Jane Toppan was born on March 31st, 1854, as Honora Kelley in Boston, Massachusetts. Surviving records state that Toppan’s parents were Irish immigrants, and her mother, Bridget Kelley, died of tuberculosis when she was very young. Her father, Peter Kelley, was known to be an alcoholic, very abusive and eccentric. He was nicknamed by those who knew him as “Kelley the Crack”, as in crackpot. Kelley became the source of many local rumors concerning his alleged insanity in later years, the most popular of them being that his mental illness drove him to sew his own eyelids closed while working as a tailor.
In 1863, a few years after his wife’s death, Kelley took his two youngest children, eight year old Delia Josephine and six year old Honora, to the Boston Female Asylum, which was an orphanage for impoverished female children. Kelley gave up the two girls, and never saw them again. Documents from the asylum stated they were “rescued from a very miserable home”.
No records exist of Delia and Honora’s experiences during their time at the asylum, but it was reported that Delia became a sex worker, while their older sister Nellie was committed to a different asylum. In November 1864, less than two years after she was committed to the asylum, Honora was placed as a contacted servant in the home of Mrs. Ann C. Toppan of Lowell, Massachusetts. Although she was never formally adopted by the Toppans, Honora took the surname of her benefactors. The original Toppan family already had a daughter named Elizabeth, and she got along well with Honora.
In 1885, Toppan began training as a nurse at Cambridge Hospital. While she was there, she made a lot of friends and was well liked. Unlike her early years, where she was described as brilliant and terrible, she was bright, friendly and well liked at the hospital, which evoked the nickname ‘Jolly Jane’.
Once Toppan became close with the patients, she picked out her favorite ones. The patients were usually elderly and very sick. During her residency, she used her patients as guinea pigs in experiments with morphine and atropine by altering their prescribed dosages to see the effects of it to their nervous systems. She spent considerable time alone with patients, making up fake charts and medicating them to drift in and out of consciousness, and even got into bed with them.
Toppan was recommended for the prestigious Massachusetts General Hospital in 1889, and here she claimed several more victims before being fired in 1890. She returned to Cambridge Hospital for a short time but was fired soon after for administering opiates recklessly. She began a career as a private nurse and was successful, despite complaints of petty theft.
She began her poisoning spree in 1895 by killing her landlord Israel Dunham and his wife. In 1899, she killed her foster sister Elizabeth with a dose of strychnine. In 1901, Toppan moved in with an elderly man named Alden Davis and his family in Cataumet in order to care for him after the death of his wife Mattie, whom she had murdered. Within a few weeks, she killed Davis, his sister Genevieve, and two of his daughters, Minnie and Edna.
The surviving members of the Davis family requested a toxicology exam on Davis’ youngest daughter, Minnie. The report found that she was poisoned, and local authorities put a police detail on Toppan. She was arrested for murder on October 29th, 1901. In 1902, she had confessed to committing 31 murders.
Soon after the trail, one of William Randolph Hearst’s newspapers, the New York Journal, printed what was said to be Toppan’s confession to her lawyer that she killed more than 31 people, and she wanted the jury to find her insane so that she had the possibility of being released.
Toppan insisted upon her own sanity in court, claiming that she could not be insane if she knew what she was doing and knew that it was wrong. Nonetheless, she was declared mentally insane and committed.
On June 23rd, she was found not guilty by reason of insanity in the Barnstable County Courthouse, and was committed for life to the Taunton Insane Hospital. She died on August 17th, 1938, at the age of 80.
An article in the Hoosier State Chronicles which was published shortly after her arrest, reported that Toppan would fondle her victims as they died, and attempted to see the inner workings of their souls through their eyes.
When questioned after her arrest, Toppan said she derived a sexual thrill from patients who were near death, coming back to life and dying again. Toppan administered a mixture of drugs to the patients she chose to be her victims, laid with them and held them close as they died. Toppan is often called the “angel of death”, a type of serial killer who takes on a caretaker role and targets the vulnerable and dependent, although she killed for more personal reasons, which was the case for the Davis Family.
It was possible Toppan was motivated also by jealousy, as was the case in the murder of her foster sister. She later described her motivation as a paralysis of thought and reason, a strong urge to poison. Toppan used poison for more than murder; she reportedly poisoned a housekeeper just enough that she appeared to be drunk in order to steal her job and kill the family. She even poisoned herself to gain the sympathy of the men she was courting.