‘Jolly Jane’ Toppan

‘Jolly Jane’ Toppan, born Honora Kelley reportedly killed at least 30 people between 1880 and 1901, although her victims may number up to 100. Psychiatrists today claim that she is one of the most unusual female serial killers in history. Rather than helping her patients, this killer nurse used a mixture of drugs to help her in her mission to kill her elderly patients, not as an act of mercy but for her own pleasure.

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Honora Kelley was born in Boston around 1857 (although some sources claim 1854), to a poor Irish immigrant family. She was the youngest of four daughters and lost her mother, Bridget at just a year old to tuberculosis. Her father, Peter Kelley was a tailor and an alcoholic who was said to have sewn his own eyelids shut when he suffered a mental breakdown. He tried to raise his daughters alone following the death of his wife but it was said that he had abused his children, he had gained the nickname “Kelly the Crack” because he was said to be “cracked in the head” which only added to the speculation.

In 1863, their father took Honora, aged just 6 years old and her older sister Delia, aged 10 to the Boston Female Asylum which served as an orphanage. The orphanage placed girls with respectable families when they turned 10 years old. Honora became an indentured servant to a Mrs Ann Toppan of Lowell, Massachusetts. Her sister Delia didn’t appear to have been as lucky as Honora later becoming a prostitute and another of Honora’s sisters, Nellie, found herself placed in an insane asylum possibly suffering from similar mental health issues as their father.

The Toppan family passed Honora off as an Italian girl whose parents had died at sea because of the stigma that was associated with the Irish at the time and from a young age Honora displayed the earmarks of a sociopath, telling outrageous lies which included her father sailing the world, her sister marrying an English nobleman and her brother being decorated at Gettysburg by Abraham Lincoln.

At 18 Honora now known as Jane Toppan (the name change likely came from Ann Toppan who wanted a less Gaelic-sounding name) graduated from Lowell High School and the Toppan’s freed her from her indenture giving her $50 but she chose to stay in the household as a servant rather than leave. When Ann Toppan died in the 1870s, her daughter Elizabeth took over the house and continued to treat Jane as a servant, although she did treat her with more kindness than her mother. Elizabeth went on to marry Oramel Brigham, a church deacon and he moved into the Toppan house but some strain or dispute caused Jane to move out of the house that she had lived in for some 20 years in 1885.

In 1887, at the age of 33 Jane began her training as a nurse at Cambridge Hospital. It was here that she earned the nickname ‘Jolly Jane’ for her friendly and outgoing personality. She enjoyed gossiping and often celebrated the dismissal of students that she didn’t like and much like her childhood she was also caught telling lies such as claiming that the Tsar of Russia had offered her a nursing job.

The administration at Cambridge Hospital grew concerned over her obsession with autopsies but they were in the dark on Jane’s experiments with morphine and atropine on her elderly patients in the hospital. Following Jane’s arrest, one of her patients, Amelia Phinney came forward to tell her story. She had undergone an operation in 1887 and afterwards she said that Jane had given her a dose of bitter medicine which had caused her to lose consciousness before Jane then climbed into her bed and kissed her all over her face but she stopped after something startled her. Amelia chalked the experience up to a dream until she heard the news about Jane. By Jane’s own count she had killed at least a dozen people before her training as a student nurse was over.

Despite suspicions that she was a thief and careless in her work Jane had a good reputation with doctors but she would both gain and lose a job at Massachusetts General Hospital owing to the reckless way that she gave out opiates. Despite this doctors would still recommend her as a private nurse to their wealthy clients, to both doctors and their patients she seemed to be highly skilled, professional, compassionate and cheerful. This was vastly different to the Jane that was seen outside of her work where she guzzled beer, told dirty jokes, gossiped and took great enjoyment in turning her friends against one another.

 Interestingly, as she was dismissed from Massachusetts General Hospital she left without the licence she needed to work as a nurse within the hospital, and after working as a private nurse for a while in order to try and obtain it she went back to Cambridge Hospital. But her habits almost caught up with her, when an attempt to poison a trainee nurse named Mattie Davis was detected by one of the doctors. Another doctor noticed that previously recovering patients seemed to die in Jane’s care, but instead of suspecting foul play he blamed it on carelessness in administering medication rather than malice. He told the Hospital’s board and Jane’s contract was terminated once again without her licence to work as a nurse. Without her license Jane went back to being a private nurse where she was earning around $25 a week at a time when women earned on average $5 a week, along with the pay she later admitted she was getting a sexual thrill from climbing onto the beds of her patients as she murdered them, loading them up with painkillers, usually morphine or atropine so she could watch what it did to their nervous system. In order to avoid suspicion, Jane would make fake charts for her patients as well as medicating them just enough so that they would slip in and out of consciousness, never remembering what was happening to them and then, when just inches from death, she would climb into bed with them and hold them.

