In Episode 237, Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger visit Mayflower Hill Cemetery in Taunton, Massachusetts — the final resting place of one of America’s most prolific serial killers: Jolly Jane Toppan. Between 1887 and 1901, Nurse Toppan was believed to have murdered between 31 and 100 people in Massachusetts.
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RAY: What brings us to Mayflower Hill Cemetery in Taunton, Jeff?
JEFF: This is where the story ends for one of the most notorious serial killers in not just Massachusetts, not just New England, but really in the history of the entire country.
RAY: Wow! Okay, so whose headstone are we looking for?
JEFF: That’s the thing, this person doesn’t have a headstone. We’re heading over to the pauper’s grave section. All we have is a number: 984.
RAY: Okay, I can see an empty section of the cemetery…. Oh look, there are numbers on the ground. There are these brass circles with numbers on them. I see 981. Hmmm… I don’t see 984.
JEFF: It’s possible, maybe even likely that 984 was stolen by someone in the know. But we’re definitely close. She’s buried right near here.
JEFF: Yeah, I know the vast majority of serial killers are men, but this woman was responsible for anywhere between 31 and 100 murders. Ray, we’re on the hunt for the notorious Jolly Jane Toppan.
JEFF: I’m Jeff Belanger, and welcome to Episode 237 of the New England Legends podcast. If you give us about ten minutes, we’ll give you something strange to talk about today.
RAY: And I’m Ray Auger, thanks for joining us on our mission to chronicle every legend in New England one story at a time. We explore everything from haunts and monsters, to roadside oddities, to the true crime personalities who have left a permanent mark on our region.
JEFF: These are people we can’t forget, no matter what. And did you know that most of our story leads come from you? This one did. Thanks to our buddy Frank Grace, photographer extraordinaire and my partner on the Haunted New England calendar. He sent this story in to us. We love it when you reach out to us through our Web site, through our social media, or in our super secret Facebook group.
RAY: Before we going looking for this serial killer, we want to take just a minute to thank our sponsor, Nuwati Herbals!
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RAY: Okay, Jeff, so there’s no marker for Jolly Jane Toppan, we can’t even find her number. But she’s buried beneath our feet somewhere nearby.
JEFF: She is. And her method of murder. Her M.O.; is what makes her most chilling.
RAY: Stories of serial killers always make me uncomfortable.
JEFF: Me too, but why do they make you uneasy, Ray?
RAY: Because no one sees them coming. They blend in. When we look into serial killers I find myself looking over my shoulder a little more than usual for a while after.
JEFF: They DO blend in. That’s the hallmark of a serial killer. They go unnoticed. The same can be said for Jolly Jane.
RAY: Then let’s head back to 1887 and meet her.
JEFF: It’s the fall of 1887, and 33 year old Jane Toppan has just started her training at Cambridge Hospital. She’s going to become a nurse.
RAY: Jane is a big girl, friendly, she smiles a lot. She quickly wins the hearts of her employers, who believe she has the perfect disposition for nursing. She’s also single, and never been married. Something unusual for a 33 year old woman these days, but the bosses at Cambridge Hospital figure that’s a good thing. She’s not likely to leave the job anytime soon to start a family.
JEFF: We should fill in a little more background on Jane Toppan here.
JEFF: First, she was NOT born Jane Toppan.
JEFF: She was born Honora Kelley right here in Boston in 1857. She’s the youngest of four girls, born to poor Irish immigrants. Sadly, Honora’s mother died from tuberculosis when she was only a year old. Their father, Peter Kelley, was a tailor. And raising four girls alone was more than he could take. His neighbors called him Kelley the Crack, because people said he lost his mind. Some say he even tried to sew his eyelids shut. There were rumors he abused his daughters.
RAY: That’s terrible!
JEFF: When Honora was six years old, her father brought she and her sisters to the Boston Female Asylum. This was basically an orphanage that promised to place the girls into respectable families when they turned ten years old. From here, the sisters split up. One eventually turned into an alcoholic and prostitute, another wound up in an insane asylum, but Honora found a home in Lowell, Massachusetts, as an indentured servant to Mrs. Ann Toppan.
RAY: So now we know where the name Toppan comes from. These are not popular times to be Irish. And Mrs. Toppan didn’t want people to think they had an Irish person living under their roof, so they renamed her Jane Toppan, and said she was an Italian girl whose parents died at sea.
