October 29, 1901: Jane Toppan is arrested. She was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1857 to Irish immigrant parents. Her birth name was Honora Kelley. Mrs. Kelley died of tuberculosis when her two daughters were very young. Paul Kelley was unable to care for his daughters. He was both alcoholic and an eccentric dubbed Kelley the Crack (as in crackpot and not related to drugs). Stories abound about the crackpot status of the family patriarch. One such tale tells of his sewing his own eyelids shut while working as a tailor. This is unsubstantiated and probably untrue, but the story itself lends credence to the instability of Paul Kelley.
In 1863, a few years after his wife’s death, Paul brought then eight-year-old Delia Josephine and six-year-old Honora to the Boston Female Asylum. This was an orphanage for indigent female children and was established in 1799. Paul gave over his two daughters and never saw them again. Documents from the asylum indicate this truly was in the girls’ best interest and note the girls were “rescued from a very miserable home”. No other records from the asylum tell how their time there was spent. However, in November 1964, Honora Kelley (now seven) was placed as an indentured servant in the home of Ann C. Toppan of Lowell, Massachusetts. Honora was never formally adopted, but she took the family name and changed her first name to Jane.
In 1885, Jane began training as a nurse at Cambridge Hospital. During her residency, she used patients as test subjects for experiments with morphine and atropine just to see what the drugs did to their nervous system. She spent time alone with patients and would drug them, climb into bed with them, and hold them close as they died. She later admitted to getting a sexual thrill from this. She moved on to Massachusetts General Hospital in 1889 and killed several more people before returning to Cambridge. She worked as a private nurse and was able to seriously begin her serial killer career in 1895 with the murder of her landlords. She killed her foster sister in 1899, tried to seduce her brother-in-law, unsuccessfully, and finally moved in with Alden Davis, a recent widower.
She killed Davis and two of his daughters within weeks. She was arrested on this day and by 1902 had confessed to 31 murders. She went to trial and on June 23 was found to be not guilty by reason of insanity. She was committed for life to the Taunton Insane Hospital. A Hearst newspaper reported she had hoped to be declared insane so she might be released later. If so, her plan did not work and she remained institutionalized until her death. She died on August 17, 1938 at the age of 81.
That is my ambition, to have killed more people-more helpless people-than any man or woman who has ever lived. – Jane Toppan
Murder is unique in that it abolishes the party it injures, so that society has to take the place of the victim and on his behalf demand atonement or grant forgiveness; it is the one crime in which society has a direct interest. – W.H. Auden
Murder is not some fictional conceit, imagined for the purpose of entertainment, but actually happens: and afterwards no credits roll, and life has to continue to be lived even if you have absolutely no idea where the deeds to the house are kept, or who services the lawn mower. – Michael Marshall
When I hear about people murdering, I wonder, What has to go through your brain to say, I don’t want him breathing anymore? What makes you get that angry? How can you take someone’s breath away? That just blows my mind. – Gilbert Arenas
Also on this day: Ali, the Greatest – In 1960, Cassius Clay, later to be known as Muhammad Ali, had his first professional fight.
Seeing Red – In 1863, the International Red Cross got its start.
You’re in the Army Now – In 1940, the first peacetime draft in the US was instituted.
Raleigh – In 1618, Sir Walter Raleigh was executed.