Toppan, Jane (1854–1938)

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Toppan, Jane (1854–1938)

American mass murderer. Born Nora Kelley in 1854 in Boston, Massachusetts; died on August 17, 1938, in Taunton, Massachusetts; daughter of Peter Kelley (a tailor); attended nursing school in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Jane Toppan shocked the country when it was discovered that the seemingly gentle private-duty nurse had for many years been poisoning the patients in her care. Toppan was born Nora Kelley in Boston in 1854, but after her father, a widower who worked as a tailor, was sent to an insane asylum for attempting to stitch his own eyelids, Jane and her three sisters went to live with their grandmother. They were then sent to an orphanage. Mr. and Mrs. Abner Toppan adopted Nora in 1859, when she was five, changed her name to Jane, and raised her in comfortable surroundings in Lowell, Massachusetts. Though Jane excelled in school and appeared to be happy, a hint of her darker side was revealed when her fiancé broke off their engagement. Jane hammered her engagement ring to pieces, refused to see friends, began to study dreams and clairvoyance, and twice attempted suicide. It was later reported that one of her sisters was eventually institutionalized for mental illness.

When she was 26, Toppan abruptly informed her parents that she intended to become a nurse. She studied at a hospital in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she was energetic, enthusiastic, and popular. But in time, the nursing staff began to notice that Toppan's interest in autopsies seemed to exceed the bounds of normal curiosity. Then one of her patients, who had been rapidly recovering, suddenly died. Another death quickly followed. The chief surgeon of the hospital called Toppan in for questioning and, though he did not bring a specific charge against her, discharged her that day. She was then hired as a head nurse at another Cambridge hospital, but was fired when it was discovered that she had forged her graduate credentials.

From 1880 to 1901, Toppan served as a private nurse, telling her parents, "I will go to the old and the sick to comfort them in their neediest hour." She worked for scores of families throughout New England, earning their respect and trust. But in July 1901, after the death of Mrs. Mattie Davis , Toppan's crimes began to surface. Mattie was an old family friend whom Toppan had nursed during a sudden illness. Mattie's husband, Captain Davis, had begged Toppan to stay on after Mattie's funeral and care for his two married daughters, who had also been stricken by a mysterious illness. Within 45 days, both daughters and Captain Davis were dead. Captain Gibbs, the husband of one of the daughters, became suspicious after a cousin told him that his wife had acted scared of Toppan. He told police detective J.H. Whitney, who had Mrs. Gibbs' body exhumed for an autopsy. The results showed heavy concentrations of morphine. Medical specialists confirmed that all of Toppan's victims had showed signs of morphine poisoning, but did not exhibit constriction of the pupils, one of its telltale signs. Toppan later admitted she had masked this symptom by adding atropine, or belladonna, to the morphine she administered to her victims, to make their eyes appear normal.

Toppan was charged with murder and jailed, and detectives began exhuming dozens of bodies throughout New England. Autopsies showed they had all been poisoned with morphine and atropine. It was discovered that Toppan had been able to obtain large quantities of the narcotic by forging doctors' prescriptions. Though prominent families had at first defended Toppan, it soon became clear that she was guilty. Dr. Stedman, an alienist (psychiatrist) who visited Toppan, reported that she admitted to the killings. "I fooled them all," she told him. "I fooled the stupid doctors and the ignorant relatives. I've been fooling them for years and years." She also named 31 persons she claimed to have poisoned. At Toppan's murder trial, which began on June 25, 1902, Stedman testified that Toppan was incurably insane. She answered, "The alienist lies! I am not crazy! … I know that I have done wrong! I understand right from wrong! That proves I am sane!" Toppan was sent to the Taunton State Asylum for the Criminally Insane, where she lived until her death in 1938. It was said that the old woman would occasionally call one of the nurses to her cell and whisper, "Get some morphine, dearie, and we'll go out in the ward. You and I will have a lot of fun seeing them die."


Nash, Jay Robert. Look for the Woman. NY: M. Evans, 1981.

Elizabeth Shostak , M.A., Cambridge, Massachusetts