Jane Toppan was born Honora Kelley in 1857 to an impoverished Irish couple. During her first year of life, Honora’s mother died and her father was obliged to raise both her and her older sister Delia. Honora’s father held the dubious nickname “crack” (crackpot) among the neighbours. He was a terrible drunk, a child abuser and prone to violent temper tantrums. When Honora was 6, her father dumped both her and Delia at an orphanage entitled Boston Female Asylum, never to return. That was probably just as well.
By the time she was 8 Honora was “placed out“, that is to say taken in as a full-time, live-in servant by Mrs. Abner Toppan. Although Mrs. Toppan didn’t formally adopt Honora she renamed her Jane Toppan. Jane lived an equivocal life with the Toppan family: she was accepted as a family member yet continually reminded of her lowly and menial station. After years of humiliation, abuse, neglect and abandonment, Jane grew up to become a psychopath with a taste for blood. You knew that was inevitable, right?
Jane however was a pleasant, sociable woman who was so well-liked by her community that, like her father before her, she was given a nickname although hers was considerably kinder: Jolly Jane. Although she presented a pretty, cheery facade to the neighbourhood inside Jane was a seething cesspool of evil. She set fires that gave her an erotic pleasure. She was a pathological liar and spread malicious rumours about women whom she envied. It was also inevitable that Jane’s propensity for arson simply wouldn’t satisfy her bloodlust. She had to think bigger.
One fine day Jane latched onto the idea of nursing (pardon the deliberate pun). She attended the Cambridge Hospital and trained alongside doctors who found her both efficient and pleasant. What the good doctors didn’t realize was that late at night Jane experimented with their patients using various poisons. Atropine and morphine became her signature poison. Atropine is an alkaloid extracted from deadly nightshade jimsomweed and mandrake. An overdose of atropine causes convulsions, dry mouth, hallucinations, dizziness, blurred vision, and in the elderly ripping, tearing or chewing at the skin. Jane certainly had a taste for the dramatic. Strangely, women once used atropine in small doses to dilate their pupils and make them beautiful.
Jane hired herself out as a private nurse (perhaps she got used to being placed out) and during this 10-year period in her life she killed as many as 100 patients, including her best friend and a foster sister. Jane wasn’t just her patients’ worst enemy: she was her own. Like many serial killers her self-control slipped into a frenzy of killing, and during the summer of 1901 at a cottage in Cape Cod with a family named David, Jane poisoned all four adults within a matter of weeks. The neighbours were immediately suspicious and had Jane arrested by police.
When Jane was caught she stunned investigators by admitting that killing people gave her a “voluptuous delight.” and her motive was an “irrisistible sexual impulse”. Indeed. This delight was accelerated when Jane climbed into the patients’ hospital beds and held their convulsing bodies. Well at least the patients didn’t die all alone. Jane was diagnosed as morally insane, a peculiar Victorian term, and sentenced to spend the rest of her life in a mental asylum, quite like the way she began her life after her father’s abandonment. Well into her senior years Jane used to beseech the nurses to “get the morphine, dearie, and we’ll go out into the ward. You and I will have a lot of fun seeing them die.” Watch Killers Without Conscience: H H Holmes and Jane Toppan.