Serial Killer Nurse Jane Toppan

The Killing Nurse Known as Jolly Jane Toppan

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Your Citation
Montaldo, Charles. "Serial Killer Nurse Jane Toppan." ThoughtCo, Dec. 28, 2014, Montaldo, Charles. (2014, December 28). Serial Killer Nurse Jane Toppan. Retrieved from Montaldo, Charles. "Serial Killer Nurse Jane Toppan." ThoughtCo. (accessed October 24, 2017).

Sensitive, efficient, caring, well-trained, was how 26-year-old Jane Toppan was described by former employers and patients. The Bostonian nurse had been employed to care for the sick in the homes of some of the wealthiest families in Cambridge.

With such strong recommendations, Toppan had no problems finding new patients and new families to move in with in order to provide around-the-clock care. But what these families did not know about was Toppan's sketchy past.

Childhood Years

Jane Toppan was born, Honora (Nora) Kelley, in 1857 in Boston, Massachusetts to Irish immigrants, Paul and Bridget Kelley. Bridget died when Jane was an infant, leaving Paul to raise their four children alone.

Paul Kelley was an alcoholic who was known on the streets as "Kelley the Crack" because of his bizarre behavior.

In 1863 unable to take care of all of the children, he took the two youngest girls, Delia and Nora, to the Boston Female Asylum, an orphanage in Boston that was designed "for the care of indigent girls."

After meeting Kelley, the orphanage managers immediately decided to admit the two girls, noting that the girls were "rescued from a very miserable home."

Boston Female Asylum

Founded in 1800 by Mrs. Hannah Stillman, the Boston Female Asylum housed up to 100 girls, ages three to 10. During their time there, they were taught various domestic skills, useful to what was considered their lower social station.

The girls would also learn the very basics of reading, writing and arithmetic.

At age 11, they would be placed with a private family as indentured servants or on rare occasions, adopted.

Indentured servants had to remain with the family and perform whatever tasks were assigned, until the age of 18, at which time they would be free to leave the household.

 If they decided to leave they would be given $50 to help with their future.

The Toppans

After being at the orphanage for less than two years, Nora left her older sister to become an indentured servant to the Toppans of Lowell, Massachusetts. She also left behind her birth given name and became known from then on as Jane Toppan.

The Toppans were Anglo-Saxon Protestants who considered those of other ethnic or religious backgrounds as inferior. For Jane, her Irish Catholic origin became like a curse that prevented her from ever being anything more than a servant.

School Years

Throughout her elementary and high school years Jane was talkative and often overbearing. She also developed into a poor liar, telling unbelievable stories about her family members' accomplishments that made them great or famous.

In her younger years, such stories were viewed by most like a child's daydream, but when the stories continued throughout her high school years, many of Jane's peers found the lies annoying and self patronizing.

To get even with those that snubbed her she would start vile rumors about them and spread gossip.

Jane also developed into a two-faced tattle-tale, often telling the teacher when a classmate, and even a friend, broke some minor rule.

To divert attention from her own wrong-doings she would cast the blame on another student, usually one that she envied.


As Jane got older she became consumed with envy. She was convinced that there were social boundaries that she would never break through; however, she blamed the situation on her foster sister, Elizabeth.

Elizabeth was adored and loved by the Toppans, so much so that they adopted her as their legal daughter. There was never any mention by the Toppans to adopt Jane.

Social Boundaries

Jane watched as Elizabeth grew into an attractive woman who was accepted into the very best social circles. Her future was set, especially after she became engaged to a respected deacon.

Jane, on the other hand, rarely, if ever, dated men and knew that the social circles that her foster sister so easily fell into were off limits to her other than as a maid.

To escape, Jane began her addiction into reading cheap romantic novels, something she would do throughout the rest of her adult life.

The Will

Ann Toppan died when Jane was in her early 20s, and she left everything, including their beautiful home, to Elizabeth. Jane was not mentioned in the will.

Elizabeth and her husband moved into the Toppan home and Jane continued working there as their servant for 10 more years. There is little doubt that Jane felt nothing but hatred for the woman who was once her peer.


At 28-years-old, Jane decided to quit working for Elizabeth and become a nurse. She became a student nurse at a school run by Cambridge Hospital.

The training was filthy and grueling, but students who managed to graduate were guaranteed work.

For Jane Toppan, meeting the strict standards and difficult demands were not much different than her past life as a servant. She just had to be convincing that she had all the qualities of a good nurse and keep her superiors happy.

Jolly Jane

As Jane got older she put on a lot of weight. She greeted her patients with a big smile, had an easy laugh, and showed the right amount of compassion and sympathy. This made her a favorite on the ward and she was given the nickname - Jolly Jane.

Jane also resorted to her high school tactics of trying to get in good with her teachers, but this time she was trying to win over her superiors, and for the most part her tactics worked.

However, when it came to the other student nurses, many saw her as a petty thief who was vindictive and a self-promoting liar who spread vicious gossip about those who crossed her or who she simply did not like.

When the lies had catastrophic consequences, such as students being expelled, Jolly Jane would be unable to hide her extreme pleasure, something that would concern her friends and frighten her enemies.

