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Serial killer

       September 16, 2015 4:08 PM

 America's Most Prolific Female Killer


JANE TOPPEN (1857 - 1938)

The killings began in 1887. Only 14 years later in 1901 did Jane Toppen confess to murdering 31 people. Experts believe she killed dozens more, perhaps as many as 100. A trained nurse, she worked at two prestigious Massachusetts hospitals and as a private nurse. Her patients liked her and dubbed her Jolly Jane. Wrong. Jane was a diabolical serial killer.

Her early life was loveless and miserable. Born in 1857 in Lowell, MA, Honora Kelly was the youngest child of Irish immigrants, Bridget and Paul Kelly. Bridget died of consumption when Honora was six. Paul was an alcoholic prone to violent outbursts. In 1863 he placed Honora, 6, and her sister Delia, 8, in the Boston Female Asylum, an orphanage for poor girls. Honora never saw her father again. Mentally ill, he and his oldest daughter were both institutionalized.

Asylums and Servitude

During the 1800s, charities and religious groups cared for orphans or children of parents unable to care for them, usually due to poverty. Children did not stay in these institutions for long. Girls were taught domestic skills and farmed out as indentured servants. In return, they got room and board and whatever clothes the foster family gave them. At 18, they were given $50 and sent on their way.

In 1864, at the tender age of 7, Honora became an indentured servant in the home of Ann Toppen, a wealthy widow who lived in Lowell, MA. Her daughter Elizabeth, 25, also lived there with her husband Oramel Brigham, a railroad worker and a deacon at a local Protestant church. Although never adopted, Honora changed her name to Jane Toppen. As the years passed, Jane grew envious of her much older foster-sister. Elizabeth was pretty, privileged and married. She was plain Jane, a lowly servant, ashamed of her impoverished Irish-Catholic heritage.

Romance Gone Wrong

Jane's Irish blue eyes and chubby red cheeks attracted the attention of a Lowell office worker. But Jane's dreams of marriage were dashed when he moved away and married another girl. To hide her disappointment Jane spun tall tales to her friends, most of them outright lies. She eased her sorrows with food, eventually packing 170 pounds on her 5-foot-3 frame. Year by year, her hatred of Elizabeth grew.

When Mrs. Toppen died, Elizabeth inherited her fortune. Jane, the resentful foster-child servant, received nothing. By 1874 Jane had fulfilled her indentured obligations, but she had few skills and nowhere to go. She stayed in the Toppen home for ten more years, serving her hated foster-sister Elizabeth and her husband Oramel Brigham. In 1887, Jane, now 30, moved to Cambridge, MA, to study nursing at Cambridge Hospital. Unaware of Jane's hatred, Elizabeth urged her to come back and visit whenever she wanted. That turned out to be a mistake.

Scientific Experiments

Above: Cambridge Hospital, c. 1906

At nursing school Jane told lies and spread vicious rumors about girls she didn't like. Nurses suspected she stole from wealthy patients, but she was never caught. A quick learner, Jane did well in her studies and curried favor with doctors and administrators. In those days, a nurse's duties included the prescription and administration of drugs, often not monitored by doctors.

In the wards of Cambridge Hospital, Jane began her "scientific experiments.” Unlike serial killers who use knives or axes, Jane used a deadly cocktail of morphine and atropine. At that time both drugs were used freely as pain killers or to treat diseases like whooping-cough. Morphine causes the pupils to contract and breathing to slow. Atropine has the opposite effect: an overdose causes pupils to dilate and induces a giddy exuberance and painful spasms that end in death.

Jane enjoyed their agitation. To prolong their suffering, sometimes for weeks, she altered the dosages, bringing them close to death, then reviving them, then delivering the deadly dose. Seeing them die gave her a sexual thrill. Sometimes she got in bed with her victims. To prevent doctors from discovering her deadly deeds, Jane altered their charts. Experts believe she killed dozens of patients at Cambridge Hospital.

A New Hospital, More Victims

A more prestigious medical facility in nearby Boston was growing. Massachusetts General Hospital (photo left) built the first facility in the United States designed to perform surgery in a sterile environment in 1888.

The Bradlee Operating Theater [photo right] imposed rigid rules to  maintain sterile conditions, greatly improving a patient's chances for recovery. As long as Jane Toppen wasn't their nurse.

Armed with glowing recommendations from doctors at Cambridge Hospital, Jane transferred to MGH to acquire more training.

Within the wards of MGH (photo left) her deadly experiments continued. Many patients died under her care. One survived.

