Thursday, October 31, 2019

In Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - Jane Toppan's Poisoning Murders

     There have been many horrific crimes that have taken place on Cape Cod, from Tony Costa to the Lady of the Dunes, to Edward Ray Snow and beyond. One name that belongs right up there with those previously mentioned, but usually is overlooked, is that of Nurse Jane Toppan. Nicknamed ‘Jolly Jane’ her poisoning murders shocked New England and were only the tip of the iceberg. This is the story of those crimes and the intriguing soul behind them.

     The life of Jane Toppan began in turmoil. Born in 1857 as Honora A. Kelley in Boston’s North End she was one of four sisters born to poor Irish immigrants Peter and Bridget. Bridget died of tuberculosis early in Honora’s childhood and shortly before Peter died from alcohol in 1863 Honora and her sisters became residents of the Boston Female Asylum for Destitute Girls on Washington Street. Honora was adopted by Captain Abner Toppan of Lowell and his wife Ann who christened her Jane Toppan. She would become an indentured servant to the family.
'Jolly Jane' Toppan

     Despite being treated poorly by her adoptive mother Jane excelled in school and participated in activities at the First Congregational Church in Lowell. She got along well with the Toppans’ daughter Elizabeth whom she felt a kinship with as she too was mistreated by Mrs. Toppan. After turning eighteen Jane had the chance to leave yet chose to stay and continue working for Elizabeth and her husband Oramel Brigham for a decade. Jane’s life changed at the age of twenty when she fell in love with a man she wished to marry. He moved nearly one hundred miles west to Holyoke for work to save money for marriage. However while there he met someone else and ended up marrying her instead. Jane would never be the same.

     She became introverted and brooding, resenting Elizabeth’s happy marriage. In 1885 Jane suddenly left Elizabeth’s home and entered nurses’ training at Cambridge Hospital. She would also train some at Mass General Hospital where she made a great impression on her superiors but her fellow nurses-in-training saw her as trouble. It was during her time at Mass General where Toppan attempted to poison a fellow nurse. To further complicate things it was discovered that Jane had left the training before being formally discharged and thus her diploma as a Registered Nurse was never awarded. This did not stop Toppan as she would ironically become head nurse at Cambridge Hospital only a year after failing to get her diploma by lying to management there about her credentials.

     Her time at Cambridge Hospital saw her garner a very positive reputation as a nurse, the best doctors recommended her as she was described as highly intelligent and caring. She had a high volume of cases which masked her sinister side. During the early 1890’s Nurse Jane Toppan’s poisoning murders began. Those people whom Toppan wished to keep as cases she would sometimes administer less-than-lethal doses of poison to keep them from recovering. The striking dichotomy of her pleasant outside with her evil inside was apparent in the murders of a husband and wife in her care.

     On May 26, 1895 Toppan poisoned Israel P. Dunham. The family thought so highly of her that when Dunham’s widow became sick two years later they sent for Toppan to care for her. She then poisoned Mrs. Dunham as well. While part of the private-duty circuit in and around Boston Jane moved back in with her foster sister Elizabeth and her husband Oramel. In 1899 Elizabeth became ill and Jane cared for her, including accompanying the family to the village of Cataumet in Bourne on the Cape for the summer. However Elizabeth only grew worse and died in August 1899. Coincidentally Elizabeth’s housekeeper, also in Jane’s care, died in January 1900.

     Toppan’s reputation gained her a job as a nurse at the Episcopal School in Cambridge caring for a girl with typhoid fever in the fall of 1899. There she met Myra Connors the head matron at the school and also at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory. In January 1900 Connors became sick and confined to her bed. Ironically after Toppan left for another case Connors began steadily improving. When Toppan returned to care for her ‘friend’ for free Connors rapidly declined and died on February 11, 1900. It was at this time that several people including Connors’ friend Nellie Coombs began to suspect Toppan of poisoning Connors to gain her position at Woods Hole. These suspicions only grew when Nurse Jane did indeed succeed Connors as head of the ‘Mess House’ at the M.B.L. in the summer of 1900.
The Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory

     Much as during her time at the Cambridge Hospital Jane Toppan was highly respected at Woods Hole. During her summer at the M.B.L. there were no incidents to speak of. However her undoing would come when she returned to Cataumet for the summer like the year before. 


     Toppan became good friends with the Davis family from Buzzards Bay, including renting a cottage from patriarch Alden P. Davis. Davis, his wife Mattie, and his two daughters referred to Nurse Jane simply as ‘Jennie.’ Toppan left Woods Hole and returned to Cambridge in 1901. On July 3, 1901 Mattie Davis arrived for a visit to see if Jane wished to rent their cottage again for the summer and had dinner with her. Mattie became violently ill and died on July 4th. Suspicion arose but Jane proclaimed diabetes as cause of death and her word was believed.

     She returned to the Cape with the body of Mrs. Davis to grieve with the family. Mattie’s daughter Genevieve became ill at her mother’s funeral and Nurse Jane cared for her at the request of her father. Genevieve died July 13th with Toppan claiming heart disease as the culprit. Alden P. Davis was devastated and at 70 years old his failing health which followed was not surprising. On August 8th Alden was found dead in his bed by Nurse Jane, she proclaimed his death a mixture of grief and a stroke. Shockingly the man who performed Mrs. Davis’ funeral confessed to burying her without a death certificate, going only on Nurse Jane’s word again.

     Toppan stayed with the remaining daughter Mary, and some other family members who had come to comfort her. When Mary became bed-ridden Nurse Jane cared for her. She told a doctor who came that she was just tired and the doctor took her word and left. Mary died early on August 13, 1901 making her the fourth member of the Davis family to die in Jane’s care in six weeks. Finally Jane’s facade unraveled as Mary’s husband suspected poisoning. After Mary’s funeral Jane left Cape Cod returning to Lowell and a police investigation began.

     The undertaker recalled Jane telling him the Davis family wished for a lot of embalming fluid to be used, possibly to mask the poisoning agents in their bodies. The net closing in Jane attempted suicide by poison but was revived by a doctor. She then fled to Amherst, New Hampshire and was subsequently placed under arrest on October 29, 1901 and arraigned at Barnstable District Court. Now in custody the true scope of the horrific crimes Jane Toppan committed would be exposed.

     On November 20, 1901 the four Davis family victims were exhumed and it was determined they all died from a lethal dose of morphine. She was indicted in December. Jane confessed to her lawyer Fred Bixby that not only had she murdered the Davis family but at least 31 people, perhaps as many as 100. With her victims she administered morphine and atropine in water or whiskey, or used injections. Toppan admitted that although she did not think she was insane she did not feel any remorse for what she had done.
Taunton State Hospital where Jane lived out her remaining years.

     On April 8, 1902 three experts examining her found Jane Toppan to be insane. Her trial in Barnstable began and ended on June 24th with Jane being committed to the Taunton State Hospital. Toppan lived out her remaining years feeling no remorse for the lives she had affected, dying inside the hospital’s walls on August 17, 1938.

     Despite her claims that she wasn’t insane, and her confession to untold cruel poisoning murders, only Jane Toppan herself knows just how far her crimes reached. Jolly Jane’s story is truly terrifying showing that sometimes looks can be deceiving and trust can get you killed.


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crowfeather said...

Wow Chris, never heard this story before! Fascinating, thank you! Love your blog, so nice to see such love for one's home and region!

Christopher Setterlund said...

Thank you so much, I am really glad you enjoy it!