She may be the most notorious serial killers you’ve probably never heard of and spent time committed to Taunton State Hospital in Massachusetts.

“Jolly Jane” Toppan confessed to 31 murders – although only a dozen were confirmed – and may have killed more than 100 people. You see, Toppan claimed to be what is known as an “Angel of Mercy” killer, a caregiver who puts the sick and the dying out of their misery. Yet it appears Toppan killed more for her own personal delight than anything else, even admitting in court to a “sexual thrill” in watching her victims die.

Toppan was born Honora Kelly in Boston in 1854, the daughter of Irish immigrants; her mother died of tuberculosis when Honora was a young child, and her abusive, alcoholic father was known as “Kelly the Crack” for his apparent mental issues. He abandoned Honora and her sister at an orphanage, and Honora later became an indentured servant to Mrs. Ann Toppan in Lowell, and hence became known as Jane Toppan.

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Jane Toppan became a nurse later in life, beginning her training in 1885 at Cambridge Hospital. She developed a reputation as someone who was always happy and smiling – hence the nickname “Jolly Jane” – but behind the scenes, she was poisoning patients with morphine and other drugs. She also would allegedly get into bed with the patients as they died.

Public Domain photo
Public Domain photo

Toppan was fired twice from Cambridge Hospital for her actions before becoming a private nurse. She then used her “skills” to poison her landlord and his wife, her foster sister Elizabeth, and then after moving to Bourne, poisoned the family with whom she was living, which led to her eventual capture and trial.

Toppan fought hard against any potential insanity defense, because she knew that if declared insane, she would never be able to be released. However, she was found not guilty by reason of insanity in 1902 and committed for life to what was then the State Lunatic Hospital in Taunton, and is now known as Taunton State Hospital.

HABS via
HABS via

The latest episode of the popular “New England Legends” podcast, hosted by Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger, dropped today and it focuses on Toppan and her murder spree. The two give an in-depth retelling of Toppan’s sordid background and also the deeper stories behind some of her murders. Give it a listen on the New England Legends website.

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