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have a holly jolly murder
Or, why I'm lifting my usual "no serial killers" rule to talk about Jane Toppan.
I’m not much into true-crime culture, really. I like a good documentary about a cult or a scam, but as soon as we start getting into grisly murders, my brain nopes out. Not for me.
Let me tell you, though, that’s not the case with this week’s dirtbag, who is a true case study in unhinged wildness. It’s not just murder, it’s dirtbag murder, which, as we shall see, is of a whole different breed entirely. Thanks to Nina for suggesting I profile this lady, whose Wikipedia table of contents does not beat around the bush:
“Jolly Jane” Toppan, the Murderingest Murderer Who Ever Did Crime
Jane Toppan was born in 1854 in Boston under the name Honora Kelley. (I’m going to call her Jane throughout this newsletter, because that’s the name history remembers her by and also because it’s what I’m doing.) Jane’s mother died when she was young, leaving her and her sisters to be raised by her father, a tailor and by all accounts a real fucking piece of work.
In keeping with the old DTTA adage of “report the wildest rumors as if they are fact because I am a messy bitch who lives for drama,” Jane’s father allegedly went mad in his later years—mad enough to sew his own eyelids shut.
In a real good news/bad news situation, Jane’s father took his three daughters to the Boston Female Asylum, an orphanage, when Jane was only six. Bad news that 19th-century orphanages are never the kind of place anyone wants to hang out; good news for avoiding the whole eyelid-sewing business.
At age eight, Jane was sent to work for the Toppan family as an indentured servant. While working for them, she took on the name Jane Toppan, partly to cement her connections with the family and partly to sound less Irish. (This was, after all, the 19th century, and essentially every living person was racist.) She was a well-liked and industrious child, and things seemed to be looking up at last.
But Wait! There’s Murder!
In 1885, when Jane was in her 30s, she began training as a nurse at Cambridge Hospital near Boston. She was apparently a fantastic nurse, very cheerful and attentive to her patients, which earned her the nickname “Jolly Jane.” A charming nickname, you say!
Not such an apt one, as it turns out!
Not only was Jane wandering around the hospital telling truly unhinged lies—she’d been offered a job by Tsar Alexander II, Abraham Lincoln had once high-fived her brother, etc.—she also kept performing a truly startling number of autopsies.
And if we know one thing about autopsies, it’s that suddenly having a suspicious number of them is not great news.
Behind the scenes, this cheerful nurse was experimenting on her patients with morphine and atropine, seeing how close she could bring them to the brink of death before bringing them back, then almost killing them again, and so on until they were actually dead. Personally when I feel the urge to conduct a science experiment, I make cupcakes. Jane had her own way of coping.
“Get some morphine, dearie,” she reportedly said to one of her fellow orderlies, “and we’ll go out in the ward. You and I will have a lot of fun seeing them die.”
Now, she allegedly said this, but personally I doubt it. I feel like if I was an orderly and someone said this to me, I would…perhaps raise that up the flagpole? But clearly no one at Cambridge Hospital did, because Jolly Jane was promoted to become a nurse at Massachusetts General in 1889. She did get fired shortly thereafter, possibly because of all the people she was murdering.
But did that stop Jane? You bet your murder nurse it did not! She immediately set about doing what anyone would do when they’ve been fired from their in-house job due to budget cuts and murder: she started freelancing.
Murder For Hire
Jane became one of the most in-demand private nurses in Boston at the time, checking in on wealthy patients at home and—more often than not—murdering them with opiates. The body count kept racking up, and nobody got suspicious? Somehow? Admittedly, this was well before the advent of the true crime podcast, so maybe no one had told 1880s Bostonians to stay sexy and not get murdered.
Not only did this freelance career let Jane pursue her true passion (murder), but it also paid startlingly well. As a private nurse, Jane made about $25 a week, or about $800 in today’s money. This was more than enough to support her in her three main passions: drinking, being a shitty person who lied to her friends, and poisoning strangers. (This last one is honestly a startlingly common hobby for people profiled in this newsletter.)
Jane didn’t stick to professional murder, though. She branched out from murdering sick people for money and started poisoning people recreationally for a truly impressive variety of reasons. Namely:
Her landlord, because he was old and annoying
Her landlord’s wife, because ditto
One of her best friends, so she could take over the murder victim’s job at a dining hall
Her foster sister, Elizabeth Toppan, because Jane wanted to marry her husband Oramel Brigham
Her foster sister’s housekeeper, so Jane could impress Oramel Brigham with how good she was at cleaning
Herself, so Oramel Brigham would feel sorry for her
Oramel Brigham, so she could nurse him back to health and he’d fall in love with her. (She successfully healed him, but in keeping with his behavior throughout this whole story, the “fall in love with her” part did not happen.)
She probably could have kept going on this way forever, until she murdered an entire family at the same time, which frankly was careless and represents poor planning on her part. The town got suspicious, an inquest was launched, and Jane was arrested in 1901 for super-murder, which is what I assume you call it when you have more murder victims than there are chicken nuggets in a standard combo meal.
Trials and Tribulations
At trial, Jane…sorta didn’t help her own case. The lawyers only had evidence that she’d killed 12 people, but Jane immediately confessed to 31 by name and told everyone she’d probably murdered more than 100 people. Adding, although literally no one asked, that she got a sexual thrill every time she watched someone die.
When asked why this had become her favorite pastime for some reason, she answered, “My ambition was to have killed more people—helpless people—than any other man or woman who ever lived.”
And when her lawyer tried to argue that she couldn’t be found guilty due to insanity, Jane loudly and insistently proclaimed that she was not insane, that she fully understood what she was doing and knew it was wrong, but did it anyway because it was fun. Like. Ma’am?
The jury debated for exactly 27 minutes before coming back and declaring Jane not guilty by reason of insanity. Which I have to believe pissed her right the fuck off, because what did she just say.
Jane was committed to the Taunton Insane Asylum for life, where she spent the last years of her life paranoid that one of the asylum orderlies was going to poison her food. If they did, they would have learned from the best.
Jane died in 1938, probably not from poison.
Thanks for bearing with me on the slightly delayed newsletter this time, friends and readers! There’s a reason I bill this as “handcrafted dirtbags delivered roughly every other week,” and it’s because sometimes my brain falls apart and I lose track of time. But I’m always happy to share a historical weirdo with you!
Likewise, I’m always delighted to hear your suggestions for people who might make good dirtbags! Got a Bostonian poison enthusiast you think I should know about? Make sure I know about it!
In the author corner of my life, I’ll be in conversation with Caroline Woods tomorrow (6/15) at the Beer Shop in Oak Park to talk about her stunning new historical spy novel The Lunar Housewife. The book is on sale today, and if you haven’t picked up a copy yet, you should. There’s a scene in which Ernest Hemingway talks about the menstrual cycles of zebras and you bet your butt I’m gonna ask Caroline about it tomorrow night.
Other than that, huge thanks to everyone who has forwarded this newsletter to friends, recommended it, or signed up your unwitting coworkers without their consent! (Legal reasons oblige me to clarify: please do not do that.) I’ve decided to celebrate breaking our next subscriber milestone with a two-part special about arguably one of the Top 5 dirtbags of all time: Lord Darnley, Mary Queen of Scots’ second husband. Fuck this man. Tell your friends about the newsletter so I can tell you all about how much Darnley sucks.
Until next time, be well, and do not poison anyone, I cannot emphasize enough how much you should not poison anyone,