That is my ambition, to have killed more people — more helpless people — than any man or woman who has ever lived.Jane Toppan
On August 17th, 1854 a woman called Honora Kelley was born in Boston. Her parents Bridget Kelley and Peter Kelley were Irish immigrants. Nora (as Honora was known) was the youngest of three daughters.
Nora lost her Mother to tuberculosis when she was an infant and her Father was a known alcoholic. He was often abusive, eccentric and most people who knew him, knew him as ‘Kelley the Crack’ for being a ‘crackpot’. He was a tailor and suffered with mental health issues. He was soon confined to an asylum after he was found in his shop, trying to stitch his eyelids together. Nora and her sisters briefly lived with their Grandmother until she gave them over to a local orphanage.
The Boston Female Asylum was the orphanage the sisters were sent to, which was founded in 1803 by a woman named Hannah Stillman, a wife of a Reverend, Samuel Stillman. It was an asylum that claimed to be “for the care of indigent girls” and to “receive, protect and instruct female orphans until the age of ten years old, when they are placed in respectable families”.
A man named Abner Toppan and his wife legally adopted Nora in 1859 when she was only five years old. There weren’t any records about Nora’s sisters, but people who claimed they knew her sister Delia, said that she became a sex worker. Her sister Nellie who was too old to go into an orphanage, was apparently sent to an asylum, like their Father had been. Abner’s wife Ann Toppan didn’t like the Irish and she made Nora aware of this. It was Ann’s decision to change Nora’s name to ‘Jane’.
When Ann sent Jane to school, she didn’t make friends easily and was known to make up stories about her family. She would tell teachers about what the students were getting up to and also told them the students had done what Jane had actually done. But she excelled at her schoolwork and was known to be quite bright.
When her time with the Toppan’s came to and end, she decided to stay on. When Ann passed away in the 1870’s, Jane worked for her foster sister, Elizabeth. Jane got engaged to a man and planned to move away with him, but stayed on working when she found out her fiancé was playing away with another woman. Which resulted in Jane attempting to commit suicide twice.
In 1880, Jane signed up as a student nurse at a Cambridge Hospital. She, unlike in school, was able to make loads of friends. They nicknamed her ‘Jolly Jane’. Being a student nurse was hard, the hours were long, the patients could be challenging. But she thrived on the opportunity to reinvent herself, to change her life for the better.
She got close with her patients and often spoke about how she had her favourites. The friends she made with colleagues were sometimes a little disturbed by Jane and how obsessed she became with autopsies. At one point, Jane was dismissed from her residency when two patients mysteriously died whilst in her care. What she had been doing was experimenting with morphine and atropine with her patients, changing their doses to see what it would do.
In 1889, Jane started working at Massachusetts General Hospital. She claimed that she had killed more patients here before she was fired a year later. After a short period, she returned to Cambridge Hospital but it didn’t take long until she was dismissed due to giving out opiates.
In 1895, Jane was at Wendell Street in Cambridge. An erderly couple called Israel and Lovey Dunham walked by and Jane decided that Israel was “feeble and fussy”, so she killed him. It was seen as a heart attack and two years later, she finished the couple off by killing his wife, Lovey. Jane believed there “wasn’t much point in keeping old people alive”.
August 1899, Jane went on holiday to a rented cottage in Cape Cod. She had been going there for several years, but this time she took Elizabeth, her foster sister along with her. Jane hated Elizabeth, she was a symbol of Jane’s childhood torment from Anne Toppan. Anne had told Jane she wasn’t the real Toppan, Elizabeth was and Jane hated Elizabeth for that.
Elizabeth’s husband Oramel got a telegraph a few days after they left for Cape Cod, telling him that his wife was very ill. He made his way to Cape Cod to look after his wife, but he was too late. His wife was in a coma, the doctor told him it was a result of an apoplectic stroke. Elizabeth never woke from the coma, and Jane attended her funeral.
Jane has become good friends with a matron of St John’s Theological School at Cambridge, Elmyra Connors. Myra suffered with peritonitis, an infection via the blood or rupture of an abdominal organ. Her infection got worse when she asked Jane to come and nurse her. At her funeral, Jane spoke to Myra’s boss about how Myra was going to leave her job and request that Jane replaced her, and right there, he offered Jane the job. A year after being employed, she was asked to resign due to lack of experience in management.
