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Classification: Serial killer
Characteristics: Poisoner - Her ambition was "to have killed more people helpless people than any other man or woman who ever lived..."
Number of victims: 31 +
Date of murders: 1887 - 1901
Date of arrest: October 29, 1901
Date of birth: 1857
Victims profile: Hospital patients / Relatives
Method of murder: Poisoning (morphine and atropine)
Location: Middlesex County/Suffolk County, Massachusetts, USA
Status: Found not guilty by reason of insanity on June 23, 1902 and committed for life in the Taunton Insane Hospital. Died on August 17, 1938

Department of Psychology
Radford University




Jane Toppan (1880-1901) was a 26-year old nurse from Boston, Massachusetts who gave lethal injections of morphine to 31 hospital patients, and was suspected of having killed an additional 70 patients over the course of a two-decade career. When apprehended, she said she wanted to kill more people than anyone who has ever lived before, but could only provide details to solve 31 crimes. Her history of suicide attempts helped her win an insanity plea, and she was eventually confined to a state mental hospital for 40 years until she died in custody.



They call nurses "Angels of Mercy" -- and to all appearances, Jane Toppan fit the bill. Beside her obvious competence, she seemed to be sensitive, sympathetic woman who had worked for some of Boston's best families.

Of course, none of her employers knew anything about our hero's early years...

They did not know of her mother's tragic death when Janie was just a wee lass -- or of her father's subsequent insanity, which impelled him to stitch his own eyelids together. They weren't aware of Jane's own suicide attempts, or the morbid obsessions she displayed during her nursing years at Cambridge, where her bizarre fascination with autopsies troubled even her supervisors.

It wasn't until members of the Davis family began dropping like insects in 1901 that the terrible truth about Jane came out. Far from being an "Angel", she was, indeed, one of America's most twisted serial killers.

Mrs. Mattie Davis was the first to go, presumably of heart failure. She died while visiting her old friend, Jane Toppan. The elder Davis daughter, Annie Gordon, was so distraught she turned to Toppan for relief. Nurse Toppan obliged by giving her some injec- tions. Shortly thereafter, Annie followed her mom straight into the grave.

A few days later, the Davis patriarch, Captain Alden Davis, was felled -- supposedly by a "massive stroke". He, too, had been receiving medication from Toppan. That left just one surviving member of the family, a married daughter -- Mary Gibbs. Several days after her father's burial -- after placing herself under the care of our Nurse Gibbs -- Mary dropped dead, too...

With his wife's entire family wiped out in less than six weeks, Mary Gibbs' husband demanded an autopsy. Toppan did her best to prevent it, but the Mass. State Police, suspecting foul play, stepped in. The autopsy confirmed Mr. Gibbs' dark fears; His wife had been massively posioned with morphine and atropine. By then, Toppan had fled Boston.

She was eventually nabbed in Amherst, NH, October, 1901, but not before she managed to kill her own foster sister. She finally confessed to poisoning not only the Davis clan, but eleven other victims as well. Later, she would tell her lawyer that the true total was thirty-one.

Declared insane, she was confined to a state tardfarm, where she died peacefully in1938 at the ripe old age of eighty-four.

A-Z Encyclopedia of Serial Killers, Pocket Books


Toppan, Jane

Born Nora Kelly, in Boston, during 1854, Toppan lost her mother in infancy. Her father, a tailor, soon went insane, and was confined to an asylum after he was found in his shop, trying to stitch his own eyelids together. His four daughters lived briefly with their paternal grandmother, before they were relegated to a local orphanage. 

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 behavior that included efforts to predict the future through analysis of dreams. (A sister, Ellen, joined their father in the lunatic asylum after suffering a mental breakdown in her twenties.) 

Briefly stabilizing during 1880, Jane signed on as a student nurse at a hospital in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Once again, she 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. 

On July 4, 1901, an old friend, Mattie Davis, died under Jane's care at Cambridge, and Toppan accompanied the body home to Cataumet, Massachusetts, for burial. Retained as the family nurse by patriarch Alden Davis, Jane finished off his married daughter, Annie Gordon, on July 29. The old man's death, a few days later, was blamed on "a stroke," and his surviving daughter, Mary Gibbs, was pronounced dead on August 19. 

Mary's husband demanded an autopsy, and lethal doses of morphine were found in the three latest victims, but Jane was not finished, yet. Before her arrest in Amherst, New Hampshire, on October 29, she fed a lethal "tonic" to her foster sister, Edna Bannister, and she was working on another patient when police cut short her medical career. 

In custody, Toppan confessed to 31 murders, naming her victims, but students believe her final tally falls somewhere between 70 and 100 victims. No accurate list of her hospital victims was ever compiled, and various New England families avoided the scandal by refusing official requests for exhumations and autopsies. At trial, Jane's lawyer grudgingly conceded eleven murders, staking his hopes on a plea of insanity. Toppan cinched the case with her own testimony, telling the court, "That is my ambition, to have killed more people -- more helpless people -- than any man or woman who has ever lived." 

Declared insane, Toppan was confined for life to the state asylum at Taunton, Massachusetts, where she died in August 1938, at age 84. She was remembered by her keepers as "a quiet old lady," but older attendants remembered her smile as she beckoned them into her room. "Get some morphine, dearie," she would say, "and we'll go out in the ward. You and I will have a lot of fun seeing them die."

Michael Newton - An Encyclopedia of Modern Serial Killers - Hunting Humans


Jane Toppan (18571938), 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 helpless people than any other man or woman who ever lived..."

Early life

Though scant records survive of Toppan's early years, it is known that her parents were Irish immigrants, and her mother, Bridget Kelley, died of tuberculosis when she 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 rumors 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.

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. 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. Though never formally adopted by the Toppans, Honora took on the surname of her benefactors and eventually became known as Jane Toppan.

Delia remained in the institution until 1868 when she was placed as a servant in Athol, New York at the age of 12. Later she turned to prostitution, and eventually died a destitute alcoholic, in squalid conditions.


In 1885, Toppan began training to be a nurse at Cambridge Hospital. During her residency, she used her patients as guinea pigs in experiments with morphine and atropine; 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. 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; 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. She then began a career as a private nurse, which flourished despite complaints of petty theft.

She 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.

In 1901, Toppan moved in with the elderly Alden Davis and his family in Cataumet to take care of him after the death of his wife (whom 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 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. Whether or not that was truly Toppan's intention is unknown. She remained at Taunton for the rest of her life.

Fictional portrayals and legacy

Toppan is widely believed to have been the inspiration for "the Incomparable Bessie Denker", a character in William March's novel The Bad Seed, which Maxwell Anderson turned into a successful play and film. Like Toppan, Denker was a serial poisoner who began killing at a young age.

In the independent film American Nightmare, written and directed by John Keyes, Debbie Rochon portrays a serial killer named "Jane Toppan" who manages to kill numerous characters throughout the course of the film by various means. The character is also employed as a nurse. This character was inspired by Toppan.

Toppan was the subject of one of six monologues in the play Murderess by Anne Bertram, which premiered in St. Paul, Minnesota at Theatre Unbound. She was portrayed by Laura Wiebers in the segment The Truth About Miss Toppan, directed by Mishia Burns Edwards. The play opened to favorable reviews. Minneapolis StarTribune theater critic William Randall Beard called the Toppan segment "a chilling portrait of a sociopath nurse."




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