Deadly Manipulator

No one can say when it was that Jane Toppan viewed her position as a nurse as a position of power over life and death, but during her two years as a student nurse, she began to utilize that power.

It began with her manipulating the charts of patients who liked her, and who she liked. Rather than see them go home, she would adjust their charts or give them medicine that would make them sick enough to not be discharged.

She thrust herself into learning about the effects of different poisons and medicines on the human body. With that knowledge, she began experimenting on patients. Her intense dislike for the elderly made it easy for her to choose the first victims.

According to her own statement, as many as 12 patients, possibly more, died as a result of Jolly Jane injecting or preparing drinks with overdoses of morphine and atropine. At times, when the situation allowed it, she would then lay beside the dying patients, caressing and cuddling them. She found the experience intoxicating and sexually exciting.

Massachusetts General Hospital

In 1888, Toppan wanted to transfer to the nursing school at Massachusetts General Hospital. Armed with letters of high recommendation from physicians she worked alongside at Cambridge, she was admitted into the program and quickly impressed her superiors with her skills.

Toppan also brought along her abilities to alienate many of her peers. Her incredulous lies, manipulative and vicious behavior created a general consensus among her peers, that Jolly Jane was despicable and untrustworthy.

Not only was she suspected of stealing from the nurses, the hospital and the patients, but she had also ignored dosage rules and overdosed numerous patients. Had it not been the support of several of the doctors, Jane would have been discharged.

She began to feel invincible, which was her demise. When she flagrantly ignored a strict rule, the head nurse, who was highly suspicious of Jolly Jane, did not hesitate to dismiss her immediately. As a result, Toppan, who had passed her finals and had a signed diploma, was not granted her nurses license.

One More Try

After almost a year of working as a private nurse in patients' homes, Toppan decided to try to get her license again, and returned to Cambridge Hospital.

Again, she impressed the doctors with her skills, but alienated her peers. She also went back to feeding her addiction to killing. But rumors were spreading and like most serial killers, her belief that she was untouchable because she made sure to impress the right people, proved to be wrong.

It was true that most of the doctors at Cambridge Hospital defended Toppan despite rumors that she was reckless when she administered medicines to patients, with the exception of one doctor who reported the rumors to the hospital board, and Toppan was immediately released.

Private Practice - 1891

Unscathed, and armed with recommendations from doctors, Toppan easily moved into private practice, landing jobs within the homes of the elite.

The lack of supervision gave her more opportunity to fulfill her life's passion, which in her own words was to kill more people than any other killer in history.

Over the next eight years, Jolly Jane went from being an uncertified nurse, thrown out of two hospitals, to being the most popular nurse in Cambridge's private sector.

Her dedication, empathy, cheerfulness and confidence kept her steadily employed, despite concerns that she was known for stealing money and items from the homes where she worked.

The stealing and her constant need to tell grandiose lies were viewed as part of her poor Irish upbringing and a small tradeoff for the level of competence she showed in her nursing skills.

In the meantime, Toppan, like always, managed to alienate other household servants. If one became too much of a threat, they too were at risk at ending up dead.

Elizabeth Brigham

Throughout the years, Toppan would visit her foster sister Elizabeth and her husband, Oramel, for days at a time. Toppan would put on the facade of the loving, doting sister, while inside she was consumed with jealousy and hate for Elizabeth who, in her eyes, had everything that she should have had in life.

In August 1899, Toppan invited Elizabeth to join her for a small vacation in Cape Cod. Elizabeth agreed, and all seemed to be going fine on the first day of their trip, but by the second day Elizabeth fell ill and died.

The doctors who attended to Elizabeth told Oramel that his wife had suffered a stroke. Toppan later admitted to murdering Elizabeth, claiming she was her only victim that she killed out of hate and vindictiveness.

Toppan told authorities, “I held her in my arms and watched with delight as she gasped her life out.”

Myra Connors

Jane Toppan had few friends, especially for any amount of time. She would eventually reveal her dark side that raged with hate as she would lash out with crude remarks drenched in jealousy and resentment about her patients and their families.

Somehow the refined Myra Connors had never been exposed to this side of Toppan and she remained her friend for several years. However, in the early months of 1900, Myra became ill and her trusted Jolly Jane immediately came to her bedside to help.

Within days, Myra took a dramatic turn for the worse and after suffering debilitating and painful convulsions, she died.

Prior to becoming ill, Myra was employed as the dining hall matron at the Theological School in Cambridge, a job that Toppan wanted. The job included a free apartment, but better yet, the opportunity to oversee all the food that the students would eat. For a prolific killer, this was an ideal situation.

After Myra's funeral, Toppan approached the dean of the school and managed to get the position. But her time at the school lasted only one semester. She was fired for her poor performance and for taking money that was meant to be paid to her staff.

Mattie Davis

Upset over losing her position, Toppan decided to retreat to the same place where she had murdered Elizabeth in Cape Code, a small community called Cataumet.

During the summer month, Toppan rented a small cottage from Alden and Mattie Davis, at a discounted price in exchange for medical care when needed. But year after year she failed to pay the rent before returning to Cambridge. In July 1901, when it reached the five-year mark, Mattie Davis decided to confront Toppan.

