Throwback Thursday: The Arrest of Boston’s Murderous Nursemaid
Jane Toppan confessed to killing 31 people. But she probably killed dozens more.
On October 29, 1901, she was arrested and her murderous rampage was put to an end. She’d been administering poison to unsuspecting victims for fifteen years.
It started when she began nursing school at Cambridge Hospital. While her portly figure, rosy cheeks, and outgoing disposition gave her the nickname “Jolly Jane,” her intentions were not so lighthearted. She began “experiments” on patients, toying with differing doses of morphine and atropine to observe the drugs’ effects. Toppan would rouse her patients in and out of consciousness until they eventually died.
The infamous serial killer often hid her past from employers and friends. Born Honora Kelley, she was abandoned by her alcoholic father and placed in the Boston Female Asylum, an orphanage on Washington Street in the South End. Two years later, she was sent to be an indentured servant for the Toppan family of Lowell. While she was never legally adopted, she took the name Jane Toppan and spent years with the family. Secretly resentful of her foster sister, she eventually poisoned her. After Toppan was apprehended, she recounted, “I held her in my arms and watched with delight as she gasped her life out.”
Toppan’s work as a nurse was fatal and often times sexual. A patient at Cambridge Hospital who lived through one of Toppan’s experiments described how she climbed into bed with her, kissing on the face and stroking her hair. It is said that another person walked into the room before she could give the patient her final dose of morphine.
Toppan brought her deadly sexual thrills with her to Mass General after she was recommended for a position there. She took the lives of a few more, was fired, and returned to Cambridge Hospital. However, the nurse was soon dismissed for being careless in prescribing opiates. She then took jobs caring for Boston and Cambridge’s most elite families, killing members off one-by-one.
Her list of victims finally stopped growing when she boldly killed an entire family. While the police looked into the deaths, Toppan claimed one more victim before her arrest in Amherst, New Hampshire.
In trial at the Barnstable County Courthouse, she was found not guilty by reason of insanity and sentenced to life at the Taunton Lunatic Asylum. While under review by a psychiatric doctor, Toppan confessed to the 31 murders, plus a dozen or so patients while she was a hospital nurse. After the trial, Toppan told a reporter that she had meant to be found insane so she could eventually be released.
She wasn’t released, to her disappointment—she remained at the hospital in Taunton until her death at the age of 81. Looking back on her life, she reflected that the murder of her foster sister was the only one committed out of ill will, and that perhaps if she had been married, she wouldn’t have killed so many people.