Upset that she lost her job, she returned to Cape Cod where she had killed her sister, the cottage belonged to Alden and Mattie Davis. They liked Jane, who had been a good customer of theirs since 1896. In 1900, Jane asked for an extension due to not being able to pay her rent, but she didn’t end up paying at all. This was when Mattie Davis travelled to Boston, to confront Jane in person. Jane was living with Melvin and Eliza Beedle, of whom she had tried to poison, but hadn’t given them enough. They became ill, with what seemed like food poisoning and then regained their health. Mattie showed up to confront Jane, who offered her a glass of water that she had laced with morphine, when she became ill, Jane ‘nursed’ her. She topped her up with morphine injections, which caused her to go into a coma. When the doctor arrived, Jane told him that Mattie was a diabetic and ate cake, and the doctor didn’t suspect anything.
July 4th, 1901, Mattie Davis died. Jane even took the body to Davis’ home in Cataumet, Massachusetts for burial. Her death was ruled as heart failure. Mattie’s husband Alden hired Jane to be the families’ private nurse.
Jane tormented the family by setting random fires and blaming it on some stranger she had seen “skulking about”. However, it wasn’t long before she grew bored and the opportunity brought itself to her. Annie was grief stricken after her Mother’s death, and went to Jane for consolation. Jane told Mary (their other daughter) that she had seen Annie with arsenic in the shed. Then Jane used the arsenic to kill her. Her death was recorded as heart disease. Two weeks later, Alden passed away from ‘grief’ or so it was reported, but it was at the hands of Jane and her morphine. Not taking any chances, she then killed Mary, which meant that the whole family was dead.
Mary’s husband couldn’t get his head around what had happened, he refused to believe that the deaths of his entire family-in-law in the space of six weeks were by natural causes. He was in such disbelief that he demanded an autopsy on his late wife. Jane, of course tried her hardest to stop an autopsy from being done, but the police, upon looking at the records of all the deaths, suspecting foul play.
Mary’s father-in-law was no other than Captain Paul Gibbs, he too, didn’t think that the deaths of the entire Davis family were natural causes. He looked into everything and knew that Jane was suspicious. A doctor by the name of Ira Cushing was on holiday in the area, and he had seen Alden the day before he died, and he too, found it weird that he died from grief.
Ira and Paul got together and tried to get to the bottom of it all. They contacted the governor of Cuba and was introduced to Leonard Wood. He was a US military governor of Cuba at the time, he had studied medicine and was a surgeon in the military before going into the officer corps. With Teddy Roosevelt, they formed the famous ‘Rough Riders’ to fight in the war.
Leonard was on holiday in Cape Cod when he had a visit from an old family friend, Paul Gibbs. Without question Leonard got an investigation on the way. Whilst this was happening, Jane went to visit her brother-in-law, Reverend Oramel. Whilst she was there, she killed his sister with morphine, then used morphine on Oramel to make him sick. She nursed him back to health, she tried it on with him and when he rejected her, she took an overdose of morphine. With her knowledge, she knew that the dose wouldn’t kill her, but it did send her to hospital.
Discharged from the hospital, Jane went to visit a friend named Sarah Nichols. The result of the autopsy came back, they found lethal doses of morphine. The police went to arrest Jane, but Jane had already fled to Amherst, New Hampshire, to visit her friend Sarah Nichols. Luckily for Sarah a few weeks after she arrived, in October 1901, police found Jane and arrested her. When questioned, Jane admitting to poisoning the Davis family, but also eleven other victims. It was only when she was with her lawyer, that she told the truth, with there being thirty-one total victims.
Jane was declared insane by the court and sent to the state asylum for life at Taunton, Massachusetts. She died in Taunton Insane Hospital, August 1938, when she was eighty-four years old. The staff at the hospital said she was “a quiet old lady”, but other staff remembered how she would smile at them and ask them to go into her room with her as she would say “get some morphine, dearie” and “and we’ll go out in the ward. You and I will have a lot of fun seeing them die.”
Victims that Toppan named in court are;
Israel Dunham: Patient, died May 26, 1895. Aged 83
Lovely Dunham: Patient, died September 19, 1897. Aged 87
Elizabeth Brigham: Foster sister, died August 29, 1899. Aged 70
Mary McNear: Patient, died December 28, 1899. Aged 70
Florence Calkins: Housekeeper for Elizabeth, died January 15, 1900. Aged 45
William Ingraham: Patient, died January 27, 1900. Aged 70
Sarah (Myra) Connors: Patient, died February 11, 1900. Aged 48
Mattie Davis: Wife of Alden, died July 4, 1901. Aged 62
Genevieve Gordon (Annie): Daughter of Alden & Mattie, died July 31, 1901.
Alden Davis: Husband of Mattie, died August 8, 1901. Aged 64
Mary (Minnie) Gibbs: Daughter of Alden & Mattie, died August 13, 1901. Aged 40
Edna Bannister: Sister-in-law of Elizabeth, died August 26, 1901. Aged 77