JEFF: So Honora… or Jane, as she’s known now, has already had a pretty tough life.
RAY: Still, she’s a good student in school, but given she’s basically living a full-time lie, she starts to show signs of being a pathological liar.
JEFF: What’s she saying?
JANE: My sister married an English Nobleman. My brother was presented with a medal by President Lincoln after the battle of Gettysburg. My father has sailed around the world.
JEFF: It sounds like no tale is too tall.
RAY: Lying comes easy to Jane.
JEFF: After graduating high school, The Toppans freed Jane from her indentured service and gave her $50. Since she had nowhere else to go, Jane continued living in the Toppan house as a servant.
RAY: After Ann’s death, her daughter, Elizabeth took over the house in Lowell, and Jane continued to be the servant. But once Elizabeth married the church deacon, and he moved into the house, there was a strain, and Jane had to leave the house she called home for 20 years.
JEFF: So here we are in 1887, and Jane is learning to be a nurse at Cambridge Hospital. She’s cheery and chatty, but also seems to be a bit of a gossip. And she’s still lying quite a bit.
JANE: The Tsar of Russia once offered me a nursing job.
RAY: Jane is also curious about the human body. She asks to attend some autopsies… you know… to learn.
JEFF: Sure! I can imagine that would be interesting if you don’t mind being around dead people.
RAY: That’s what hospital administrators think too. But Jane asks to attend more and more autopsies…. It’s… it’s getting a little weird.
JEFF: There’s also talk of hospital items going missing. And some of the other nursing trainees believe Jane is experimenting with morphine and atropine on her older patients. There’s rumors.
RAY: One patient has an odd complaint after her surgery. She tells her doctors that nurse Jane gave her some bitter medicine that caused her to lose consciousness. The patient said when she came to, Jane had crawled into bed with her and was kissing her face.
JEFF: Come on… that sounds like maybe a heavily medicated dream!
RAY: That’s what this patient figured too. It must have been a post-operation, medicine-induced dream.
JEFF: When she’s not working, Jane loves to drink beer, gossip, and turn her friends against each other. She seems to get a kick out of causing trouble.
RAY: But on the job, doctors see her as happy and competent. She soon earns the nickname Jolly Jane!
JEFF: After Cambridge Hospital, Jolly Jane moves on to work at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. She’s earning good money, and her employers’ only complaint is that she seems to give out the opiate drugs a little too freely.
RAY: As with any hospital, sometimes patients die. It happens.
JEFF: But it seems to happen to Jolly Jane’s patients slightly more.
RAY: Maybe that’s because she’s often assigned to the more difficult cases? The elderly and the very sick.
JEFF: Right, that makes sense. I’m sure that’s all it is. But then some of her fellow nurses overhear her make strange comments.
JANE: There’s no use keeping old people alive.
JEFF: I know, right?! Still, when 70-year-old Mary McLear got sick while visiting Cambridge, her doctor sent Jolly Jane to care for her, because Jane was one of his best nurses. Being alone with a patient with no supervision is more than Jane can resist. Jane administers strychnine to McLear, then sits and watches as the elderly woman draws her last breath. Jane then lies in bed with the corpse because it thrills her.
RAY: Because Mary McLear was elderly and sick, everyone assumed it was just her time. Not too many questions are asked.
JEFF: Jolly Jane understands opiates and poisons. They can be difficult to spot, making them the perfect murder weapon.
RAY: Jane poisons her elderly landlord and his wife.
JANE: They were feeble and fussy. Old and cranky.
RAY: She even poisons a friend with strychnine so she can take her job as the dining hall matron at St. John’s Theological School in Cambridge. Jane gets the job, but she doesn’t last long. Money is missing, and they suspect Jane, so they let her go.
JEFF: Jane continues to find nursing work, and when the opportunity presents itself, sometimes her patients die, and she has moments alone with the corpse.
RAY: It’s now the summer of 1899. Jane is still in touch with the Toppan family. One day Elizabeth Toppan, who is now Elizabeth Brigham by marriage, complains to Jane that she’s suffering with depression. So Jane invites Elizabeth to join her for a few days on Cape Cod.
[SEA GULLS / OCEAN]
RAY: Jane prepares a picnic lunch for the two of them. There’s cold corned beef, taffy, and mineral water. Though Elizabeth’s mineral water has an extra ingredient… strychnine.
JANE: I held her in my arms and watched with delight as she gasped her life out.
