True Crime Sunday: Jane Toppan

Welcome back to True Crime Sunday! This week we’re taking a look at a murderous nurse.

Jane Toppan was born Honora Kelley in 1854. After her mother’s death, she was abandoned by her father and sent to an orphanage with her sister.

After two years, she was released as an indentured servant to a wealthy family. Though she wasn’t formally adopted by the family, Honora took their last name and they changed her first name to Jane.

In 1885, Jane began training to be a nurse at Cambridge Hospital. She was well liked and even earned herself the nickname “Jolly Jane.” As a nurse she befriended some of the patients, mainly the elderly ones. It wasn’t long before she started experimenting on her patients with morphine and atropine. She wanted to see what the variety of doses would do to the patients’ nervous systems. It’s also said Toppan wanted to see if she could see their souls in their eyes as they died. She would also make up false charts for them to keep them in the hospital longer and under her care.

In 1889, she went to Massachusetts General Hospital, but she was fired the following year. However, the firing didn’t come soon enough to prevent her from further experiments on her patients.

After she was fired, she became a private nurse where she kept herself busy. Toppan worked for several wealthy families and would poison some of her clients and take their possessions. However, she no longer focused on just her patients. She also poisoned her landlords, her foster sister, and her clients and their daughters. She would on occasion fake being poisoned herself to gain sympathy, and presumably, take some of the suspicion off of herself.

It was after the murder of the clients’ daughters via a metallic based poison that police became suspicious and launched an investigation.  In 1901, she was arrested and by the following year, she had confessed to thirty-one murders. However, some reports claim she was suspected of and took credit for over one hundred. She allegedly told officials, “That is my ambition, to have killed more people — more helpless people — than any man or woman who has ever lived.”

At her trial, she was found not guilty by reason of insanity and sentenced to Taunton Insane Asylum. At the asylum, she reportedly refused to eat and said she was afraid her food had been poisoned. She lived at the asylum until her death in 1938.

Some sources claim Toppan was America’s first female serial killer. However, some of you may remember a post about Belle Gunness, whose crimes spanned the years of 1884-1908… maybe longer depending on if you believe she faked her death in that fire. There’s also a woman who supposedly began earlier than that. Join me next week as I look at her case.

Looking for more?

America’s First Female Serial Killer: Jane Toppan and the Making of a Monster by Mary Kay McBrayer

Fatal by Harold Schechter

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