Born Honora Kelley in 1854, “Jolly” Jane Toppan would go on to confess to 31 murders in Massachusetts between 1895 and 1901, though she said the number could be closer to 100. Her goal, she claimed, was “to have killed more people – helpless people – than any other man or woman who ever lived.”
Daughter of Bridget and Peter Kelley, Honora had a rough start to her life. Her mother died of tuberculosis when she was very young, which caused her father to turn to alcohol. Peter Kelley surrendered two of his three daughters, including Honora, to the Boston Female Asylum, an orphanage for poor female children.
From here, Honora was sold into indentured servitude, to serve the Toppan family in Lowell, Massachusetts. The family treated her well and she took on the surname Toppan.
In 1885, Toppan began her nursing training at Cambridge Hospital outside of Boston, Massachusetts. This is where she got her nickname “Jolly Jane,” as she was always cheerful, bright and friendly.
At Cambridge Hospital, Jolly Jane experimented with her patients using morphine and atropine. She altered their doses to see how it would affect them. She took particular pleasure, she would later confess, in bringing her patients close to death while embracing them.
Despite her experiments, she was considered one of the best nurses at Cambridge Hospital. This secured her a recommendation to the prestigious Massachusetts General Hospital in 1889. Toppan later confessed to killing some of her patients here. She was fired only a year after starting.
Jolly Jane returned to Cambridge Hospital, but was soon fired for handing out opiates like they were candy. This lead to her successful career as a private nurse, where she had free reign to experiment and kill without those pesky micro-managing doctors around.
A few have considered Toppan to be an “Angel of Mercy,” a serial killer who takes on the role of a caregiver to intentionally murder those under their charge. The Angel of Mercy revels in the power they have over their victims and often believes that they’re doing the victim a favor by killing them.
Toppan did not just kill her patients, however. In 1895, she poisoned her landlord, Israel Dunham. Two years later, she poisoned his wife, Lovey. In 1899, she murdered her own foster sister, Elizabeth Toppan, using Strychnine. Between 1895 and 1901, Jolly Jane killed at least ten people who were not patients, for various different reasons, including lust, jealousy, greed and power. This takes her out of the “Angel of Mercy” category.
Jolly Jane was arrested on October 26th, 1901 (exactly 118 years ago TODAY). Over the next year, she would confess to 31 murders, though she said the real number could be closer to 100. During her trial, several patients from Cambridge Hospital came forward stating that she would crawl into bed with them after administering their pain medication. Toppan admitted to feeling sexual pleasure by holding her victims while close to death.
On June 23, 1902, Toppan was found Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity and was sentenced to life in an asylum. She was shipped off to Taunton State Hospital, where she spent the rest of her life trying to convince the nurses to kill patients with her.
Jolly Jane Toppan died on August 17, 1938, at the age of 84.
While her list of victims is sizeable, without proof of the other 60 or so murders, Jolly Jane did not kill more than any man or woman in history. She’s beat by Samuel Little (50 proven), Gary Ridgeway (49 proven), Ted Bundy (36 proven) and John Wayne Gacy (33 proven). Also, while it isn’t proven, H.H. Holmes was said to have killed over 200 people in his murder house. Sometimes it’s okay to not reach our goals.
Is there a female serial killer or other spooky woman of history you’d like us to talk about? Let us know in the comments below!