During my research into New England history, I have been to supposedly haunted places, many graveyards after dark, and even to the resting place of a supposed Rhode Island vampire. Honestly, none of these places were too creepy. However, while researching the life and crimes of Jolly Jane Toppan, I can honestly say I felt shivers. These were the actions of a real monster. Yet when retracing the path of Jane from orphan to Cape Cod’s most infamous serial killer, though I was still had the heebie jeebies, I also had a greater understanding of just how she became the thing she did.
For this research, I used a great deal of information from Harold Schechter’s book Fatal: The Poisonous Life of a Female Serial Killer. Though Schechter details the crimes of several female killers, his information regarding Jane Toppan is particularly in depth and helpful. In addition, I've split this article in two in order to focus on Jane’s early life and her crimes connected to the Cape.
According to Schechter, the monstrosity that would become Jolly Jane began her life as Honora Kelley, the younger daughter of a very unusual Boston Irish couple named Peter and Bridget Kelley. Not much is known about Jane’s early life or her parentage, though there are several tidbits of folklore connected to both.
Apparently, Jane’s mother had died of consumption shortly before 1863, leaving her and her sister Delia with the unstable and most likely abusive, Peter Kelley. According to several newspaper articles published after Jane's trial, Peter Kelley was an alcoholic. He was known around Boston as “Kelley the Crack,” a reference to his erratic and sometimes violent behavior. Later in life, it is said Peter eventually lost his mind and sewed his own eyelids shut while working in a tailor’s shop. Some articles even stated that he had been institutionalized by the time Jane’s actions became public knowledge. Though, these stories may have been an attempt to “prove” that insanity was a trait that ran in Jane’s family.
Of course I cannot verify most of the information about Jane’s origins. Nor could I find a birth record for Honora or Delia. Furthermore, Jane Toppan seems to enter the historical record only after her father abandoned his daughters at the Boston Female Asylum in February of 1863. The asylum, which had been in operation since 1800, accepted orphaned children and children voluntarily surrendered by their parent or guardian. Honora and Delia were voluntary surrenders.
At the Boston Female Asylum, young girls would be instructed in domestic skills until the age of eleven. After eleven, girls could be placed in a home, seemingly under an indentured contract of around 7 years. During this time the indentured girls would act as a live in house-servant. Theoretically, it was a win-win for all parties. Foster families got cheap live in servants and the young girls supposedly received further education and experience. At the age of 18, the girls would be released from servitude with at least $50.
|This is actually the New York Foundling Hospital|
Perhaps similar to what the Boston Female Asylum was like
When Kelley the Crack left his daughters at the asylum in 1863 Delia was eight and Honora was six. It in not known how Peter Kelley treated his daughters. However, based on Jane Toppan’s later career, one can guess he was not a loving and doting father. By all appearances, little Honora Kelley seemed to receive a second chance at life when she was indentured at the age of only 8 to Mrs. Ann Toppan of Lowell, Massachusetts. Being “bound out” so young seems to have been contradictory to the rules of the Asylum. Why this happened no one currently knows.
Regardless, this is where Honora Kelley began her re-birth as Jane Toppan. Though never officially adopted (few girls were), she does appear on the 1870 and 1880 US Census among the Toppan family of Lowell as Jennie Toppan.
|Toppan and Foster Family - 1870 Lowell, Ma|
|Toppan and Foster Sister - 1880 Lowell, Ma|
At this time in her life Harold Schechter felt that Jane suffered a different type of abuse than she might have during those early years with her father. According to Schechter:
“That Jane was made to feel profoundly ashamed of her heritage is clear from her later behavior. As she grew older, she displayed the classic symptoms of ethnic and religious self hatred, lying about her origins to new acquaintances, and voicing anti-Irish and anti-Catholic sentiments more derogatory than the most bigoted remarks bandied in the polite, Protestant circles in which she moved.”
Though I can’t speak for how Jane felt about her own ethnicity, an examination of her early census entries conveniently leave out any hint of her Irish origin. In addition, they give a clear indication of the people who moved through her life between 1870 and 1880. Most important, other than Ann Toppan, were Ann’s daughter Elisabeth and her husband Oramel Brigham. Both 18 years older than Jane. According to their census and marriage records, Elisabeth was a house keeper and Oramel was a Rail Road employee, who later became a local Deacon.
A Jane grew into a young woman she was mostly well liked by her friends and family. People seemed to find her amusing and charming for the most part. However, there were darker aspects of her personality and behavior. Though dismissed at an early age, in retrospect they seemed to hint at what she would later become.
According to Schechter, Jane was a habitual liar. Some of her stories seemed strange yet harmless. For instance she told people that her father was a famous explorer and her brother was a famous Civil War hero. However, Jane was also known as a gossip and rumor monger, who would target students she had a personal grudge against.
Jane grew into adulthood with the Toppans. At the age of 18 she was released from her indentured contract with the agreed upon $50. According to Massachusetts vital records Ann Toppan died in 1891, unfortunately leaving Jane out of her will. However, Jane continued to live with Oramel Brigham and her foster sister Elizabeth, still acting as a live in house-servant despite being released from her contract.
