Jane Toppan was born Honora “Nora” Kelley in around 1857 in Boston. Her parents were Irish immigrants, and her mother Bridget died of tuberculosis when she was a young child. Her father Peter was rumored to be a “crackpot”, to the point of being known as “Kelley the Crack”. He was oftentimes the source of many rumors concerning his insanity, the highlight of which included him sewing his own eyelids closed while working as a tailor. Ew, okay, that makes my eyes feel weird just saying it so I really hope that’s one of those exaggerated stories that didn’t actually happen because oh my god, ouch.
Okay, moving on to quickly forget that visual.
Around the early 1860s, Kelley brought his two youngest daughters, Delia (8) and Honora (6), to the Boston Female Asylum. Now, this was an orphanage for young girls that was founded in 1799. No records for the Kelleys existed for the duration of their time at the orphanage, but it seems that there are documents of their arrival saying the two girls were “rescued from a very miserable home.”
Now, less than 2 years after having arrived, Honora was sent to work with the Toppan family in Massachusetts. She took their last name as her own, even though she was never officially adopted, and soon became known as Jane Toppan.
Unfortunately for her sister Delia, she remained in the institution until 1868 where she was placed as a servant in New York at 12 years old. She would later turn to prostitution and die of alcoholism.
When Jane turned 18, she was officially “freed” from her responsibilities as an indentured servant and given $50, and also graduated high school. However, she chose to remain with the family she was placed with and work as a servant until the mother, Ann, died and Ann’s daughter married and left home.
She then went to Boston and attended Cambridge Hospital so she could be a nurse. She was 33 years old at this time, and it was here that she earned her nickname “Jolly Jane”, due to her friendly and outgoing personality. However, despite her initial “jolly” demeanor, most of her other students soon grew to hate her.
See, she would oftentimes tell exaggerated stories that were obviously complete lies, like the Tsar of Russia offering her a nursing job. She would also become hostile and double down on those lies when confronted about them. Many items around the hospital and things that belonged to other students would also mysteriously go missing after she’d been in certain rooms and areas, which also didn’t help her build any relationships with the other students.
She had an obsession with autopsies that worried the hospital administration, but ultimately they couldn’t find anything to stop her from completing her training.
It’s unfortunate, because there were things happening that definitely should have been caught at that time. It would’ve saved a whole lot of people a bunch of misery if it had been.
In other words, the hospital did not find out that she was experimenting with morphine and atropine on her elderly patients.
While working as a student nurse, she also falsified the medical records of her patients to keep them in the hospital longer, that way she could get to know them better. It’s estimated that she killed at least a dozen people while working as a nurse, dosing her elderly patients with opium to see how they’d react. She would slowly up their opium doses until they would ultimately die of an overdose.
It was to one patient’s horror that what she thought was just some fever dream, was unfortunately a real experience when Jolly Jane’s activities were released to the public.
In 1887, one patient Amelia Phinney had an operation. After the operation, nurse Jane gave her some medicine that tasted really bitter. She began to lose consciousness right around the time that Jane climbed on to her bed and kissed her all over her face. When she woke up the next morning, she thought it was just a dream...until she found out, years later, that this was exactly Jane’s M.O.
Jane had negative feelings about elderly patients, she ultimately thought that older people were useless and not worth keeping alive. In school, her colleagues remembered her saying that ultimately “there was no point in keeping them alive.” Sometimes, she would dose her older patients and then nurse them back to health as a “miraculous recovery.”
She became friends with her landlord and his wife, but began to kill them when they got, in her words, “old, cranky, feeble and fussy.” They died one after the other, soon after inviting Jane to help nurse them back to health.
She got a job at Massachusettes General Hospital, but ultimately lost it because she gave out opiates too recklessly. Despite this, or maybe even because of it, doctors recommended her as a private nurse to many of their wealthy clients.
In 1889, a position became open as a dining hall matron at St. John’s Theological School in Cambridge. She and a close friend of hers were both vying for the position, and instead of just waiting to see which person the school preferred, Jane decided to take things into her own hands-by dosing her friend with strychnine so that she would be the only candidate.
