Honora Kelley was 6 years old in 1863, the year her father surrendered her to the Boston Female Asylum. Her mother had died of tuberculosis, and that grief, along with the overt discrimination Irish immigrants faced in the United States, drove her father, Peter Kelley, a tailor, into poverty and alcoholism. Kelley signed over his parental rights to the orphanage, so that his daughter might be indentured, and, according to Harold Schechter’s book Fatal: The Poisonous Life of a Female Serial Killer, rescued from a “truly miserable” home.
There was a rumor that a few days afterward, “Kelley the Crack” (as he was widely known) became so exhausted by life that he sewed his own eyelids shut. This was most likely a fabrication — for how could anyone, even a tailor, sew both eyelids shut? — but the story haunted young Honora throughout her time in the orphanage. True or false, the tale survived because it served as an appropriate origin story for a woman who would go on to become the most notorious serial killer of her era. Her story, at least in part, is a tragic example of the worst-case scenario of the pressures put on marginalized women in the Victorian period.
At the orphanage, Honora Kelley was eager to please, whether through completing her chores and other training to become an indentured servant, or telling stories — lies — to the other orphans to win their affections. Her storytelling was discouraged, especially when she became indentured to a stern widow, Mrs. Ann C. Toppan, who chose her despite Honora being four years younger than most indentured girls. Mrs. Toppan, or “Auntie,” as she directed Honora to call her, taught the girl to hate herself. She was punished for telling stories, taught to strain out any Irish lilt in her voice, and made to change her name to the more English-sounding Jane Toppan, although according to the Boston Herald, she was not officially adopted.
She was allowed to continue living with the Toppans as a maid of all work past her 18th birthday, growing up in the shadow of Mrs. Toppan’s daughter, Elizabeth, who had all of the privilege and wealth that Jane herself desired. Elizabeth and Jane originally thought of themselves as sisters, until Auntie Toppan severely punished Jane for insinuating herself into their family. To drive home the point even postmortem, when Auntie Toppan died, Jane was tasked with organizing the funeral, even though she had been excluded from the will. Her resentment, according to Schechter, cemented.
Toppan stayed on as maid for Elizabeth and her husband, Oramel Brigham, for 10 years before getting up the courage to apply to nursing school. As in the orphanage, Toppan was a favorite among the doctors and with many of her patients. She anticipated their needs before they even realized they had any, and she always administered their treatments joyfully, which earned her the nickname “Jolly Jane.”
Her fellow nursing students, however, resented her. She was a genius, worked inhuman hours even by nursing standards, and everyone loved her. The other students tried to slander her, to get her fired by tattling that she’d spent her small wages on beer or missed required curfews. Though she was certainly guilty of these infractions, she twisted the accusations into slanderous gossip that resulted in the dismissal of two innocent nurses. Toppan’s glee at their firing shocked even her closest friends.
Some of her patients began to resent her as well, whispering to the doctors that they had overheard her saying that there was no point in keeping the elderly alive. The doctors dismissed their concerns, convinced that Toppan was a good nurse. If many of her patients died, well, it was an era when lots of patients did just that — expiring due to complications from experimental procedures, from sepsis or other common infections.
But Toppan was killing them too.
According to the testimony of one of Toppan’s only surviving victims, Amelia Phinney, as recounted in Fatal, Phinney was in excruciating pain after having had a uterine ulcer burned off with silver nitrate. When Toppan heard her wails, she came into Phinney’s room and sat on the edge of her bed.
“How are you feeling?” she asked.
“The pain. I can’t bear it.” Phinney’s wrists twitched involuntarily. “Please. A physician.”
Toppan smiled and said, “There is no need for that. I have something that will make you feel better.”
Phinney heard a tablet fall into the glass of water beside her, too loud, as sounds are magnified in fever, heard the spoon tap the bottom of the glass as it stirred, and heard the slight scrape as Toppan lifted it. Toppan slid her arm under Phinney’s pillow and lifted her head.
“Here,” she said, “drink this.”
The bitterness dried her mouth, and Phinney assumed that it was medicine to make her pain subside. But in fact, it was atropine, a belladonna-derived medicine that, combined with the waning effects of an earlier morphine administration, accelerated the effects of both. Phinney’s vision dimmed almost immediately. Her breathing grew slow and labored, and she assumed she was hallucinating as she felt the coolness of the air as her bedclothes were pulled back. She felt the mattress sag under Toppan’s weight and the nurse’s cool hands stroking her hair away from her cold, sweating face.
Toppan balled Phinney’s hair in her fist, pinned her gently to the pillow. She pressed her lips against the white, warm neck she had exposed. Toppan kissed the jawline of her patient, watching her throat gasp for air. Toppan felt heat blooming beneath the ribs of her corset, in her hips. With her free hand, she turned Phinney on her back and peeled open her eyelids to see how dilated her pupils were. Her own breathing raced as Phinney’s grew more labored.
Toppan knelt up, reached for the water pitcher and atropine, and lifted Phinney’s head again. When Phinney felt the glass against her lip, she clamped her mouth shut.
“Come, dear. Drink just a little more,” Toppan said, in a low voice just above a drone, but Phinney twisted her head away. Another nurse came down the hall just in time, and Toppan moved away from Phinney.
In the morning, out of shame, Phinney attributed the scene to a fever dream and told no one.
It was not long, however, before the doctors could no longer ignore the complaints against Toppan, no matter how convinced they were of their falsity. In her later confession, Toppan estimated, “Perhaps it was a dozen people I experimented on in this way. But you mustn’t think I killed all the patients under my care in the hospital. I nursed back to health some very bad cases of typhoid fever.”
