Jane Toppan was as violent a shock to nineteenth century America as the Manson murders would be almost a century later. One of many serial killers using an avocation to nursing or medicine, Jane Toppan was a nurse who had access to both medicine and victims with little or no supervision. But many experts attest that Jane Toppan was less a programmatic serial killer than simple an insane woman whose access to medical resources enabled her to end life in the double digits.
The rare female serial killer, Toppan used her medical resources to experiment on patients with fake charts and using strychnine and atropine. Dubbed the “Angel of Death” from later newspaper reports, Toppan “topped” over seventy victims in her New England hunting ground. Getting private income from members of the public as a private nurse and earning respect as a ward sister, Jane Toppan has institutional credibility in an era when public knowledge of clinical medicine was rare.
Jane Toppan needed no vehicle to cruise for patients. As a nurse at Cambridge Hospital, they were already within her purview. While initially her victims were patients she disliked, there is no reason to suppose anyone was safe from her killer bedside manner. The epithet “Angel of Mercy” was common to nurses in the period. But Jane Toppan delivered a special meaning to about thirty human beings of which mercy played no part.
Born Honora Kelly in 1857, Jane Toppan was the name her life evolved her into. Who knows who “Honora Kelly” might have been? Jane’s birth father and sister both went insane. Jane wasn’t far behind. Adopted by the Toppans from a Boston orphanage at age five, Jane was raised in the shadow of her pretty and privileged foster sister. Jane’s memories of her “mother’s” abuse would come back to haunt them.
Toppan was the name of her adopted parentage and foster home, which would receive a chilling payback in hospitality as Toppan’s lust for causing death increased. Jane’s insanity rendered her unable to have a relationship with or participate in feelings of love or trust. But she could feel rejection and betrayal, and being left at the altar at age nineteen left a searing mark on her psyche. Jane’s fantasies of being a wealthy married woman were at an end.
Toppan operated her march of death in a time when serial killers were barely known or suspected at all, and only Jack the Ripper and the case of Holmes and the Death Castle in Chicago were the main references. Jane Toppan delivered injections of death, using drugs like morphine and atropine that masked the symptoms of either substance in the dead patient.
Toppan had a morbid love of death, a desire to get close to it as an entity and control it. A “plain Jane” been adopted and set adrift in the world, Toppan took out her envy of the stepsister she knew on the unsuspecting and hapless patients within her care. Thirty-one known patients and persons died at the hands of Jane Toppan.
New England has its share of killers, but Jane Toppan was one of the first serial killers and notably a woman. Jane Toppan’s impact on the area culture resonates today. Like the murders of Lizzie Borden, the fatal shock of the Jane Toppan murders has somewhat faded into a cultural folk archetype.
Jane believed in herself as the “Angel of Death”, a bringer of “mercy” and provident dispenser of mortal relief. Jane Toppan selected victims who could be helped into the next world at her prompting. Jane Toppan evidenced enough mental instability that her trial for one murder returned a verdict a “Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity”.
The broad duties of a nurse in that era included prescription and administration of drugs, often unmonitored and unsupervised by a physician. A hospital and its patients would be in the physical charge of nurses and orderlies. Only physicians directly attending the patients might countermand their deeds or statements. The charts were the trusted source of data for any patient, and the system expected its employees to faithfully report their treatments. But Jane Toppan creatively changed the dosages and course of treatment radically
Toppan would climb into bed with her dying victims, and flirt with their medications to bring them back to life or extinguish them forever with the power of her poisons. As a “jolly” nurse who was perceived as a good sport, she was not connected with the deaths occurring on her watch for some time. The patients who died on Jane Toppan’s watch had significant ailments that masked the real causes of death.
But by 1901 Jane’s reign of terror had reached attention getting proportions. She visited an errand of mercy on her former foster sister, and pursued her husband after his bereavement. At this time it was observed that she drank when off-duty and her demeanor changed to a peevish and complaining termagant. Jane Toppan’s birth father and two natural sisters would all mirror her life’s struggles.
Jane Toppan by that time had become an earmark of death, a harbinger of murder. Too many deaths, too many dead friends, dead patients, relatives and acquaintances led police to question and apprehend her. She even became engaged but the man threw her out of the house after multiple family “illnesses” and deaths.
Judged insane and thus not culpable, Jane Toppan was committed to a mental institution. She spent her last days fearing poisoning from the guards and taunting them with threats of her “revenge”. A New York Times article in follow-up traced the delusions and insanity of Jane Toppan and termed her mental state as a “moral insanity”.
Such was the condition of the study of mental illness at this time that her physician of care, an “alienist”, commented with remarks that implied a fallacy: that it was the intellectual pursuit of Toppan’s training that had caused her mental imbalance. An absence of motive in the killings was noted.
Jane Toppan would admit to murdering 31 people. Jane said of her acts that she wanted, “to have killed more people — helpless people — than any other man or woman who ever lived.” She would spend the remainder of her days at the Taunton Insane Hospital where she would die of natural causes.
Article by Roy Whyte. Visit his Google+ page for more.