the purpose of experimenting on them. In 1885, she poisoned the family of her landlords and by the time she was arrested, she had committed 31 murders, using poison as her weapon. She was declared insane and was incarcerated for life in the Taunton Insane Hospital, where she died in October 1938, aged 84.
Childhood & Early Life
Jane Toppan was born Honora Kelly on August 17, 1854 in Boston, Massachusetts to a lower middle class family. Although the accounts of her early life are largely hazy, it has been reported that her mother Bridget Kelley died when Jane was still an infant. The records say that she passed away due to tuberculosis, which was apparently untreatable at that time. Jane’s parents were Irish immigrants and her father worked as a small time tailor. She grew up with three other sisters in the household.
Following the death of her mother, her father Peter Kelley turned insane. Slowly, he grew notorious around his locality and got known as ‘Kelley the Crack’. He heavily indulged into alcohol and made the life of all his daughters hellish. One of the most popular accounts of his insanity states that he once tried to sew his own eyelids. Peter somehow had enough sense to know that he was a very bad influence on his children and hence he took two of his youngest children, Jane and Delia to the Boston Female Asylum.
However, the authorities had another story to tell about her entrance to the asylum. Official accounts state that the sisters were rescued by them from an abusive, alcoholic and eccentric father. During their stay in the asylum, it was reported that Jane’s older sister Delia started working as a prostitute. Jane somehow managed to get a job at a local house as a house-servant. She was a little older than 9 at that time.
Ann C. Toppan, the owner of the house never officially adopted Jane but she brought her up as her own daughter more or less. Jane also adopted the last name of her benefactors, Toppan and formed a close bond with Ann’s daughter Elizabeth. They both went to school together and lived in the same house, almost like sisters.
During the senior year of her high school, she got attracted to a man and started a relationship. But it did not work out and she received the shock of a lifetime when she was left at the altar by the man. This led Jane to become a depressed young woman. Several other failed relationships had her believing that she was not worthy of love by men, which became the genesis of her weird sexual behaviour later in her life.
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In 1885, she started her training as a nurse in the Cambridge Hospital, where she was loved by her patients and co-workers. Due to her loving nature, she earned for herself the nickname Jolly Jane. But what went under the curtains remained unknown for many years. Jane used some of the most critical patients as her guinea pigs for experimentations. She gave them morphine in higher doses than normal and when they became unconscious, she lied in the bed with them.
Whether she had sexual relations with her patients or not it is not known but she did admit that she got a sexual satisfaction lying in the bed with men who were about to die. She spent quite a lot of alone time with her patients and cared for them when other people were around. This kept her in the good books of her co-workers and her bosses. And due to that, she was transferred to Massachusetts General Hospital in 1889.
But in a hospital as big as MGH, she could not sustain her experimentations and weird behaviour for long time. She was fired within a year and following that, she tried moving back to Cambridge hospital for a small period of time. She got her old job back somehow but her bad record with MGH put her under heavy scrutiny without her knowledge. That resulted in her getting fired from the hospital after a few months when she was caught red-handed overdosing a patient.
Soon after getting fired from Cambridge, Jane started working as a private nurse and with a decent experience with her, her career flourished. In the early stages of her new professional venture, she got booked quite a few times for her indulgence in petty thefts but all the charges on her were discarded.
As she started working, her instincts became more and more gruesome. In 1895, she claimed her first victim in form of her landlord Israel Dunham and his wife. She committed the murder by poisoning the couple when they were giving her troubles. She took a two years gap between her second and third killing and her third victim’s identity was rather shocking.
She poisoned Elizabeth Brigham, her foster sister. Elizabeth was married at that time with a man and it was later reported that Jane was jealous of Elizabeth and was in love with her husband. After Elizabeth’s death, she tried to seduce her husband but failed. This shows that sexual frustration played a major role in her crooked mental health.
In 1899, she killed one of her elderly patients Mary McNear by poisoning her and what followed was a trail of gruesome murders. By 1900, her poisoning spree had taken 30 lives and she planned the murders in such deliberate way that it was difficult for the authorities to nab the murderer. But like every other criminal, she did make mistakes and she made it in August 1901.
Arrest and Later Life
Jane Toppan was hired as a private nurse to take care of Mattie and Alden Davis, an elderly couple. She first killed Alden and then Mattie by poisoning both of them. She also killed young daughter of the couple Minnie. But this family did not intend to let it slide and asked for a full toxicology report on Minnie. The police found out that she was poisoned and Jane was immediately booked. An investigation ran and Jane was taken into custody on October 29, 1901.
By early 1902, she confessed to have killed 31 people but the official records claim the numbers to be much higher than that. She asked her lawyer to prove in the court that she was insane so that there was a chance of getting released. But in the court, she insisted that she was not insane. But despite the claims, she was declared insane and ordered to spend rest of her life in Taunton Insane Hospital, where she died on October 29, 1938, aged 84.