A ghost sign in modern Boston
I’ve just returned from a fantastic trip to Massachusetts, and while there, of course, thought to research some of the crime and news stories from the state’s history. Here’s one I found which is interesting both because it has parallels with elements of the story of Amelia Dyer in Britain around the same time, but also because it shows that, throughout history, ‘experts’ (usually male) have struggled to explain female criminality, and in particular the relative few cases of female serial killers. It seems that we seek explanations for female deviancy to a far greater extent than with male criminals – even when, sometimes, there might not be a coherent explanation at all, however hard we look.
She was born Honora Kelley, and like many residents of Massachusetts in the mid 19th century, she was the child of Irish parents – of course, many Irishmen and women had fled the Great Famine of their homeland in the 1840s and both New York and Boston, on America’s east coast, had seen an influx of migrants as a result.
Although these Irish people had fled famine, many of them found that life in America was not much of an improvement. Life was a struggle, and many found it hard to feed their families and keep a roof over their heads. Sickness and disease was ever present, and Honora’s own mother, Bridget, soon died of consumption.
Jane Toppan, the former Honora Kelley
She and her siblings were left to be brought up – dragged up – by her father Peter, an abusive man who was regarded as mad by his neighbours. Within a few years of his wife’s death, it became clear that Peter could not father his children effectively. He abandoned his youngest two – Honora, then six, and her eight-year-old sister Delia – at a local female orphanage, and never saw them again.
At the age of eight, Honora was sent out to work by the orphanage, becoming a servant in the household of Ann Toppan in Lowell, north of Boston.
Although her miserable start in life should not be used to excuse her later offences, it is clear that Honora had the odds stacked against her. She was from a poverty-stricken immigrant family; her mother was dead and her father absent. She had no chance of a happy childhood, and her working life started when she was still a young child.
In later life, she targeted others who were themselves vulnerable, as though angered by memories of her own childish vulnerability, and the failure of her parents to give her a secure start to life. The fact that she took on the surname of her Toppan employers suggests a desire to become part of a family – yet she would later try and destroy it.
It could have been so different for Honora, though. She had chances which others in her situation did not; at 21, she started training to be nurse, and at work was well-liked. As she had become known as Jane Toppan, others nicknamed her Jolly Jane because of her friendliness. But underneath, there were darker thoughts going round Jane’s head.
Like Amelia Dyer in Britain at the end of the 19th century, Jane used her nursing as a cover to kill, and started to kill whilst working in a hospital. Curious about life and death – remember, this is a woman who had lost her own mother to tuberculosis when she was young – she started fiddling with the dosage of medicines to see what happened to patients when they were given too much of a drug.
She would get into bed with them to see what the effect was, and to watch them fall unconscious. Eventually, while working at the Massachusetts General Hospital, she was sacked for administering drugs ‘recklessly’.
The 1893 city directory for Cambridge, MA, shows Jane working as a private nurse there
She no longer had access to hospital patients, but still had the desire to poison individuals and monitor the effect of the poison on them. She started working as a private nurse when her hospital job ended so prematurely, and found other opportunities to injure or kill individuals, too. In 1895, she killed her landlord and his wife; four years later, Elizabeth Toppen Brigham, daughter of her first employer, was killed with strychnine.
She killed Mattie Davis, and then moved in with her widower, Alden, to ‘look after’ him. In 1901, she killed Alden, as well as his daughters Genevieve Gordon and Minnie Gibbs. Her preferred poisons were morphine and atropine.
Jolly Jane had got careless in trying to kill an entire family rather than an individual. A toxicology test was ordered for Minnie Davis Gibbs, and it showed that she had been poisoned. Jane was duly arrested for murder, and later confessed to over 30 murders.
Most of her known victims were women – the youngest victim was Minnie, aged 40; the oldest was her landlord Israel Dunham’s 87-year-old wife. The majority of the victims, however, were in their sixties or seventies.
When she was arrested, Jane had objected to her being described as ‘morally insane’. She argued, “I can read a book intelligently, and I don’t have bad thoughts, so I don’t see where moral degeneracy comes in.”
Although she insisted she was sane and knew what she was doing when she poisoned so many people, the jury clearly could not comprehend how a sane woman could do such awful things, and found her not guilty by reason of insanity. She was ordered to be sent to a local asylum – the Taunton State Hospital.
Once in there, Jane claimed to be ‘haunted by the horrible fear that all around her are seeking to serve her as she served her numerous victims.’ She embarked on a hunger strike out of a fear that her own food would be poisoned, and had to be force fed with a tube.
Meanwhile, continuing press coverage of Jane’s offences were as confused by her as the jury at her trial had been. This was clearly an intelligent woman, and appeared ‘mentally, physically, and morally’ normal; yet she must clearly be insane, for why else would a woman kill? Despite this insistence of her madness, one newspaper had to admit that this was a ‘peculiar’ mental illness that seemed to have left her ‘intellectual faculties unimpaired’.
Jane is listed as an inmate of the Taunton State Hospital in the 1930 US census (image via Ancestry)
There was clearly a doubt as to what Jane’s motives were, and what could explain the actions of a female serial killer. This was not a common story – the victims had not done anything to Jane, and she was not an ‘angel of death’ seeking to stop people from going through pain by ending their suffering herself.
She was an ordinary woman, a trained nurse, and the experts of the time queued up to try and understand what she had done. As a British paper noted, ‘Criminologists, alienists and the public generally are aghast at her crimes. She alone is unconcerned.’
Jane was asked to explain her actions, and simply said that she could not control her impulse to kill – but ‘when the paroxysm passed, I was myself again. I cared no longer for the patients to die.’ In 1904, she was interviewed in the asylum that was now her home, and she attempted again to explain her thought processes:
“I do not know the feeling of fear, and I do not know the feeling of remorse, although I understand perfectly what these words mean. I do not seem to be able to realise the awfulness of the things I have done, although I realise what those awful things are. I seem incapable of realising the awfulness of it. Why don’t I feel sorry, and grieve over it? I don’t know.”
Unlike her own mother, Jane lived a long life. Unlike her victims, she died of natural causes. She died at the Taunton State Hospital in Massachusetts in September 1938, 36 years after she was committed to that establishment, remaining something of an enigma to those investigating female criminality.
Northampton Mercury, 27 June 1902, p.8); Lancashire Evening Post, 3 September 1938, p.8; Dundee Evening Telegraph, 26 June 1902, p.4, St James’s Gazette, 26 June 1902, p.8, Leominster News, 2 September 1904. Do note that the relationship and names of some known victims of Jane Toppan varies from site to site (and within sites, on occasion!).