True Crime vol. XXV: Angel of Mercy

By: Courtney Henson

Jane Toppan was born with the name of Honora Kelley on March 31, 1854. Her mother, Bridget Kelley died of tuberculosis when Jane was very young and her father, Peter Kelley was well known as a very abusive alcoholic, earning himself the nickname “Kelley the Crack” by those who knew him. In 1860, Kelley surrendered Jane and her sister to the Boston Female Asylum. In November of 1862, Jane was placed in the home of Mrs. Ann C. Toppan as an indentured servant. This is where she adopted the last name Toppan. 

In 1885, Jane began nursing training at Cambridge Hospital. During her residency, Jane would pick her “favorite patients” and use them as guinea pigs for experiments involving morphine and atropine. Jane spent a considerable amount of time alone with patients altering charts to avoid any suspicion of wrongdoing. In 1889 Jane began working for the Massachusetts General Hospital where she took many more lives before being fired. After this, she briefly returned to the Cambridge Hospital but was soon dismissed for recklessly administering opioids. Despite her history, and heavy accusations of theft, Jane began working as a private nurse and found great success. 

The killing spree began in 1885 when Jane poisoned her landlord, Israel Dunham, and his wife. She soon followed this by killing her foster sister, Elizabeth, with a large dose of a pesticide in 1889. After poisoning and killing Maddie Davis in 1901, Jane moved in with her elderly husband, Alden Davis, and very quickly killed Davis, his sister, and two of his daughters. The surviving members of the David family called for a toxicology report on the youngest daughter, Minnie, after becoming suspicious. The report showed that she had been heavily poisoned and it was understood that this is what happened to the rest of the family. 

On October 29, 1901, Jane was arrested for murder and by 1902 she had confessed to 31 murders. The identified victims include Israel Dunham, Lovely Dunham, Elizabeth Brigham, Mary McNear, Florence Calkins, William Ingraham, Sarah (Myra) Connors, Mattie Davis, Genevieve Gordon (Annie), Alden Davis, Mary (Minnie) Gibbs, and Edna Bannister. After later confessing to her lawyer that she killed over 31 people but refusing to give names, Jane begged the court to deem her sane, in hopes of later being released. In the end, this claim did not work and on June 23, 1902, Jane was found not guilty on the basis of insanity and committed to Taunton Insane Hospital. 

Although her motive is ultimately unknown, many believe Jane was experimenting to get a better look at the “inner workings” of a human. Some say it was jealousy. Others say it was for sensual reasons, but Jane herself said it was paralysis of thought and reason, just a strong urge to poison. 

In 1931, at the age of 81, Jane died in the Taunton state hospital. Buried under the name “Honora Kelley”, she is laid to rest in the Mayflower Cemetery.

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