Thursday, September 22, 2011

Jane Toppan, Massachusetts Serial Killer Nurse - 1901


FULL TEXT: Jane Toppan, “the modern Lucretia Borgia,” who the title by a most remarkable series of murders is in the insane asylum at Taunton, Mass., haunted terrible visions of many victims. It is a little more than four years since she was committed to the asylum and in those four years since has become a physical wreck. She was then in the best of bodily health – a buxom, smiling woman, not at all one’s idea of a degenerate afflicted with an incurable desire to kill. She weighed over 209 pounds.

Since she been at the asylum her mania has developed from a desire to kill into a hard belief that all the attendants, the doctors,  her lawyers, even her relatives are in league to kill her. Her certainty that are all trying to poison her has driven her to decline food. She is dying of self-starvation She has faded to a mere skeleton. She weighs only a little more than sixty pounds. The authorities have found it necessary to resort to artificial feeding. Death, they say, may come at any time and is sure to come soon.


~ Confessed to Thirty-one Murders. ~

Jane Toppan is one of the most remarkable criminals within the memory of the present generation. She is known to poisoned thirty-one persons This she has confessed to and her confession is supported by incontestable evidence They were not enemies, real or fancied, these victims of hers. She had no grudge against them. For the most part she called them friends. They had been kind to her. She had nothing to gain by their death.

The methods were practically the same in each instance The poison employed was according to her story always morphia and in those cases which she chose to bring to a fatal finality a staggering dose of atropia. She cannot remember the details in all cases, she declares, “because poisoning had become a habit of her life.” It seems to have been merely “habit.” She killed without malice, without conceivable motive.

And yet, complete moral degenerate that she was a homicidal maniac of me most pronounced type, Jane Toppan is said to be of sturdy New England stock. Certainly the famous Bertillon system of measurement to detect in her single evidence of inherent criminality and by heritage she should have possessed the traditional Puritan conscience. In appearance she is a quiet motherly person and by profession was a trained nurse.

~ Poison An Evidence of Affection. ~

Yet, in spite of appearances for twenty years previous to her detection, Jane Toppan’s outwardly placid life was torn with one great and secret and insatiable passion – the slow murder by poison of those whom she loved best. With the exception of her foster sister,  all of her victims were either her patients or families of her patients. In her ministrations about their sick beds she invariably grew fond of all her patients. When the fondness reached the stage of a deeper affection she adopted very paradoxical method of dosing them with deleterious drugs to impede their progress toward speedy recovery.

With innumerable of the hundreds of people whom she nursed in these twenty years, Jane Toppan’s feelings did not grow beyond what might be called the flirtation stage. Before her affection had time to assume the full strength of passion she had grown tired and satiated.

Just how many persons, and who they were with whom death, wearing mask of this gentle and smiling ministrant, survived, these ghastly flirtations will for obvious reasons never be made public. The only one whoso identity is known absolutely is O. M. Brigham, of Lowell, the husband of Miss Toppan’s foster sister. Soon the death of Mrs. Brigham, as a result of poison administered relative, the bereaved husband was stricken by a similar malady.

Miss Toppan, who had been visiting the family remained nurse her widowed brother-in-law.


~ Let One Victim Escape. ~

For a long time he lingered, his condition varying from day to day, sometimes reaching almost the point of death, then taking a sudden change for the better and quite as reverting to former conditions of coma and unconsciousness. It was a long same which Nurse Toppan played with her brother-in-law and in the end she magnanimously allowed him to win and he is today alive and well, a well-known and highly respected resident of Lowell.

Not so fortunate however was Miss Florence Calkins whom Mr. Brigham employed two years later as his housekeeper and who was taken suddenly ill upon the occasion of Sister-in-law Toppan annual visit to Lowell, which continued regularly even after the death of Mrs. Brigham and long after the death of Miss Calkins. The latter died after a few days’ illness, in January, of 1900, and it so happened that upon the occasion of Sister-in-law Toppan’s next visit to Mr. Brigham’s house, in 1901, she met as a fellow-visitor to the latter’s sister, Mrs. Edna Bannister, of Turbridge, Vt., Mrs.  Bannister was on her way to the Buffalo Exposition, and had stopped off in Lowell for two days. She was taken ill within a few hour of her arrival died the following day hi Jane Toppan’s arms.

It was not until August, 1901, when Mrs. May E. Gibbs, of Cataumet, Mass., one of Miss Toppan’s patients under circumstances which the authorities regarded as suspicious, that the nurse was suspected. Detectives were set at work unearthing her record. Experts watched her quietly without letting her know that she was under observation. She was arrested and convicted in the spring of 1902. She was adjudged insane and committed to the Taunton Asylum, where she finally confessed to a long list of murders.


~ Knew No Remorse. ~

“I feel,” she said, after her imprisonment, “absolutely the same as I always have been. I might say I feel hilarious, but perhaps that expresses it too strongly. I do not know the feeling of fear and I do not know the feeling of remorse, although I understand perfectly what these words mean. Now I cannot sense them at all. I do not seem to be able to realize the awfulness of the things I have done, though I realize very well what those awful things are. I try to picture it by saying to myself, ‘I have poisoned Mary, my dear friend; I have poisoned Mrs. Gibbs, I have poisoned Mr. Davis, but I seem incapable to realize the awfulness of it. Why don’t I feel sorry and grieve over it? I don’t know. I seem to have a sort of paralysis of thought and reason.”

Among Jane Toppan’s last victims were Mrs. Mary E. Davis, Cataumet, Mass.; Mrs. Annie Gordon, Mrs. Davis, daughter, Chicago; Alden P. Davis, the father; May E. Gibbs, a daughter.