As her 20’s passed her by, Jane watched her school friends begin to get married and have children. For whatever reason, Jane never did get married, though there are several newspaper articles telling of a near engagement that did not pan out. One article from the Seattle Daily Times even claims she had been given an engagement ring engraved with the shape of a bird by a young suitor named Charles May. However, Charles soon left for Holyoke and fell helplessly in love with the young daughter of a new employer. The story even states that Jane harbored a particular malice toward birds after this event. Schechter mentions that Jane gained an “unattractive” amount of weight at this time, topping about 170 pounds. Certainly newspaper articles published after her arrest never describe her as attractive.
|Jane as a younger adult|
Jane worked for Elizabeth until 1885. The circumstances of her departure are unknown. However, by 1887 Jane had applied to and was accepted at a Cambridge nursing school in the hope that she could make a career change. It was here, due to her charming personality and plump physique, that she earned the nickname “Jolly Jane.” The name would follow her throughout her life and add a certain morbid flair to her later crime spree.
At the Cambridge nursing school Jane was not terribly liked by the other students. As she did when she was younger, she spread terrible rumors about students she didn’t like and took great pleasure when those rumors resulted in her “enemies” being thrown out of school. However, to doctors and her superiors, she seemed very passionate and congenial. This is no doubt due to the fact that Jane was also an enormous brown-noser. As a student she took to her studies with enthusiasm and her patients often brightened to see her when she worked.
Jane would later admit that it was during her studies at the nursing school, when she began to experiment with medication. Schechter mentions that she conspired to keep patients in the hospital longer if he liked them, sometimes giving enough extra medication to make them ill, or doctoring charts to show fake symptoms.
Jane first experimented with morphine, injecting patients and watching them either die or recover at her leisure. Later, she added the drug atropine to her experiments. In the late 1800's both drugs were more or less over the counter medications used as common pain killers and to treat diseases like whooping cough. However, Jane discovered that with both chemicals she could vary the symptoms of her patients enough that even the doctors could not tell for certain what had killed them.
Sometimes Jane simply made her patients more ill with her experiments. Sometimes she outright killed them. However, sometimes she poisoned them only to near death, then took great pleasure in trying to save them. Jane later described this behavior in her confessions. She said:
“When the climax of my mania passed I realized what I had done. I have known that my patients were dying. Then my greatest thought was to resuscitate them. I have then worked over them, trying to bring them back to consciousness. I have sent for doctors and other nurses and tried my best to save them. Sometimes I have been successful, but many times the poison was too much. They were beyond recovery and they died.”
Jane would later describe this feeling of “mania” many more times. Often, because of her later behavior, the mania seemed to border on an almost sexual thrill at seeing her patients die before her eyes. Perhaps working as hard as anyone to bring them back to life gave her an additional feeling of godly control over life and death as well. It would be impossible to tell how many patients she killed during her training years at Cambridge Hospital. Schechter guessed it could have been dozens.
In 1888 Jane was able to transfer to Massachusetts General Hospital. Here, she continued her experiments. It was at Mass General where Jane Toppan ran into a patient named Amelia Phinney, whose later testimony would very clearly illustrate how scary and deranged Jane was becoming.
|Mass General Hospital 1850's|
According to a 2011 article from the Lowell Sun, Amelia Phinney had been admitted to Mass General for a uterine ulcer. The procedure to treat the ulcer had been painful, leaving Mrs. Phinney in a great amount of pain in bed. Here she was found by Nurse Toppan, who was temporarily filling the role of Head Nurse. Mrs. Phinney asked Jane for help with the pain. Toppan sat Mrs. Phinney up in bed, prompting her to sip from a cup of bitter tasting liquid.
Mrs. Phinney reported later that she became groggy and near unconscious, but through the haze she felt someone climb into bed with her. She must have been horrified to discover her unwanted partner was nurse Toppan, who petted her hair and “kissed her all over her face.” Jane even attempted to force Mrs. Phinney to consume more of the potion.
Fortunately the whole process was interrupted. Mrs. Phinney reported that Jane suddenly became distracted by something out of her vision. Apparently someone had walked into the room, disturbing Jane. Amelia woke the next morning with a severe headache, believing the strange experience of the previous night had been a terrible dream. It was not until 14 years later that Amelia Phinney realized she was lucky to be alive.
Despite this event and her diabolical experiments, Nurse Toppan was finally discharged from Mass General in 1890 for something as simple as leaving the ward without permission. Schechter concludes that Jane had amassed a considerable amount of suspicion during her time at the hospital. Things disappeared under her care, particularly cash and the expensive belongings of rich patients. Though nothing could be definitively proved, hospital administrators took this chance to remove Jane even before she received her nursing license.
