If history has taught us anything, it’s that serial killers come in all shapes, sizes and nationalities. Oh… and genders, as well. Case in point: prolific serial killer Jane Toppan (born as Honora Kelley, known to law enforcement and the public as “Jolly Jane”), who, by her own admission, killed 33 people.
Honora was quite possibly genetically predisposed to some degree of insanity; her father Peter Kelley was rumored to have gone so mad as to sew his own eyelids shut while working as a tailor. Honora’s mother Bridget was essentially a non-factor in raising her child, as she died of tuberculosis when Honora was still a young child.
The future never looked all too bright for Honora Kelley; her father, continuing his mental spiral, had both her and her sibling committed to the Boston Female Asylum — a facility that housed needy young ladies. Honora would never see her father again.
Little is known of her time in the institution, though it is known that in November 1864, two years after being left in the care of those at the orphanage, Honora Kelley was placed as an indentured servant in the home of Mrs. Ann C. Toppan of Lowell, Massachusetts. Honora would eventually drop the name Kelley in exchange for Toppan. The name Jane soon stuck as well.
Roughly 20 years after being rescued by the Toppan family, Jane’s life took a strange turn: She began studying to become a nurse at Cambridge Hospital, and that opened a world of opportunity to begin to act on some of the darker things in Jane’s mind.
During her residency, she began to use her patients as guinea pigs, experimenting on them in numerous ways. She used abnormal doses of morphine and atropine, all the while examining her patients, and noting any changes in their nervous systems. But things didn’t stop there — Toppan’s depravity seemed to know no limits.
Jane would often administer staggering amounts of sedatives to keep her patients immobilized while she’d then climb in bed with them. The lengths of sexual abuse that occurred in these states is not known; however, after her eventual arrest, she told officials that she did enjoy a sexual thrill being so intimately close to patients near death, coming back to life and then dying again.
Jane had found a manner in which she could murder with little suspicion, and she seemed motivated by sexual desires — a statistically uncommon motive for female serial killers, who tend to murder for material gain. But Jane Toppan was not your common serial killer, and in 1889, after claiming a number of lives at Cambridge, she was soon transferred to the prestigious Massachusetts General Hospital… where her murderous ways continued.
Eventually she lost her position at Massachusetts General, and thus made a brief move back to Cambridge, where she ran into trouble as a result of over-prescribing opiates… and then made one final career adjustment: she began to work as a private nurse. It was a job she would flourish in financially, but her need for extermination would soon overtake her.
Jane killed her landlords in 1895; four years later, she murdered her foster sister Elizabeth with strychnine. But the killing had just begun.
Two years later, Jane would move in with the elderly Alden Davis and his family in Cataumet. Her focal duties required she take care of the man, as he’d already lost his wife — whom Jane actually killed. Within weeks, Jane had murdered Davis and two of his daughters.
With living quarters sabotaged by her own thirst for death, Jane moved back home, where she soon found herself being courted by her late foster sister’s husband. Jane would later kill the man’s sister, then poison him in order to impress him (for some odd reason) by nursing him back to health.
Jane’s strange behavior — and the pile of bodies left in her wake — soon caught up with her, as the surviving members of the Davis family ordered toxicology reports on Alden Davis’ youngest daughter, one of Jane’s many victims. These toxicology reports were conclusive: she had been poisoned, and there were no doubts as to who was responsible. Police immediately began a hunt for Toppan… and on October 29, 1901, she was arrested for murder.
Jane would never be a free woman again, as within a year she’d confessed to 31 murders. But this story doesn’t end without one big twist for good measure: Jane — or “Jolly Jane,” as she’d become known — would face a jury who would ultimately determine the prolific murderer’s fate. Somehow, “Jolly” Jane Toppan was found not guilty by reason of insanity. On June 23, Jane exited Barnstable County Courthouse, headed for the Taunton Insane Hospital.
It is here that Jane’s final days would inch away — no longer as a caregiver, but just a dangerous and damaged patient in her own need of care. She hung on to life until 1938, departing this world as an 80-year old serial killer who evaded prison bars for decades, despite exterminating more than 30 lives and forever damaging the lives of her victims’ families.