Friday, February 28, 2014

Jolly Jane - Part 2

Jachin House and the Davis family
Victims of Jolly Jane

After the successful murder of Mrs. Mattie Davis Jane was invited to stay the rest of the summer at Jachin House to help care for Mattie’s husband Alden, who was obviously grieving. The couple’s two daughters, Genevieve Gordon of Chicago and Minnie Gibbs of Pocasset, also agreed to remain in Cataumet to look after their father. 

On the surface it all seemed to be a perfect plan. The sisters would have a trained nurse to help care for their father, and more, the nurse was already a close family friend. They did not know, however, that Jane was already planning their systematic destruction. 


In the weeks after Mattie’s death, the Jachin House suffered several strange fires. Although they did not cause a great deal of damage, they appeared to come out of no where. In her later confessions, Jane would admit the pleasure she took from sparking the flames, then rushing to help put them out. 

Jane’s first target after Mattie was her daughter Genevieve. Since Genevieve had traveled from Chicago to visit her family on Cape Cod, her husband had remained at home. Jane first began by planting doubts in the minds of Genevieve’s family, as to the stability of their loved one. Toppan insinuated that the younger girl was so isolated from her family in Chicago and was so devastated by her mother’s death that she was contemplating suicide. 

Less than a month after Mattie Davis’ death, her daughter Genevieve retired to bed early  one night with an upset stomach. Jane treated her patient with a dose of mineral water. Jane stayed with Genevieve throughout the night as the rest of the Davis family slept, secure in their knowledge that Genevieve was being cared for. However, on the morning of July 27 1901, Jane woke Minnie to inform her that her sister had died during the night.
The grave of Genevieve Davis - Cataumet Cemetery 2014
 The people of Cataumet were shocked at the losses being suffered by the Davis family. Of Genevieve, the local doctor explained her death as another heart attack. However, Jane whispered among family members that she was sure the woman had killed herself with insecticide from the shed. Jane attended another Davis family funeral, happy as a Cape Cod quahog. 

However, Jane was not done. Her next victim, Alden Davis, the patriarch of the family, fell ill in August of the same summer. Again, Jane treated the illness with a dose of mineral water. By the next morning the confused family found him dead. Unbelievably the same local doctor examined the body, saying that Mr. Davis died of a cerebral hemorrhage. 
The graves of Alden P and Mattie Davis - Cataumet Cemetery 2014
The final member of the Davis family was murdered by Jane only a few days later. Minnie Gibbs returned exhausted from a day trip to Woods Hole. Once again, Jane used her doctored mineral water to treat her patient and poison her victim. Soon after the treatment, Minnie collapsed into a coma. 

In her past, upon murdering her victims, Jane had crawled into bed with them. Cuddling with them as they breathed their last. During the night of August 13, however, Jane brought Minnie’s 10 year old son from his own room into hers while his mother lay dying a floor below. According to Harold Schechter, Jane admitted as much during her own confessions. Whether or not Jane molested the child is unknown. 

Minnie was discovered by family the next morning. Remarkably, she was still alive, though now comatose. The local doctor was called who, after consulting with Jane, diagnosed Minnie with extreme exhaustion. The doctor prescribed complete silence and rest for Minnie, who remained under the care of Toppan. He said he would return later to see if she had improved. However, during the doctor’s absence, Jane administered to Minnie a fatal enema of whiskey, water, and morphine. By the afternoon, she was dead. 
Davis Family Plot - Cataumet Cemetery 2014
Though several people seemed to suspect Jane had a hand in the death of the entire Davis family (who wouldn’t really?), she was able to escape yet again. This time Jane returned to Lowell to the home of the husband of her former foster sister, Oramel Brigham. 

Since murdering her foster sister Elizabeth, Jane had seemingly harbored fantasies about marrying her sister’s husband. Therefore, she must have been annoyed to arrive at Oramel’s home to find him entertaining another woman. Though the woman was his 70 year old sister, Jane apparently felt threatened enough to offer her a dose of mineral water when the elderly woman complained of dizziness. 

For years Oramel’s sister had suffered from heart problems. Therefore, when she slipped into a coma and died under Jane’s constant care one late August evening, the investigating doctor felt comfortable in diagnosing the death as a result of a heart attack. 

After the death of Oramel’s sister, Jane made a last ditch effort to win the affections of her former brother-in-law. Toppan first began by taking it upon herself to manage the household affairs. However, Oramel was adamant that Jane would not be making her stay permanent. Next, she poisoned Oramel himself. Giving him enough poison that she would be required to nurse him back to health. Yet, once on his feet, he expressed his wishes that Jane should leave his home. 

Finally, Toppan poisoned herself, nearly killing herself in the process. Oramel was forced to hire a doctor and a nurse to tend Jane and to make sure she no longer attempted to take her own life. Despite all of her best romantic efforts, when Jane had fully recovered, Oramel demanded that she leave.

Jane fled to a friend’s house in New Hampshire, where she spent the rest of September of 1901. Little did she know it would be her last few weeks as a free woman. The machine of justice had been set in motion months before, when she had been making her perceived clean getaway from her crime spree on Cape Cod. 