Her first recorded kill was her elderly landlord Israel Dunham in 1885 and his wife Lovey two years later. She admitted that she killed them as they had gotten ‘feeble and fussy’ and ‘old and cranky’. Another of Jane’s victims was 70 year old Mary McLear who fell ill on a visit to Cambridge in 1889. Her doctor sent Jane who he called ‘one of my best nurses’ to care for her. Jane poisoned Mary and only a month later she went on to kill a close friend with strychnine (a poison often used to kill vermin and worryingly easy to get hold of at the time) so she could take her job as dining hall matron at St. John’s Theological School in Cambridge. While Jane did get the job it didn’t last as the administration weren’t able to ignore complaints of her incompetence and claims that she had been stealing money.

Jane would go on to kill her foster sister Elizabeth Toppan Brigham. Elizabeth often invited Jane to visit her in the house that they had grown up in, in the summer of 1899 Jane took up Elizabeth’s offer. When Elizabeth complained of depression Jane invited her down to Cape Cod where she took Elizabeth to the beach for a picnic, but the picnic had been laced with strychnine. Later Jane said that ‘I held her in my arms and watched with delight as she gasped her life out.’ Within 3 days of Elizabeth’s death Jane killed the Brigham’s housekeeper, 77 year old Edna Bannister so that she could insinuate herself into the household, her aim was to try and impress her foster sister’s widower Oramel Brigham because she wanted to marry him. Oramel made it clear that he didn’t want Jane as a housekeeper or a wife so Jane decided to win his love by poisoning him and then nursing him back to health but when this didn’t work she threatened to claim he had gotten her pregnant. An enraged Oramel ordered Jane out of the house and she attempted suicide with an overdoes of morphine but her attempt failed and she found herself in hospital before she visited an old friend, Sarah Nichols who lived with her brother in Amherst, New Hampshire who was lucky enough to survive her friendship with Jane owing to Jane being arrested.

By 1901, law enforcement were becoming interested in Jane, a Massachusetts state detective was following her as he suspected her of killing the entire family of Alden Davis. Jane had rented a cottage in Bourne, Massachusetts from the Davis family, but she had failed to keep up with the rent. Alden Davis’ wife Mattie came to Cambridge to collect, but rather than paying Jane killed her with a cocktail of morphine and atropine before she then moved in with the elderly Alden Davis to take care of him. She killed him and then two of his married daughters, Minnie Gibbs and Geraldine Gordon. It was Minnie Gibbs’ father-in-law who suspected something amiss with the sudden deaths of an entire healthy family. He consulted a toxicologist and got a judge to order Minnie’s body exhumed. Investigation revealed she died of morphine and atropine poisoning.

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Police arrested Jane Toppan in Amherst on Oct. 29, 1901. She objected to her being described as ‘morally insane’ arguing that ‘I can read a book intelligently, and I don’t have bad thoughts, so I don’t see where moral degeneracy comes in.’ She claimed she started her killing spree because a boyfriend left her when she was 16. A Lowell office worker gave her a promise ring, but he moved to Holyoke, Massachusetts, and fell in love with someone else. She claimed ‘If I had been a married woman, I probably would not have killed all of those people.’

She went to trial for murder in the summer of 1902. She confessed to her lawyer she killed at least 31 people, but the real number may have been as many as 100. An eight-hour trial took place in Barnstable County Courthouse. And a jury deliberated for 27 minutes and found Jane Toppan not guilty by reason of insanity. She spent the rest of her life at Taunton State Hospital, dying on Aug. 17, 1938. Some attendants remembered her calling them into her room and smiling. ‘Get some morphine, dearie and we’ll go out in the ward. You and I will have a lot of fun seeing them die.

What Jane had done confused people. She was clearly an intelligent woman, and appeared ‘mentally, physically, and morally’ normal but why would a woman kill unless insane? Jane’s victims had not done anything to Jane, and she was not an ‘angel of death’ seeking to stop people from going through pain by ending their suffering herself. When she was asked to explain why she had done it she simply said that she couldn’t control her impulse to kill and once she had killed she felt like herself again. Ironically by 1904 Jane refused to eat as she was paranoid that it would be poisoned and this news led to more news coverage on the killer nurse. Most of Jane’s victims were women with her youngest victim- Minnie, being aged 40 and oldest was her landlord Mr Dunham’s wife at age 87. The average age of her victims was between 60 and 70 years old which may well have helped her to get away with the murders. Following her death in 1938, aged 80, it was reported that Jane herself may well have been America’s very first serial killer.

Author: Emily Casson


Nell Darby Criminal Historian

Crime Museum


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