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
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
A-Z Encyclopedia of Serial Killers,
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 (1857–1938), 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
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
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."