Jane Toppan

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Jane Toppan (Jolly Jane)
Jane Toppan.jpg
Honora Kelley

March 31, 1854
DiedOctober 29, 1938 (age 84)
Criminal penaltynot guilty by reason of insanity
Span of crimes
Date apprehended
October 29, 1901; 118 years ago (1901-10-29)

Jane Toppan (March 31, 1854 – October 29, 1938), born Honora Kelley, was an American serial killer, nicknamed "Jolly Jane". After her arrest in 1901, she confessed to 31 murders. 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".[1]

Early life[edit]

Though scant records survive of Toppan's early years, it is known that her parents were Irish immigrants,[2] and her mother, Bridget Kelley, died of tuberculosis when she was very young.[3] Her father, Peter Kelley, was well known as an alcoholic,[4] very abusive, and eccentric, nicknamed by those who knew him "Kelley the Crack" (as in "crackpot").[2] In later years Kelley became 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[3] while working as a tailor.

In 1863, only 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, an orphanage for indigent female children. Kelley surrendered the two girls, never to see them again. Documents from the asylum note that they were "rescued from a very miserable home".

No records exist of Delia and Honora's experiences during their time in the asylum, but reportedly Delia became a sex worker, while their older sister Nellie (who was not committed to the orphanage) was committed to an asylum.[2] In November 1864, less than two years after her father had left them, 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 Toppan.[2] The Toppan original family already had a daughter, Elizabeth; she and Toppan got along.[3]


An article in the Hoosier State Chronicles published shortly after her arrest reported that Toppan would fondle her victims as they died and attempt to see the inner workings of their souls through their eyes.[5] When Toppan was questioned (after her arrest), she stated she derived a sexual thrill from patients being near death, coming back to life and then dying again.[6] Toppan administered a drug mixture to the patients she chose as her victims, lay with them and held them close to her as they died.[6]

Toppan is often considered an 'angel of death', a type of serial killer who takes on a caretaker role and attacks the vulnerable and dependent,[7] though she also murdered for seemingly more personal reasons, such as in the case of the Davis family. It is possible Toppan was also motivated by jealousy, in the case of the murder of her foster sister. She later described her motivation as a paralysis of thought and reason, a strong urge to poison.[4]

Toppan used poison for more than just murder, reportedly poisoning a housekeeper just enough so that she appeared drunk in order to steal her job and kill the family.[3] She even poisoned herself to evoke the sympathy of men she was courting.[2]


In 1885, Toppan began training to be a nurse at Cambridge Hospital. While she was there she had a lot of friends, and was well liked. Unlike her early years, where she was described as brilliant and terrible, at the hospital she was well liked, bright and friendly, evoking the nickname 'Jolly Jane'.[2] Once Toppan became close with the patients, she picked her favorite ones. The patients were normally elderly, and very sick. During her residency, she used her patients as guinea pigs in experiments with morphine and atropine; she altered their prescribed dosages to see what it did to their nervous systems. However, she spent considerable time alone with patients, making up fake charts and medicating them to drift in and out of consciousness and even getting into bed with them.

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 administering opiates recklessly. She then began a career as a private nurse and flourished despite complaints of petty theft.[5]

She began her poisoning spree in earnest in 1895 by killing her landlord, Israel Dunham, and his wife.[2] In 1899, she killed her foster sister Elizabeth with a dose of strychnine.[2] 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, Mattie (whom Toppan had murdered).[2] Within weeks, she killed Davis,[8] his sister Genevieve, and two of his daughters, Minnie and Edna.[2]

The surviving members of the Davis family ordered a toxicology exam on Alden Davis' youngest daughter, Minnie.[2] The report found that she had been poisoned, and local authorities put a police detail on Toppan. On October 29, 1901, she was arrested for murder. By 1902, she had confessed to 31 murders.[5]

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. 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, but nonetheless she was declared insane and committed.[5] 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.[2]


Victims Toppan identified are:[9]

  • Israel Dunham: patient, died on May 26, 1895, aged 83
  • Lovely Dunham: patient, died on September 19, 1897, aged 87
  • Elizabeth Brigham: foster sister, died on August 29, 1899, aged 70
  • Mary McNear: patient, died on December 28, 1899, aged 70
  • Florence Calkins: housekeeper for Elizabeth, died on January 15, 1900, aged 45
  • William Ingraham: patient, died on January 27, 1900, aged 70
  • Sarah (Myra) Connors: patient and friend, died on February 11, 1900, aged 48
  • Mattie Davis: Wife of Alden, died on July 4, 1901, aged 62
  • Genevieve Gordon (Annie): daughter of Alden and Mattie, died on July 31, 1901
  • Alden Davis: died on August 8, 1901, aged 64
  • Mary (Minnie) Gibbs: daughter of Alden and Mattie, died on August 13, 1901, aged 40
  • Edna Bannister: sister-in-law of Elizabeth, died on August 26, 1901, aged 77

Fictional portrayals and legacy[edit]

In the independent film American Nightmare, written and directed by Jon Keves, 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."[10]

Toppan was featured in an episode of Deadly Women and episodes of the podcasts Criminal, My Favorite Murder, an episode of Hellevator, and Lore.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Outlaw Women: The Wild West's Most Notorious Daughters, Wives, and Mothers". R. B. Smith ISBN 978-1-442-24729-1 p. 155
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Potts, Michael. "Jane Toppan: A Greed, Power, and Lust Serial Killer". Academia. Retrieved 12 October 2017.
  3. ^ a b c d Myers, Jennifer (2 November 2011). "For 10 years, 'Jolly Jane' poured her poison". Lowellsun.
  4. ^ a b Los Angeles Herald (6 November 1904). "Jane Toppan's Moral Insanity". California Digital Newspaper Collection.
  5. ^ a b c d The Indianapolis Journal (25 June 1902). "Jane Toppan's Crimes: Confessed to Killing Thirty-one Human Beings. Also Told Her Counsel She Set Fires and Committed Other Serious Offenses. Said She Was Not Insane Knew What She Was Doing And Therefore Could Not Be Mad". Hoosier State Chronicles. Retrieved 11 October 2017.
  6. ^ a b "When Women Kill Together". The Forensic Examiner. American College of Forensic Examiners Institute (ACFEI). 22 March 2007. Archived from the original on 2 February 2010. Retrieved 27 June 2017.
  7. ^ Farrell, A. L.; Keppel, R. D.; Titterington, V. B. (2013). "Testing Existing Classifications of Serial Murder Considering Gender: An Exploratory Analysis of Solo Female Serial Murderers". Journal of Investigative Psychology and Offender Profiling. 10 (3): 268–288. doi:10.1002/jip.1392.
  8. ^ "Outlaw Women: The Wild West's Most Notorious Daughters, Wives, and Mothers". R. B. Smith ISBN 978-1-442-24729-1 p. 157
  9. ^ "Poison Her Passion". The Clinton Morning Age. 27 July 1902. Retrieved 24 April 2017.
  10. ^ Beard, William Randall (21 March 2011). "Women who've killed". Minneapolis StarTribune. Archived from the original on 24 March 2011. Retrieved 27 March 2011.


  • Schechter, Harold - Fatal: The Poisonous Life of a Female Serial Killer (2003)
  • Lane, Brian and Gregg, Wilfred - The Encyclopedia of Serial Killers (1995)

External links[edit]