It had finally been the father-in-law of Minnie Gibbs whose suspicions had seen through the facade of Jolly Jane to the monster underneath. Since the death of Minnie and her entire family, Captain Paul Gibbs had suspected Jane’s deadly hand in the death of the Davis family. With the help of friends and a Harvard university toxicologist, Captain Gibbs orchestrated the exhumation of the remains of Genevieve Gordon and Minnie Gibbs. 

Therefore, on October 29, law enforcement arrested Jane Toppan at the New Hampshire residence of her friend. She was charged with only one murder, that of Minnie Gibbs. Of course her friends were shocked. What they did not know was that Toppan’s arrest actually saved their lives. Jane later admitted she was planning to kill the acquaintances with whom she was staying. 

Jane was arraigned in the Barnstable County Courthouse, where she pleaded not guilty. As the entire country was swept up in the drama of Jolly Jane’s crimes, she spent her days feeling sorry for herself in the Barnstable jailhouse. The Davis family, she insisted, died of natural causes. 

Though in retrospect her crimes seem a little obvious, the prosecution had one major problem. When the bodies of the Davis women were exhumed, the Harvard toxicologist did find traces of poison. This, of course, led to the arrest of Toppan in New Hampshire. The problem was that he found traces of arsenic, which Jane never used. 

The assumption that Jane had poisoned her victims with arsenic was made based on the cases of previous female serial poisoners in Massachusetts, who had used arsenic. In addition, the poison was very accessible in 1901. It could be purchased from any druggist over the counter.  Yet, despite exhaustive searches in North Falmouth, the prosecution obviously could not find any druggist who sold arsenic to Jane Toppan. 

The prosecution’s case was further damaged when it was revealed that the undertaker, who had handled the bodies of the Davis family, had used arsenic in his embalming fluid. Jane’s lawyer jumped at the chance to claim that the Davises had dies of natural causes and any traces of poisons found had been from the embalming process.

Despite the lack of evidence uncovered by the prosecution, the daily newspaper articles featuring Toppan encouraged dozens of people to come forward with their own Jane Toppan stories. Slowly articles from all over New England began connecting a growing list of odd deaths, house fires, and missing money found in Jane’s past. Although she was only being officially charged with a single murder, the list of her probable victims grew from 4 to 12 over a few months. Even stories of her past as Honora Kelley were divulged to reporters by a woman claiming to be a cousin. 

All the while, as Jane’s murderous past was brought to light for the country, Jane herself was quietly reading newspapers, exchanging mail with friends, and enjoying the home cooked meals of the wife of the Barnstable jailer, Mrs. Judah Cash. Many patients and friends who she actually hadn't murdered wrote, promising their moral and financial support for Toppan, whose innocence they seemed confident of. Whether or not Jane believed she was in serious trouble is a little unclear. Either way, the media of 1901 had thoroughly convicted her in the eyes of the public. 

It was again Captain Gibbs, the father-in-law of Minnie Gibbs, who saved the day for the prosecution. Gibbs had been surprised to learn the prosecution suspected Toppan of arsenic poisoning. He had come to believe she was more devious than to use such an obvious chemical. Rather Gibbs suggested to newspapers that Jane had used doses of morphine and atropine. 
The grave of Captain Paul Gibbs - the hero of this tale - Cataumet Cemetery
Armed with the suspicions of Captain Gibbs, the bodies of the two Davis women were re-examined, and were both found to contain lethal doses of both medications. Furthermore, a druggist in Wareham remembered Jane having ordered a large quantity of morphine, which he had shipped to her by train to Cataumet. 

In addition, the bodies of the remainder of the Davis family were exhumed from Cataumet cemetery in order to be tested for morphine and atropine. Soon after the autopsies Jane was formally indicted for the murders of Alden Davis, Genevieve Gordon, and Minnie Gibbs. According to Mrs. Cash, the wife of the Barnstable jailor, Jane accepted these developments in her case. She retired to her cell, ate her dinner, and slept a restful night. 

However, it was not new evidence which eventually cracked the Toppan case for Barnstable County, instead it was Jane herself. Wishing to evaluate his client’s mental state, her lawyer arranged for Jane to be evaluated by a group of impartial psychiatrists (called alienists at the time). It was during this evaluation in the spring of 1902 where Jane finally began to make her confession. At first admitting to the crimes for which she had been charged, then detailing her other misdeeds including arson and the multiple other murders she had committed throughout her life, at least 31 in total.

Jane explained the details of her crimes calmly and unemotionally. She explained that she felt no remorse for the murders, even those of her friends. In fact, she had murdered so often she struggled to recall the details of each crime. It had become a routine habit of her existence, just another old thing she did. 