Treated for a uterine ulcer, Amelia Phinney asked Jane for drugs to ease her pain. Jane happily complied. Barely conscious, Amelia realized Jane had gotten in bed with her. Helpless, she lay still as Jane petted her hair and kissed her face. Fortunately, someone came in the room and Jane left. Later Amelia awoke with a severe headache, thinking the experience had been a hideous dream. Only 14 years later after Jane was arrested for murder did Amelia tell authorities what happened.

Thefts and Patient Deaths

Eventually, Jane fell under suspicion at MGH. Cash and expensive belongings disappeared from wealthy patients under her care. Officials also suspected her of altering drug dosages for her patients. Several of them died. In 1890, she was discharged from MGH without receiving her nursing license even though she had passed the final and her diploma was signed.

Jane, 33, returned to Cambridge Hospital but was soon dismissed for "administering opiates recklessly.” In 1891 she became a full-time private nurse. This afforded her even more control over her helpless patients. The body count rose. Doctors attributed the deaths to strokes or heart failure. Worse, Jane stole from them. Grief-stricken relatives wondered where their loved one's missing belongings were. Loathe to waste her hard-earned money on rent, Jane poisoned her landlord in 1895, moved in with his widow and lived there rent-free. In 1897, she poisoned the widow.

Revenge At Last

For several years Jane spent her summer vacations on Cape Cod. In August 1899, Jane, 42, invited her hated foster-sister to visit. The unsuspecting Elizabeth, 60, [photo left] left her husband at home and joined Jane at her cottage in Bourne. One sunny afternoon they had a picnic on the beach in Buzzards Bay.

The next day Elizabeth fell ill. Two days later she was dead. A doctor attributed her sudden death to a "stroke of apoplexy.” In truth, Jane poisoned her. She later claimed that Elizabeth was "the first of my victims that I actually hated and poisoned with vindictive purpose.” When Elizabeth's husband Oramel arrived, Jane convinced him that Elizabeth wanted her to inherit some of her belongings. Jane later pawned them.

More Murders, More Thefts

By now Jane had set her sights on other ways to make money. Her friend Myra Conners [photo left] was the dining matron at The Theological School. In February 1900, Jane poisoned Myra and took over her job. But this time her thieving ways did her in. In November 1900, the Theological School fired her due to financial irregularities.

Undaunted, she rented an apartment in Cambridge from Melvin and Eliza Beedle in 1901. Ever resourceful, Jane poisoned their housekeeper and labeled her a drunk when the poor woman fell into a coma. The Beedles fired the housekeeper. Jane took over her duties and lived there, rent-free of course.

Jane's Downfall

Davis family property in Bourne, Cape Cod, MA

Since 1896 Jane had rented a cottage each summer from the Davis family on Cape Cod. One of their favorite guests, Jane was well-liked, and people often consulted her on medical matters. But by 1901 Jane owed $500 in back rent. Determined to collect it, the family matriarch, "Mattie” Davis, 62, went to Jane's home in Cambridge. A week later she went home in a coffin. The official cause of death: diabetes.

Jane accompanied the body to Bourne, attended the funeral and moved into the Davis home to care for Mattie's grief-stricken husband, Alden Davis, 65. Within weeks, the entire family was dead. After Mattie's funeral, two married daughters remained at the cottage. Genevieve Gorder's husband returned to Chicago. Mary "Minnie” Gibbs lived with her husband nearby on Cape Cod, but she too stayed at the cottage.

A month after her mother died, Genevieve went to bed with an upset stomach. The next day she was dead. A heart attack, said the local doctor. Two weeks later her father fell ill and died. The doctor deemed it a cerebral hemorrhage.

Days later, early in August, Minnie Gibbs [photo left] the last remaining family member, died. Some suspected Jane had a hand in these deaths. But they couldn't prove it.

Another Marriage Dream Thwarted

On August 26, Jane went to Lowell to visit Elizabeth's widower, Oramel Brigham. She wanted him to marry her. The problem: Oramel's 70-year-old sister was staying at his house. Jane gave her one of her deadly cocktails. The sister slipped into a coma and died.

However, on August 31 Minnie's father-in-law, Captain Paul Gibbs, convinced a toxicologist that Minnie had been poisoned and they exhumed Minnie's body. Jane read about this in a newspaper. She poisoned Oramel and nursed him back to health, hoping to convince him to marry her. To no avail. Distraught, Jane took an overdose of morphine on September 29. That didn't work either. When Jane recovered, Oramel threw her out. Jane fled to New Hampshire to stay with a friend. But not for long.