For a time Jane attempted to return to her former school associated with Cambridge Hospital. However, other employees were beginning to suspect that Jane at the very least was irresponsible and dangerous to the patients. So, in 1891 Cambridge Hospital dismissed her as well, leaving Jane with only one real option to exercise her medical skills and her manic desire to kill. Jane became a private nurse for hire.
Over the next few years Jane became one of the most successful private nurses in the Boston area. Despite the rumors that followed her from job to job, she was highly sought after for her nursing skills and good humor (at least when her employers were around). Despite her success as a healer, bodies piled up in her wake. All murders were explained away by doctors as strokes or as the result of a strangulated hernia. In addition to murder, she had acquired the habit of stealing from her victims as well. Often leaving a grieving family confused about their loved one’s missing belongings. Later she would adamantly deny she was a thief as well as a murderer. She almost seemed insulted by the additional accusation, saying that money didn't matter to her.
Around this time in her life, Jane made her connection to the sandy shores of the Cape. Apparently, for many years during her adult life Toppan had spent summers in the Cape Cod village of Cataumet in Borne. She regularly stayed in a small cottage near to a larger former hotel called the Jachin House. In August of 1899, Jane contacted her foster sister Elizabeth in back in Lowell, who she had maintained a connection with. Apparently Elizabeth seemed to have been suffering from something like depression. Jane invited her to the Cape. claiming that it would cheer her up. Unfortunately Elizabeth accepted.
|Jachin House and Davis Family - Cataumet, Ma|
Elizabeth arrived on August 25 and spent the day with Jane at the beach. By August 28, she had unexpectedly fallen into a coma. Her husband Oramel was contacted via telegraph and arrived to spend a last few hours with his unconscious wife before she died in bed. The local physician explained the death as, again, having been caused by a stroke.
Not only did Jane seem to have once again avoided suspicion, she also convinced poor Oramel that Elizabeth had wanted her to inherit some of her belongings, which she later pawned. It would only be revealed at Jane’s trial in Barnstable that Oramel had suspected Jane in having a hand in his wife’s death. Unfortunately it would take the lives of several more people before he could be stopped.
What Oramel Brigham might not have known at the time was that Jane also had plans for him. Following her trial, newspapers widely reported that Jane had killed her foster sister because she wanted to marry Oramel herself. Her future actions would lend credibility to this theory as well. However, Jane’s murder of her foster sister was not her last Cape Cod murder. In fact, Jane’s greatest criminal connection to the Cape, and the crimes which eventually got her caught were all connected to the Davis family of Cataumet.
The Davises of Cataumet, who owned the once prosperous resort-like property Cataumet called Jachin House knew Jane very well. Since 1896 Jane had been one of their most favorite repeat guests. She was so well known and well liked that her Bourne neighbors often used her as a babysitter and, of course, a medical consultant. The Davises loved her and treated her almost as a member of their family, even giving her a large discount on her rental.
Yet, despite the generous discount, Jane Toppan owed the Davises several hundred dollars in overdue rent. By 1901 Mrs. Mattie Davis, the matron of the clan, had felt that Jane’s rent was finally due. She made plans to visit Jane at her residence in Cambridge in order to confront her about the money the family was owed. Of course, Mattie Davis did not know the danger he was putting herself in. She could not have known the friendly woman she knew as “Jolly Jane” had already previously murdered her former landlords in Cambridge for becoming “feeble and fussy” or “old and cranky” (Jane particularly did not like the elderly).
However, in 1901 Jane had wormed her way into the favor of her current landlords, the Beedles, by poisoning their housekeeper with morphine. When The Beedles fired their housekeeper for being drunk on the job (in reality she was passed out from Jane's poison), Jane was there to swoop into the new position and a comfortable new home.
When poor Mattie Davis arrived to confront Jane about the owed rent, it took Jane only a couple hours to decide to poison her into a coma with doctored mineral water. Toppan then contacted Mattie’s daughter and husband, informing them that their loved one had fallen ill. She spent the next few days re-dosing Mrs. Davis, allowing her to mysteriously regain consciousness, then plunging her back down into a coma. The family and even a local doctor could only look on in confusion and horror at the symptoms of Jane's latest victim.
Toppan finally allowed Mattie to die in early July of 1901. The official cause of death, according to local newspapers, was chronic diabetes. Jane accompanied Mattie’s remains back to Bourne, attended her funeral at Cataumet Cemetery like any other mourner and close family friend. However, in her later confessions, much of which was published in various newspaper articles of 1902, Jane expressed her true thoughts. She later admitted thinking of the mourners, who had traveled from as afar away as Chicago to say their last goodbyes to Mattie Davis, “You had better wait a little while and I will have another funeral for you. If you wait, it will save you going back and forth.”
Though no one, except perhaps Oramel Brigham, could have guessed, the entire Davis family was now in danger of being wiped out. Little did they know, their close family friend, Jolly Jane, was actually a serial killer who had finally and inevitably lost any control she ever had over her own behavior. Her manic urges and desire to snuff out the lives of her friends and family had now become a danger to everyone around her.