JEFF: With Elizabeth out of the way, Jane moves back into her former house. Her goal is to marry the widower Brigham and claim her rightful place as the head of that house. Within three days of arriving, Jane poisons their 77-year-old housekeeper.
JEFF: Jane then takes over the housekeeping duties to try and impress Mr. Brigham.
RAY: But Brigham makes it clear he doesn’t want her as a housekeeper or a wife.
JEFF: Jane even tries to give Brigham a small amount of poison, so she can nurse him back to health. When that doesn’t work, she threatens to tell everyone that he got her pregnant, and that’s the last straw. Brigham orders her out of his house.
RAY: It’s 1901 when Jane is renting a cottage in Bourne, Massachusetts, right on the Cape. Jane had fallen behind on the rent, so the owner’s wife, Mattie Davis, comes to collect.
[KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK]
RAY: Jane, being a gracious host, serves her a cocktail of drugs that kills her.
RAY: Jane then moves in with the widower Alden Davis under the guise of caring for him. She soon slips him a similar cocktail…
RAY: And Alden Davis is now also dead.
JEFF: Jane, now on a spree, poisons two of the Davis’s married daughters, Minnie Gibbs and Geraldine Gordon.
JEFF: Killing both of them. It’s Minnie Gibbs’s father-in-law who becomes convinced there’s foul play. How could four family members die so soon after each other? He convinces a judge to allow investigators to exhume Minnie’s body and perform an autopsy. And when they do… they discover large amounts of morphine and atropine. Minnie was murdered.
RAY: Police quickly investigate the people… or rather the person… these victims all have in common: Jane Toppan. She’s arrested October 29, 1901 for the murder of the Davis family.
JEFF: Once in court, Jane confesses to her lawyer that she’s killed at least 31 people, and maybe as many as 100. She claims the killing spree started after getting dumped by her boyfriend when she was 16 years old.
JANE: If I had been a married woman, I probably would not have killed all of those people. I would have had my husband, my children and my home to take up my mind.
RAY: Jane Toppan is found NOT guilty by reason of insanity. She’s confined for the rest of her life to Taunton State Hospital. Once she’s locked away, she’s no longer able to kill, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t still think about it. Some of her attending nurses claimed she’d often say…
JANE: Get some morphine, dearie. And we’ll go out in the ward. You and I will have a lot of fun seeing them die.
JEFF: Jolly Jane Toppan dies August 17, 1938 and was buried in a pauper’s grave here in Mayflower Hill Cemetery in Taunton. Think about it. Who do we trust more than nurses?
RAY: I think when we’re in a hospital, we trust the nurses more than the doctors!
JEFF: I agree. They spend much more time with the patients. We trust them. They’re our own Florence Nightengale, no matter how bad we’re feeling. If one were up to no good, we’d never see it coming.
RAY: So Jolly Jane took the lives of between 31 and 100 people? That’s a pretty wide discrepancy!
JEFF: It is. I guess she poisoned some patients, or gave them too many opiates, but didn’t confirm if they died as a direct result. I guess with some patients in the hospital, she administered some amount of drugs, then walked out of the room. Some may have died, others pulled through. I guess she didn’t keep track.
RAY: I can’t believe I’ve never heard of Jolly Jane before today!
JEFF: To be honest, I hadn’t either.
RAY: You’d think she’d be as famous as the Ted Bundy’s, Jack the Rippers, and H.H. Holmes’s of the world.
JEFF: Yet she’s not. Like a good serial killer, she’s still flying under the radar. Blending in to the landscape without so much as a marker or a headstone.
RAY: If you want to see some pictures and headlines of Jolly Jane Toppan, sneak over to our Web site and click on episode 237.
JEFF: While you’re on our Web site you can find a link to our patreon page! Our patreon patrons have been with us since almost the very beginning. This growing group of New England Legend insiders help us with all of the costs associated with producing this show. We’re not backed by some big podcast network, we’re backed by YOU. If you can help the cause, head over to patreon.com/newenglandlegends. For just $3 bucks per month you get early access to new episodes, plus bonus episodes and content that no one else gets to hear. Visit patreon.com/newenglandlegends
RAY: We’d like to thank our sponsor Nuwati Herbals, we’d like to thank Lorna Nogueira for her voice acting talent this week, and our theme music is by John Judd.
Until next time remember… the bizarre is closer than you think.