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Jane Toppan - "Jolly Jane"

Written By: Naomi

Trigger Warning: Molestation, Necrophilia...?


“Jolly Jane” was one of America's first female serial killers; she terrorized Massachusetts for six years and claimed the lives of 31 people, usually those who were defenseless like the sick and elderly.

Honora Kelley was born in Boston, Massachusetts on August 17th, 1854. Her parents were Irish immigrants named Bridget and Peter Kelley and she had older sisters named Delia Josephine Kelley and Nellie Kelley. Her mother, Bridget, died of tuberculosis when Honora was very young. Peter was the alcoholic of the community and was eccentric and abusive to his family. He was known as, “Kelley the Crack” since it was even rumored he was insane, sewing his eyelids shut when he worked as a tailor and institutionalized later in life.

A few years after his wife’s death he took his daughters Delia and Honora, ages eight and six at the time, to the Boston Female Asylum in 1863 that served as an orphanage for poor girls and surrendered them into the care of the Asylum, never seeing them again. The asylum paperwork notes that Delia and Honora had been “rescued from a very miserable home.” There is little known of what Delia and Honora’s lives were like in the asylum but Delia is reported to have become a sex worker and alcoholic like her father and Nellie who was still in the home was later committed to an asylum. The Boston Female Asylum’s mission was to house poor girls, protect, and instruct them until they were 10 years old and could be placed with respectable families, for Honora this meant that she was placed as an indentured servant less than two years after her father abandoned her in the home of Mrs. Ann C. Toppan in Lowell, Massachusetts. Honora was described as a child as,“brilliant and terrible” who would lie and steal, she was never formally adopted by the Toppans but Honora changed her name to Jane Toppan anyway and became close to Elizabeth who was the daughter of the Toppans. Regardless how welcomed she felt in her new home by Elizabeth though she felt she was inferior due to her being Irish, something Ann Toppan instilled in Jane since she herself hated the Irish and had suggested the name change so she did not sound as Gaelic.

19 years later in 1885 when Jane was 29 she began to train at Cambridge Hospital as a nurse. She was well liked and made many friends, she was bright and friendly earning the name, “Jolly Jane”. She was fascinated with autopsies and became close with some of her patients. Jane was one for picking favorites, usually the elderly and very ill. She would spend extended periods of time with these patients, she would make up false charts so they would stay in the hospital longer and would heavily medicate them so they would drift in and out of consciousness so she could also climb into bed with them at times. In her residency she treated her patients as lab rats, running experiments with morphine and atropine which is usually used for treating certain poisonings. She would also change the doses of their medications to see how it would affect their nervous system. She would often take them to the brink of death before healing them and sending them to the edge again. She was not caught during this time and was even recommended to the Massachusetts General Hospital in 1889. Here she experimented on several other patients before she was fired a year later. She was able to return to the hospital shortly after but was once again dismissed after it was found she was administering opiates recklessly to patients. From here she started her work as a private nurse where she was very successful even though there were some claims of petty theft from those she cared for.

Her killings began on May 26th, 1895 when she killed her landlord Israel Dunham when he was 83 and his wife Lovely Dunham two years later on September 19th, 1897 when she was 87. It is said that money and property were the main motives of this murder. Jane had been the nurse for the couple when both began to feel ill.

August 29th, 1899 Jane killed her foster sister Elizabeth Brigham she had been close to with strychnine which is a pesticide that causes painful convulsions and asphyxia when she was 70. Though Elizabeth had always been kind to Jane, Jane resented her for her beauty and the way Elizabeth’s mother had been verbally abusive to her, reminding her that she was lucky to be welcomed into the home but Elizabeth was the true Toppan.

In 1901 Jane moved in with Alden Davis who was an elderly man and his family to care for him after the death of his wife Mattie whom Jane had also murdered on July 4th, 1901 at the age of 62. At this time while she is yo-yoing him from the brink of death, Jane is also attempting to court Alden. Within weeks she claimed the lives of Alden and two of his daughters Minnie and Genevieve. During her time in the home she set small fires and would blame a person sneaking about the estate. The surviving family members requested a toxicology report of Minnie which exposed that she had been poisoned. This put all attention on Jane and she was arrested on October 29th, 1901 for murder but she had already claimed yet another life by then, Edna Bannister who was the sister-in-law of Elizabeth on August 26th, 1901 at the age of 77.

Shortly after her arrest there was an article published that reported that Jane would get into bed with her victims and fondle them as they died, wanting to, “see the inner workings of their souls through their eyes. Jane got a sexual thrill from her patients being near death, coming back from the edge only to perish later. Another story came out after Jane’s arrest, a patient named Amelia Phinney from one of the hospitals she worked at in 1887 claimed she remembered being given bitter medicine after a surgery that made her fall unconscious but she could remember Jane getting into bed with her and kissing her face, only being stopped by someone entering the room. (Like other killers I have shared with you) Jolly Jane was an angel of death killer who took on a caretaker role to attack the dependent and vulnerable. However she also killed for personal reasons, the Davis family for example. Jealousy was the driving force in her foster sister’s murder. She even poisoned herself in some cases to gain sympathy from men she was interested in.

By 1902 she confessed to 31 murders in total, claiming that she could not control her thoughts or reasoning, she was paralized by the strong urge to poison others. She claims that her murdering spree started before 1895, actually claiming the lives of some patients at the Cambridge and Massachusetts General Hospital from 1885 to 1890. Jane described one of these early deaths in the news paper, saying the young man was on the way to a full recovery from the hospital when she gave him the poison. The death rattle his throat made was music to her ears and when she knew he was dead she kissed him.

“Soon the mania became an uncontrollable passion.- No voice has as much melody in it as the one crying for life; no eyes as bright as those about to become fixed and glassy: no face so beautiful as the one pulse-less and cold.” ( The Clinton Morning Age - July 27, 1902)

On June 23rd she was found not guilty by reason of insanity, committed for life in Taunton State Insane Hospital formerly known as the Taunton Lunatic Asylum. While there she experience extreme paranoia of being poisoned which led her to almost starving to death. There was a paper that printed a supposed letter between Jane and her lawyer claiming that she had actually killed more than 31 people and that she wanted the jury to find her insane so she might be released one day though in court she was adamant she was sane and aware of her actions. The only reason she was finally caught for her killings was that there were so many deaths within one family and the time between killings shortened significantly. Jealousy and greed also tipped off others that something was amiss, since Jane wanted the estates of those she killed. Other than that she had been a good nurse to others she cared for and was sworn by by those who had been fortunate enough to be healed by her. Her motive is well known in this case, “ to have killed more people - helpless people- than any other man or woman who ever lived…”

Jane Toppan died at the age of 81 on August 17th, 1938 at Taunton State Insane Hospital after living there for 36 years.

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