Mattie went to Cambridge to visit her daughter, but before meeting up with her she went to Toppan's apartment to ask her about the rent money, but she never received it. Immediately upon her arrival, Toppan poisoned her with mineral water drenched in morphine and continued to do so over the next week.

Mattie finally died on the seventh day of her ordeal. Whether or not Mattie was ever aware of Toppan climbing next to her in the bed and kissing and fondling her is unknown since she remained in different levels of unconsciousness from the hour that she arrived to the day that she died.

The Davis Family

Mattie's funeral was held in Cataumet and being the caring nurse that she was, Toppan attended. Afterwards, the Davis' two daughters, Genevieve and Minnie, decided to stay for awhile to look after their grieving father.

The family asked Toppan to stay on for awhile in case Alden, the father, had health issues while coping with the loss of his wife.

What the family did not know was that maneuvering her way into the Davis' home had been Toppan's plan all along. She had decided right after Mattie died, that the entire Davis family also had to go and she was anxious to get started.

Immediately after the funeral Toppan began trying to murder the family, first by setting three fires in the home. When that failed, she went back to her poisons. By the second week in August, she fullfilled her goal; all the Davis' were dead. The doctor in charge did not suspect foul play and listed various natural causes on the death certificates.

Captain Paul Gibbs

The father-in-law of one of the Davis' daughters, Minnie, wasn't buying what the doctor said. Captain Paul Gibbs, had visited with Minnie just days before she died and she was fine.

Gibbs identified the common dominator in each of the Davis' deaths - that being Nurse Toppan. He also discovered that Minnie had appeared frightened of Toppan and he himself had witnessed her acting suspiciously when he caught her injecting the dying woman with some kind of narcotic.

For Jolly Jane, have Minnie out of the way meant that she could now care for Minnie's husband and eventually become his wife. But, Gibbs had no need for Toppan's care and sent her on her way.

Upset over her failed plan, Toppan decided to try to work her way into the heart of Oramel Brigham, her late foster sister's husband.

In the meantime, Captain Gibbs gathered enough evidence to warrant an investigation into Nurse Jane Toppan.

Josephus Whitney, a state detective, was assigned to the case and the Davis' daughters' bodies were exhumed and tests were performed to check for poison.

Edna Bannister

As planned, Toppan planted herself in Oramel's home, but to her dismay, his sister, Edna Bannister, was also visiting for a few days. However, Toppan was impatient and poisoned the 72-year-old woman to death. She then went into her care-giving mode, fluttering around Oramel, but to no avail.

Once Oramel made it clear to Toppan that she was not invited to stay, she decided to make him sick with poison and after she nursed him back to good health he would fall in love with her, but again, her plan failed.

Next she decided to blackmail him by threatening to spread rumors that she was pregnant with his child. This time Toppan was told to leave, so she took an overdose of medicine to make it appear that she was trying to kill herself.

Oramel still did not allow her to stay and she ended up at the hospital to finish out her recuperation.


Jane Toppan's final days of freedom were spent with a friend in Amherst, New Hampshire. She was completely unaware that she was under tight surveillance by Josephus Whitney and had been since she left Cape Cod.

In late October the results of the toxicology reports on the Davis' sisters was complete and poison was found in Minnie Gibb's intestines. Whitney along with Amherst authorities arrested Toppan for murder.

Blazing Headlines

It did not take long for Jane Toppan's arrest to hit the national news. While she sat behind bars, the police and the reporters were busy digging up every detail they could find about her life.

Former patients who suspected that she tried to poison them, ex-friends who had experienced her jealous vindictiveness, and student nurses whose careers she had ruined, came out of the shadows to tell their experiences with Jolly Jane.

Insane Jolly Jane

A grand jury indicted Topan for the murder of Minnie Gibbs, Genevieve Gordan and their father, Alden Davis.

Her defense lawyers wanted to go with an insanity defense and had it arranged for her to be interviewed by Dr. Henry Stedman, a renowned Boston psychiatrist. At first Toppan was resistant, but as time went on she began to open up to Stedman.

Unexpectantly, during one session Toppan reversed her not guilty stand and admitted to murdering 31 people, mostly who she calmly and without remorse, described as friends.

She also admitted to setting fires and to her preferred method of murder - overdosing her victims with morphine. And lastly, she admitted that her motivation to kill stemmed from the sexual gratification she felt as she laid in the bed with her dying victims.

Toppan was found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed for life in the Taunton Insane Hospital.


After the trial, Toppan told a reporter with the New York Journal that she outsmarted Dr. Stedman into believing she was insane. She said she wanted to be found insane so that one day she might be released. If it was true, her plan failed. She stayed in Taunton until her death in 1938.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Montaldo, Charles. "Serial Killer Nurse Jane Toppan." ThoughtCo, Dec. 28, 2014, Montaldo, Charles. (2014, December 28). Serial Killer Nurse Jane Toppan. Retrieved from Montaldo, Charles. "Serial Killer Nurse Jane Toppan." ThoughtCo. (accessed October 24, 2017).