This Day in History: October 29th- The Nightmare Nurse

This Day In History: October 29, 1901

toppan-jun25-1902-colorJane Toppan was known as “Jolly Jane” to her co-workers in her early nursing days thanks to her jovial demeanor and cheery bedside manner. Later, she became known as “The Nightmare Nurse” after she was found guilty of slowly poisoning and then killing various patients under her care.

Toppan was born Honora Kelley, but a few years after her mother died her father, Paul Kelley (nicknamed “Kelley the Crack” due to being thought a bit crazy), brought Toppan and her sister to the Boston Female Asylum orphanage, where it was noted that she and her sister were “rescued from a very miserable home.”

She later found work as an indentured servant to Ann C. Toppan and ultimately changed her name to Jane Toppan.

Toppan started her nursing career in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1885. Sometime after, she began using her patients as unwitting guinea pigs, testing various doses of medication on them, enjoying the control she exerted over her victims, reportedly liking to bring them to the edge of death and then back again. One of her patients remembered awakening to Jane on top of her, caressing her. She stated that Toppan stopped, however, and slipped away when she heard someone coming to the room. Her patient thought she had only dreamed about the occurrence until she later heard about Jane’s arrest on October 29, 1901.

She was lucky; once Toppan decided to kill one of her patients, she reportedly would give them a fatal dose of morphine and hold them while their life slipped away.

But Toppan was no one-trick pony – she had no problem killing outside of a hospital setting. Landlords, rival job applicants, she even killed her foster sister by feeding her poisoned snacks while on a picnic. Jane later admitted, “I held her in my arms and watched with delight as she gasped her life out.”

Things got out of hand when Jane started bumping off entire family trees. Mattie Davis, an old friend, went to visit her in Cambridge. She came back to her home on Cape Cod in a casket, dead from “heart failure.”

Jane reportedly spoke so movingly at Mattie’s funeral that her family asked her to stay on as a live-in nurse. Toppan graciously accepted the kind offer. Within a month, Mattie’s husband Alden and both their daughters were dead.

Soon after, Captain Gibbs, the husband of Mary Gibbs, one of Mattie Davis’s daughters, came home from sea to find his wife and her family deceased under extremely suspicious circumstances. He asked the police, who already had their curiosities piqued, to exhume the bodies for autopsies.

His suspicions were confirmed and on October 29, 1901, Jane Toppan was arrested for the murder. Not long after, she confessed that she was responsible for 31 deaths, but later supposedly claimed it was more like 100 and that she had hoped to “have killed more people… than any other man or woman who ever lived.”

It took the jury less than 30 minutes of deliberation to find Toppan not guilty by reason of insanity. She was sent to Taunton State Hospital to live out the rest of her life.

According to an Oct 21, 1906 article published in The Washington Times, The Modern Lucretia Borgia Haunted By The Phantoms Of Her Victims, Is Facing Death, she initially felt no remorse for any of her actions, stating after being sent to Taunton:

I feel 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.

However, this “hilarious” state didn’t last and according to that report, her mental state slowly slipped, with a contributing factor perhaps being severe malnutrition.  It wasn’t that the hospital wasn’t offering her adequate food, but rather that she became extremely paranoid that the staff was trying to poison her. In a letter she wrote dated July 1, 1904 to one Dr. Stedman, she stated,

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

Things worsened and the hospital staff had to force feed her, as she described in a letter to a friend,

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

The 1906 Times piece also noted that, “She was continually soothing supposed patients, urging them to take imaginary doses, and crying out that they were dying…”

They concluded, “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.”

Despite her reported state, she lived for over three decades more, dying at the age of 84 in 1938.

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