One of the psychologists who interviewed Jane, a Massachusetts doctor named Charles Stedman, later published his clinical assessment of her in an article entitled A Case of Moral Insanity With Repeated Homicides And Incendiaries And Late Development of Delusions. In his interview with Jane, Stedman makes several attempts to understand her crimes. Jane is very elusive about her motives, claiming at first to achieve a sort of sexual satisfaction from being with dead bodies. However, at last, even she seems confused about why exactly she felt the need to murder. According to Jane:
“I seem to have a sort of paralysis of thought and reason. Something comes over me, I don’t know what it is. I have an uncontrollable desire to give poison without regard to the consequences. I have no objection against telling my feelings, but don’t know my own mind. I don’t know why I do these things.”
 Perhaps at the end Jane really did not know what caused her behavior. Though her initial claim of sexual excitement seems to be backed up by her own earlier behavior, Dr. Stedman was not convinced. He believed she made the claim only to show that she had no control and could not be held accountable for her actions.

Either way, in the eyes of her assessors, Jane did not need extra reasons to appear insane. Stedman’s final analysis stated clearly, “Therefore, we are of the opinion that she was insane and irresponsible at the time of the homicides with which she is charged.” He even went further, explaining that she would pose a serious threat to public safety if she were ever freed.

With the testimony of the psychologists and Jane’s new confession, all believed her trial would be a rather short one. This turned out to be correct. On the morning of June 23, Jane’s trial finally commenced. For all the build up and drama, it was a very quick affair. Based on the testimony of the three psychiatrists who interviewed Jane, a verdict was reached in less than 7 hours. Jane was found not guilty by reason of insanity and sentenced to serve the remainder of her natural life in the Taunton State Hospital.
Taunton State Hospital - 1987
Apparently Jane felt as though she had gotten away with her crimes. All articles at the time describe Jane as smiling as the verdict was read, some even say she laughed. Most even go as far to say that she nearly danced out of the court room in absolute glee. 

Jane spent the evening with her friend Mrs. Cash and was escorted to the Taunton bound train the following day. During the entire trip to Taunton she seemed confident that she had gotten the better of the law, even going as far as explaining to reporters that she would most certainly be freed after only a few years.

In the days after her sentencing several new facts about Jane’s crimes stunned the public. First, Toppan’s attorney divulged that Jane had confessed her crimes to him months ago. In fact, according to him, Jane had eagerly confessed that she had killed at least 31 people over her years as a professional and private nurse. 

Second, Jane’s confession was published in William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal. Though the confession was sensationalized and can not all be attributed to direct quotes from Jane, it did more or less accurately detail her crimes. In addition, it revealed Jane’s plot to fool the court assigned psychiatrists into believing that she was insane. 

In her confession, she explained yet another cause for her behavior. According to Jane, “If I had been a married woman, I probably would not have killed all these people. I would have had my husband, my children, and my home to take up my mind.” Perhaps, in the end, she blamed the young man who had abandoned her after proposing marriage. Though, if he even existed, I think his decision probably saved his life.

Dr. Stedman continued to keep track of Jane during her stay in Taunton. For the first year, by most reports, Jane seemed to manage well. According to Stedman, “During the first year of her life at the hospital she was, as a rule, sociable, quiet, cheerful, amiable, and spasmodically helpful.” In fact she gained weight and wrote of her fondness for the other patients.

However, by 1903, Jane’s condition had deteriorated quite a bit. She began to make accusations against the hospital staff, claiming that they were attempting to poison her. She refused to eat and quickly lost the weight she was well known for. In addition, Stedman reports that her personal hygiene took a steep decline.
Jane Toppan - 1st year at Taunton State
By 1904, Jane had become emaciated by her refusal to eat, having lost half her body weight. The hospital staff began to force feed her through a tube, at which point she ate voluntarily for a time. The whole time, Jane mentally declined as well. She switched between manic laughter and delusional paranoia. Even if Jane was not clinically insane by modern standards at the time of her trial, it appears she may have been after her two year stay at Taunton. 
Jane Toppan - after her 2nd year at Taunton
Despite the deterioration in her mental in physical health, Jane managed to live another 34 years in the Taunton hospital. She died August 17, 1938, at the age of 81. Rather than poison (which might have been appropriate), she died of pneumonia. Toward the end of her life, according to her obituary, Jane became a docile and cooperative patient. 

Jolly Jane’s story illustrates several interesting aspects of New England history. First, the status of the medical profession in the early 1900’s was frighteningly primitive. Jane was able to fool just about every medical professional she came across and was only stopped due to the suspicion of an old Yankee sea captain. 

Second, cases like Jane’s were just beginning to be heard of during her lifetime. Serial killers like H.H. Holmes and even Jack the Ripper were new to the time period. Though these types of crimes might still be appalling to modern people, they are certainly not unimaginable unfortunately. 

Lastly, though events in Jane’s life might have obviously contributed to her behavior as a sociopath and poisoner, her crimes remain frightening and shocking. What is perhaps the most shocking is that her friends and neighbors never even guessed the chubby middle aged nurse everyone loved also habitually killed dozens of people for the simple pleasure of it. 

Certainly this research will now make me think twice when, as I enjoy my sunny Cape Cod summers, and I accept a cool drink from a smiling friend, family member, waiter, or just about anyone really. I might wonder what or who is really behind the smile, where the drink came from, and just what the friendly deliverer might have opted to add. Yup, pretty creepy. 

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