Turns out, this job didn’t last either. Things tended to go missing whenever Jane was around, and they ended up firing her because of her thieving habits, despite her overall charismatic demeanor.
1889 was a busy year for Jane. Her foster sister, Elizabeth Toppan Bringham, would oftentimes invite Jane to come visit and stay with her and her family in the house they grew up in. Jane was on vacation in Buzzard’s Bay with Elizabeth when she decided her foster sister would make a nice victim. Elizabeth had been feeling depressed lately, and Jane invited her down to the beach for a picnic lunch. She’d packed cold corned beef, taffy, and mineral water laced with strychnine.
Elizabeth soon began seizing, and of her death Jane says, “ I held her in my arms and watched with delight as she gasped her life out.”
The Brigham family was in mourning, and Jane stayed with them, ostensibly because she wanted to help her brother in law and the family while they were overcome with grief. In reality, Jane had viewed Elizabeth as an obstacle, in the way of the man she wanted to marry, her now widowed husband Oramel Brigham.
Soon after moving in, the Brigham’s 77 year old housekeeper died of mysterious circumstances, and Jane took over as the housekeeper. She was trying to impress Oramel, but he soon made it clear he wanted her gone, he didn’t want her in the house no matter her position.
Then, Oramel became sick. Completely out of the blue and even though we know now it’s obvious Jane was behind it, back then people just thought she was staying to nurse him back to health out of the goodness of her heart.
When nursing him back to health didn’t make him love her like she wanted, she went straight to threatening him. She threatened to claim that he’d gotten her pregnant, which would lead to a huge scandal that, as you can guess, was just not done back then.
But this backfired on Jane when Oramel threw her out of the house.
With nowhere else to go, Jane tried to kill herself by OD’ng on morphine, but was instead rushed to the hospital. When she was released, she went to visit a friend of hers who lived with her brother, in Amherst New Hampshire.
The case that would lead to Jane’s eventual capture would be the murders of the Davis family.
At one point, she’d rented a cottage from a family named Davis. But, she hadn’t paid the rent on the cottage and was overdue. Mattie Davis, the wife of the homeowner Alden Davis, came to collect the rent from Jane one day while she was still in Cambridge, but Jane ended up killing her with a mix of morphine and atropine.
She then moved in to work as a nurse and care for elderly Alden Davis after his wife’s sudden death. In “taking care of him”, she killed him and two of his married daughters Minni and Geraldine.
Minnie’s father in law had doubts about the sudden deaths of an entire healthy family, and the fact that they all happened so close to each other. He got a judge to order for Minnie’s body to be exhumed and a toxicologist took a look. They found that Minnie and the others had died from a mix of morphine and atropine poison.
In 1901, a state detective from Massachusetts was following Jane. After the bodies of those she’d cared for who’d ended up dying “suddenly” were exhumed, she was arrested and went to trial for murder in 1902.
To her lawyer, Jane confessed that she’d killed at least 30 people, maybe more, as she’d never really bothered to keep track.
Her reason for murder? Well her boyfriend dumped her when she was 16 see, and after that everything was fair game.
“If I had been a married woman, I probably would not have killed all of those people,” she said. “I would have had my husband, my children and my home to take up my mind.”
Her trial took around 8 hours. The jury initially found her not guilty, but when she confessed to her lawyer, that she had killed at least 30 and maybe more, and enjoyed climbing into bed with them to hold them while they die, another trial was immediately scheduled and she was found guilty by reason of insanity after the jury had deliberated for 27 minutes.
When she first arrived, she was initially afraid to eat or drink anything there, thinking that the doctors there wouldn’t hesitate in giving her a dose of her own medicine and poison her if they got the chance.
Many attendants remember her as the sweet old woman, who would call them into her room and smile while saying “Get some morphine dearie, and we’ll go out in the ward. You and I will have a lot of fun seeing them die.”
Jane Toppan remained in the asylum until 1983, when she died at the age of 81.