True Crime: Female Serial Killers in History | Jane Toppan

The third part in our series, Keren takes us on a journey delving into Female Serial Killers throughout history. This week she looks at Jane Toppan, who is claimed to be America’s first female serial killer.

TW – Suicide, sexual assault

Jane Toppan

Serial Killers Jane Toppan

In the Beginning

Jane Toppan (Honora Kelley) was born in March 1857 to Irish immigrants. She lost her mother at an early age to tuberculosis and her father was a well known abusive alcoholic. Her father was given the name ‘Kelley the Crack’ due to losing his mind and allegedly sewing his eyes shut.

In 1863, Jane and her sister were admitted to Boston Female Asylum by their father as he was unfit to protect them. She was adopted by Ann C. Toppan in November 1864 and from then on became known as Jane Toppan.

Serial Killers Jane Toppan
Boston Female Asylum Census –

Jolly Jane

Aged 33, Jane started training as a nurse at Cambridge Hospital in Boston. She was well liked, bright and friendly, therefore evoking the nickname ‘Jolly Jane’. During her residency, Jane would pick her favourite patients and use them as ‘guinea pigs’. Falsifying medical charts and experimenting with morphine and atropine, she would alter the patients doses to see the effect it had on their nervous systems. Whilst watching the elderly victims drift in and out of consciousness, Jane would lay in bed with them. later claiming that she derived a sexual thrill from watching her victims come close to death and the power she held over them.

Jane was recommended to Massachusetts General Hospital, where she claimed several more victims before eventually being fired a year later. Shortly after this, she went back to Cambridge Hospital; she was dismissed for administering opiates recklessly. Following her dismissal, Jane went on to flourish as a highly recommended private nurse, despite complaints of petty theft.

Serial Killers Jane Toppan

Shot of Poison

The poisoning spree began when Jane killed her landlord Israel Dunham and his wife, later stating they became feeble, fussy, old and cranky. She later went on to kill her own adopted sister, Elizabeth, with a bottle of water laced with strychnine. The reason being that she wanted to marry Elizabeth’s husband Oramel Brigham. After the death of her sister, Jane moved into Oramel’s house and killed his housekeeper after three days.

Unfortunately for Jane, Oramel did not want her as his housekeeper, nor his wife. She came up with multiple ways to try and seduce him. However when her plans failed, she was ordered to leave the house and later attempted to commit suicide.

Following her failed suicide attempt, Jane moved into a cottage owned by Alden Davis, but failed to keep up with the rent. Jane murdered Alden’s wife Mattie, when she came to Cambridge to collect the late payments and in wake of her death, Jane moved in with Alden to take care of him. She ‘took care’ care of him and his two daughters. It didn’t take long for the rest of the family to suspect foul play.

The surviving members for Alden’s family ordered a toxicology exam on the youngest daughter and found that she clearly had been poisoned. This resulted in the local authorities growing suspicious of Jane and placing a police detail on her.


In October 1901, Jane was arrested and she went on to confess to more than 31 murders a year later whilst speaking to her lawyer. This confession was allegedly printed in the New York Journal and it stated that she hoped the jury believed her to be sane, as this would mean she could potentially be released. The Hoosier State Chronicles also reported that Jane would fondle her victims as they died and she would attempt to ‘see the inner workings of their souls’ through their eyes.

Whilst on trial, Jane stated she was clearly sane as she knew that what she had done was wrong. However despite this claim, on June 23rd, the jury found her not guilty by reason of insanity and Jane was committed to Taunton Insane Hospital for life. It is reported that Jane’s aspiration was “to have killed more people – helpless people – than any other man or woman who ever lived”. Jane later died at Taunton Insane Hospital in 1938 at age 81.

If you’d like to find out more information on Jane Toppan, why not check out Mary Kay McBrayer’s book: America’s First Female Serial Killer – Jane Toppan and the Making of a Monster. You can grab a copy from WHSmith or Amazon

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