Toppan was dismissed from Massachusetts General in 1887, yet she received a recommendation to Cambridge Hospital. However, she was dismissed from Cambridge shortly thereafter too, for similar complaints. She left Cambridge Hospital the same way she left Massachusetts General, without her nursing certification.
When she was later asked about her loss of credentials, she told the Boston Daily Journal: “I don’t care. I can make more money and have an easier time by hiring myself out.” And with her unflagging self-assurance, she did that.
Toppan served in many homes as a full-time direct-care nurse, and when she tired of caring for her fussy, elderly patients, she overdosed them, first on morphine and then atropine, drugs with counteracting symptoms that helped her experimentations go undetected. She revealed in her confession that she did not do this quickly, but rather she savored the power of pushing her victims to the brink of death and then bringing them back to life, all the while observing the effects.
In the summer, when not serving individual patients, Toppan stayed at the Jachin House, a bed and breakfast in Cape Cod, as the on-call nurse for the Davis family. Though they were upper middle class, the Davis family had been somewhat ostracized by society. The patriarch, Alden, defended the religious sect leader Charles Freeman, after Freeman had allegedly heard the voice of God telling him to murder his daughter Edith decades before.
Toppan was nonetheless happy to summer at the Jachin House, where she ran up an unignorable debt. Toppan also shocked her foster sister, Elizabeth Brigham, by inviting her to visit. Toppan treated her to a picnic by the lake before they went back up to the guesthouse for a drink of water. She popped the caps on two bottles of Hunyadi János, her favorite brand of mineral water, and added tablets of morphine to its already-bitter taste. Elizabeth went into a coma, and Toppan called her husband, Oramel, while continuing to gradually add to the dosage of morphine with injections that should have allegedly, according to Victorian science, eased her pain. Elizabeth Brigham died shortly thereafter.
“She was really the first of my victims that I actually hated and poisoned with a vindictive purpose,” Toppan confessed to the New York Journal. “So I let her die slowly, with gripping torture … I held her in my arms and watched with delight as she gasped her life out.”
After Elizabeth Brigham’s murder, Toppan helped organize the funeral, then went back to nursing in the homes of elderly patients, continuing to build her body count, a love from those patients whom she nursed with integrity, and a debt for summering at the Jachin House, which she left unpaid.
When Mattie Davis, Alden’s wife, came to collect the debt, Toppan dosed her with Hunyadi water laced with morphine as well. Davis’s daughters rushed to her side, and Toppan cared for both Davis and the elderly couple in whose house she was now staying.
Upon Mattie Davis’s death, Toppan went back to stay at the Jachin House to care for the remaining family members, whom she murdered one by one. She pretended to nurse the two adult daughters back to health, as they suffered in a state of melancholia and hysteria after their mother’s death. According to The Boston Daily Globe, she cuddled the eldest daughter’s son as his mother died upstairs.
Toppan then attempted several times to burn down the Jachin House, to destroy the records of her financial debt to the Davises. Though Alden Davis had always found it difficult to sleep, his new status as a lone widower intensified his insomnia, and he was awake to smell the smoke and extinguish the numerous fires. Each time that Toppan realized her failure, she faked panic and helped him thwart her own arson. Finally, she returned to her favorite method of murder, and killed the elderly patriarch with another overdose.
Toppan then fled to Cataumet, Massachusetts, intending to seduce and marry Oramel Brigham, Elizabeth’s widower. But Oramel — and now law enforcement as well — was suspicious of Toppan. When her first attempt to poison Oramel failed, he ordered her from the house. Instead, she climbed to the attic apartment where she had lived as a girl.
She later said that, walking into that room, she felt as though she were entering a hot, heavy fog. She sat lightly on the corner of her bed and reached into her medicine bag for the bottle of morphine. She emptied the tablets into her hand, counted out 30, and swallowed them two at a time. Oramel discovered her before the drug took full effect and called doctors who purged the morphine from her system. When she awoke, she injected herself with morphine and tried to kill herself again.
“Why did you do that?” the doctors demanded after they brought her back from the brink a second time.
“I’m tired of life,” she said, according to the New York Journal. “I know that people are talking about me. I just want to die.”
People were talking about her. In fact, according to the Boston Herald, when she was checked into the hospital, Detective John S. Patterson was undercover in an adjoining ward, investigating the deaths of the entire Davis family.
Toppan was arrested shortly after her discharge from the hospital, on Tuesday, October 29, 1901. During her incarceration, she received many letters of solidarity from patients and doctors alike. A childhood friend even acted as her defense attorney. When she was convicted, with a verdict of “guilty but insane,” Toppan was reportedly unconcerned. She said in her confession, “How can I be insane? When I killed the people, I knew that I was doing wrong.”
As detailed in Fatal, Jane Toppan lived out the remainder of her life at the State Lunatic Hospital at Taunton in Barnstable County, Massachusetts, where she eventually suffered from dementia. Toward the end, she insisted that her doctors call her Honora, and she allegedly told one of her caretaking nurses, speaking about the nurse’s other patients, “Dearie, you and I could have such fun. Getting rid of them.”
Mary Kay McBrayer is the author of "America’s First Female Serial Killer: Jane Toppan and the Making of a Monster," released May 19, 2020. She works as a contributing editor for Book Riot, where she co-hosts the literary fiction podcast, Novel Gazing, and writes their weekly horror newsletter, The Fright Stuff. You can also listen to the podcast she co-founded, which analyzes horror movies, Everything Trying to Kill You. Mary Kay has ghosts in her house, she is always drawn to the most glamorous thing in the store, and she obsesses over Middle Eastern fusion dance and all things noir.