Murder Charges and Trial Delays

On October 29, 44-year-old Jane Toppen was arrested for the murder of Minnie (Davis) Gibbs. While awaiting trial, Jane remained in the Barnstable jail on Cape Cod. She befriended the jailer's wife, who fed her well. Always plump, Jane [photo left] gained even more weight.

Captain Gibbs, Minnie's father-in-law, convinced prosecutors that Jane had poisoned the rest of the Davis clan with morphine and atrophine. Their bodies were exhumed and tested for drugs. On December 6, 1901, Jane was charged with four counts of murder, one for each Davis family member.

Sensational Headlines

Newspapers across the country printed sensational articles about Jolly Jane, comparing her to Lucretia Borgia and Catherine de Medici, two of history's most ruthless women.

The Boston Globe branded Jane "the greatest criminal in the country.” The Boston Traveler called her crimes "the most horrible case of degeneracy the world has ever known.”

In June 1902, reporters and people from all over New England filled the Barnstable County Courthouse. The trial lasted only eight hours. After deliberating 20 minutes, the jury found Jane Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity.

She was ordered to spend the rest of her life in the Taunton Insane Hospital. Oddly, Jane seemed thrilled at the verdict. During a psychiatric evaluation by a panel of experts prior to the trial, Jane claimed to have an irresistible sexual impulse to kill and confessed to 11 murders. But Jane secretly believed she would easily convince the hospital officials of her sanity and quickly be set free.

However, Jane had also confessed to her defense lawyer that she had committed 31 murders. William Randolph Hearst, owner of the New York Journal, published her confession. Among the revelations: Jane boasted about fooling the psychiatrists who deemed her insane. She had outsmarted a panel of experts! She described the exquisite thrill she got from killing patients, saying she felt not a hint of remorse. She blamed her dastardly deeds on the man who jilted her in her youth.

"If I had been a married woman, I probably would not have killed all of those people. I would have had my husband, my children and my home to take up my mind.” Her one regret: "Poisoning four people in one family at once,” she said, "was the greatest mistake of my life.”

Life in the Insane Asylum

On June 24, 1902, Jane entered the Taunton Insane Hospital (photo right) a grim and forbidding institution built in 1854, prior to the Civil War.

For a time, Jane appeared to do well. Photos of Jane after the first year below.

But during her second year, she deteriorated. Photos of Jane after her second year are below. Note her gaunt cheeks and distant stare.

For the next three decades Jane's mental state slowly deteriorated. Although she weighed 200 pounds when she entered the hospital, over the years her weight dwindled. Ironically, for a time, she refused to eat any of the hospital food. She believed it had been poisoned.

On August 17, 1938, Jane died of natural causes at the age of 81 at the Taunton Insane Hospital.

This was an unusual case. Please leave a comment and tell me what you think about it!


Jolly Jane, Part 1 & 2, Wicked Yankee Blogspot, January 2014

Jane Toppan, "Jolly Jane,” murderpedia.org/female.T/images/toppan-jane/jane-toppan-info.pdf

True Tales of Murder and Mayhem, Michael Blanding, Boston Magazine, July 2014

The Rise and Demise of the American Orphanage, Dale Keiger, Johns Hopkins Magazine, April 1996

Museum at Mass General, Bradlee Operating Theater, Massgeneral.org

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[ Posted by Mira Prabhu, September 17, 2015 10:32 AM ]
     Bravo, Susan Fleet, you really know how to dish up the gory details! I'm writing a novel about a serial killer too...so your tales are especially interesting to me. Thank you!

[ Posted by admin, September 17, 2015 10:39 AM ]
     Thanks for the comment, Mira. I do serial killer novels too. That's how I evolved into putting up this true crime website. Glad you "enjoyed" Jane. Good luck with your novel!

[ Posted by Diane Amaral, September 18, 2015 1:08 PM ]
     Was she caught because of the number of murders, makes me wonder how many get "away" with murder? I don't want to know. I am sure there is a study somewhere that gives the number. The Brits seem to do studies on crazy topics.

[ Posted by admin, September 18, 2015 3:04 PM ]
     Thanks for the comment! She was caught because she killed the entire Davis family and someone (Mattie's father in law) figure it out and got someone to test the bodies for drugs. However, the situation in hospitals back then was quite lax compared to current practice. Fortunately, most nurses were not serial killers like Jane!

posted by SUSAN FLEET   September 16, 2015 4:08 PM  Serial Killers 


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