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Contrary to popular belief, there have always been female serial killers. But there was only one Jane Toppan.
Born Honora Kelly in 1854, her parents were both Irish immigrants who had settled in the Boston area. While relatively little is known of her formative years, Jane Toppan's childhood was a horrendous one. Her mother died of tuberculosis when Jane was still a small child while her father was an alcoholic who was later committed to an insane asylum. Her father would eventually dump Honora and another sister into an orphanage because he could no longer take care of them. Not long afterward, one of Honora's sisters would be committed to the same asylum as her father.
By 1864, Honora Kelly became an intentured servant in the home of Mrs. Ann Toppan of Lowell, Massachusetts. Though she was never formally adopted, she changed her surname to Toppan and took on the first name of Jane. There was considerable prejudice against Irish immigrants at the time and hiding her ethnic roots seemed like the most practical way to get ahead. She reportedly flourished in her new home and appeared to overcome her tragic early childhood. This began to change during her late adolescence however as became increasingly troubled. Along with becoming aggressive, she also made two suicide attempts (one after being jilted) though she apparently managed to recover.
By 1885, Jane Toppan began training as a nurse at Cambridge Hospital. Though she appeared to be an excellent nurse, questions began to be asked due to her odd treatment of many of her patients. Two of her patients died, apparently of morphine overdoses, and Jane was fired for negligence. Whether these deaths were actually due to negligence or deliberate murder would be the source of considerable speculation afterward. In later years, Jane herself would say that her real purpose in studying nursing was to learn how to kill people. Working with different patients allowed her to experiment with the most effective ways of ending their lives. Morphine appeared to be her drug of choice since it paralyzed breathing and left the impression that the patient had died of natural causes. That she often held these patients as they died only added to the bizarre clinical picture she presented.
After being fired from Cambridge Hospital, Jane simply went on to Massachusetts General Hospital where more deaths occurred. There was never enough evidence to report her to authorities but she was eventually banned from any more hospital work. Not that this stopped her from working as a private nurse instead. Despite accusations of petty theft, she never had difficulty finding work and the deaths continued. In fact, she established a reputation among many New England families as a caring nurse who was dedicated to her patients. While deaths occurred along the way, nobody was really keeping count.
With her refined expertise in poisoning, Jane Toppan's murder spree began in earnest by 1895. Along with killing her landlords, she also went on to kill her own foster sister, Elizabeth Toppan (but she used strychnine, this time around). Two years later, she poisoned a Cape Cod woman and then moved in to care for her husband, Alden Davis. Within weeks, Alden Davis and two of his daughters were dead and Jane moved back to her hometown.
Along with restoring her connections to her foster family (despite killing her foster sister), Jane moved back into the family home and tried to seduce her later foster sister's husband. When that failed, she tried poisoning him and his sister in revenge. Although the sister died, he managed to survive. To avoid suspicions and to make him feel sorry for her, she even poisoned herself but the widower was wary enough to throw her out of the house.
By this time, surviving members of Alden Davis' family were suspicious enough to demand a toxicology exam on the body of the youngest daughter, Jane Gibbs. Though forensic toxicology was in its relative infancy at the time, there were enough chemical traces of the murder cocktail that Jane used for police to begin investigating the trail of deaths that she left behind. When Jane was questioned about the deaths, she loudly replied that she "wouldn't kill a chicken."
Police eventually tracked down a pharmacist who had regularly supplied Jane with morphine. Though the morphine had supposedly been prescribed by doctors, careful examination of the prescription forms showed that the signatures were forged. She was arrested and formally charged with murder in October, 1901.
After extensive interrogation, Jane Toppan confessed to murdering more than 31 people. In her confession, she described how she was able to hide the tell-tale traces of morphine poisoning by using atropine to dilate the pupils of her patients enough to keep doctors from becoming suspicious. With "Nurse" Toppan at their bedside, her victims would develop painful breathing and convulsions before dying, all without anyone being the wiser.
"Everybody trusted me," she wrote in her confusion. "I was so easy. I felt strange when I watched them die ... it was the only pleasure I ever had...I had to do it."
On June 23, 1902, Jane Toppan was found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to the State Lunatic Asylum in Taunton, Massachusetts. On hearing the verdict, she reacted strongly saying in court, "I understand right from wrong! That proves that I am sane." Not long afterward, Jane's "confession" was published in William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal despite controversy over whether the confession was real or simply made up. In the confession printed by Hearst, Jane allegedly only claimed to being insane in the hope of eventually being released. The confession also contained her boast that her mission in life was to "have killled more helpless people than any other man or woman who ever lived." While Hearst claimed to have gotten the confession from Jane's lawyer (which would have been a serious breach of legal ethics), nobody was ever punished for the apparent leak.
As for Jane Toppan, she life to a ripe old age and eventually died of natural causes in 1938. She was eighty-four. According to reports, she spent her last days fearing being poisoned by her guards and often subjected them to lurid threats of "revenge."
The total number of victims she claimed during her career as a nurse may never be known for certain. Along with her 31 confessed murders, unofficial estimates place the number closer to 70. While psychiatrists of that era described her as suffering from "moral insanity", no real motive for the killings was ever found.
Jane Toppan simply enjoyed killing.
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