For nearly two years after she had been the asylum, visitors to the hospital were unable to observe in her any trace of insanity. The question was nearly always asked, “Why is she here? She seems as sane as her attendants.” And they were astonished to learn who she really was. But now her mental delusions are constant, and an outsider would doubt the appropriateness of her incarceration.

She has abandoned the careless, cheerful frame of mind in which she has heretofore been and is now fretful, peevish, even ugly, fault-finding, fearful of eating because of suspected poison, complaining of her treatment, morose – everything but remorseful. The intellectual insanity, following the moral insanity with which it is now believed Jane Toppan has been afflicted from birth. She has dwindled to a mere skeleton. Her death is a question of weeks, perhaps even days.

~ Her Earlier Years. ~

Jane Toppan  is now forty-seven years old. Of her earliest life very little is known. Her name was originally Honora Kelly. She and one of her sisters were placed in a foundling asylum by their father, an eccentric man of bibulous habits.  The sister is a responsible and capable woman. There were two other sisters, one of whom is a chronic insane patient, the other dead after leading a dissolute life.

She was taken from the asylum by a Mrs. Toppan, who is said to have given her kind and Christian training, which was quite thrown away on her. Her incorrigible propensities, her deceitful habits, her capacity for making trouble, proved too much for Mrs. Toppan and she was sent away.

And yet she is said to have come of good stock – her father, the black sheep of a respectable family. Dr. R. H. Stedman, of Boston, one of the three alienists on whose report she was sent to the asylum instead of the electric chair, has been watching her case with interest. He has a series of photographs, taken from time to time

This case of Jane Toppan will be ever a medico-legal classic. As a child she was noted as a mischiefmaker; her foster mother was obliged to send her from home because she continually told lies. Yet when she became a nurse she developed qualities which made her agreeable, even loved, and when she was arrested some of her former patients evinced far more concern than herself. Indeed, from the day of her arrest Jane Toppan has never shown fear of consequences, much less remorse for her murders. Poison had become a habit of her life, she told the examining physicians.

~ Carried Out Plans Cooly. ~

In planning and carrying out her homicidal acts she was, she asserted, always calm and clear-headed. After administering the poisons she experienced great relief and went to bed and slept soundly. In telling of her crimes she exhibited no bravado, but showed that she had no appreciation of the enormity of her acts. “Why don’t I grieve over it and feel sorry?” she said.

The world shuddered when Jane Toppan was arrested and her crimes were told in print. Dr. Stedman has evidence to substantiate twenty of the murders to which she confesses; the other eleven are beyond investigation. In two instances she claimed to have been seized with compunction and to have sent for another nurse. One of the patients was saved in consequence. In another instance she took the opportunity to repeat the dose and make sure of her victim. The whole gamut of human motives was run over by the investigators in vain. There was neither avarice nor hatred to inspire her. No sexual instinct had been perverted in her, as was at first supposed, nor was she a user if liquor or opium. It was an irresistible propensity which impelled her to kill her best friends, and to commit the four crimes of arson to which she also confessed.

All her poisoning was done with opium, with a fatal dose of atropine, and the draught was so given in Hunyadi water as to be unsuspected by the patient and by physician as well.

~ Insanity Becomes Delusional. ~

After about two years in the asylum her insanity, which had been purely moral, began to develop into an intellectual insanity. She was continually soothing supposed patients, urging them to take imaginary doses, and crying out that they were dying. Soon she became convinced that the attendants and physician, even her sister and her lawyer, were members of a “gang” which was trying to poison her. Here is a letter that she wrote Dr. Stedman on the subject:

“Taunton Lunatic Hospital, July 1,1904. ---- “Doctor Stedman: I wish to inform you that I am alive, in spite of the deleterious food which has been served me. Many efforts have been made to poison me – of that I am very sure. I am thin and very hungry all the time. Every nerve is calling for food. Why can’t I have help? I ate a pint of ice cream and four oranges Saturday and Sunday.    (Signed) JANE TOPPAN
“NORAH KELLEY.”

Again she wrote to one of her friends:

“Dear: I am the victim of nerve paralysis, the result of food. I have to eat or I am fed with a tube with nerve-paralyzing food that I choose from the tray. Oh, I think that you and – were criminals to put me through this. It was an awful thing to do any human being, and I have my opinion of everybody who takes a hand in it. I think it has been a noble (?) piece of work. I think as the nerves of my body get more benumbed my brain becomes clearer to the outrageous course that has been taken with me. I suppose the next thing, something will be given to put me out of the way altogether. That would be a mercy too.
(Signed).  “JANE TOPPAN.”

And in a letter to her own sister at Chicago, she wrote:

“Do you know the supervisor put some poison in my tea. A patient saw her and told me, and didn’t touch it. The lady heard the superior say she had fixed J. T. this time.”

In that belief  it has been almost impossible to get her to take food. She has, naturally, grown weaker, and weaker. And as her strength has waned the victims of her past have been more frequent and more terrifying. Sometimes now, it is not the attendants, but some of her victims who have returned to deal with her, even as she dealt with them. And she cowers in abject fear before vengeance which she believes is pursuing her – all unconscious of the punishment which really has overtaken her.

[“The Modern Lucretia Borgia Haunted By The Phantoms Of Her Victims, Is Facing Death,” The Washington Times (D.C.), Oct. 21, 1906, p. 4]

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For more cases, see Sicko Nurses

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1 comment:

  1. I just wrote a blog post about Jane Toppan today. Although i didn't find nearly as much information as you did about her life in the asylum. I thought it was very interesting that she was under the impression that everyone was trying to poison her. Even more interesting she went from around 200 pounds to 60 pounds while at the asylum from starving herself. I also highly enjoyed your pictures. I like the old fashion look to them since this case is old. I'm very curious as to why Toppan is called "the modern Lucretia Borgia?"

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