Cold Cape: Cape Cod’s ‘Jolly Jane Toppan’

(Editor’s Note: Our Cold Cape mystery series continues this month with the story of “Jolly Jane Toppan” — also known as Cape Cod’s ‘Angel of Death.’ Have a mystery you want us to explore? Message us on the Cape Wide News Facebook Page.)

(HYANNIS) – When I first stumbled across the case of “Jolly Jane Toppan” I was naively convinced that she was profoundly misunderstood in her time. She was born in Boston as an Irish American, on March 31, 1854. 

Her birth name Honora Kelley. Her mother, Bridget died young of consumption and her father, a tailor named Peter “Kelley the Crack,” was a force of eccentric, unstable nature. There are differing accounts as to how Honora and her sister Delia Josephine ended up at the Boston Female Asylum.

Whether it was by Peter Kelley dropping off his daughters for he was unable to raise them, or they were taken from him, Peter Kelley could not bear the guilt and shame of it all and made one last alteration and sewed his eyes shut. Jane’s early start in life would prove symbolic for the rest of her chapters to come, monstrous had it been a work of fiction but grotesquely unnerving given that it actually happened.

Honora remained at the home until 1864 when she was “adopted” by Ann C. Toppan. She was keen on praise and loved doing things for affection and admiration at the Asylum – which made her an easy decision for Ann Toppan who would prove to provide neither pride nor admiration as the years went on.

Ann or “Auntie” as she insisted on being called demanded as well that Honora change her name to Jane Toppan to forgo the common side eye that Irish Americans and their Irish monikers often received. Life in the Toppan household was far from a Ms. Honey and Matilda happily ever after.

As an indentured servant, Jane prepared the meals and cleaned the house. She prepared the linens for Ann and her daughter Elizabeth who called Jane “her sister” and referred often to as her closest friend.

However, Jane knew better than to fall into the fantasy of assimilating to a real family life. This epiphany did not stop her, however, from her insatiable appetite for praise and attention though often fruitless to the likes of Ann.

She would often tell fables about her family life and wild tales of how her mother was in the circus and with that came the admiration of her peers, but the seething wrath of Ann. Life for Jane was unpleasant but graduating from high school with a warm cozy bed and roof over your head was miles ahead of the quandaries that other orphaned girls faced before the turn of the century.

Upon her 18th, birthday Jane’s debt had been repaid to the Toppan family and she was paid her $50 for her years of service. The Toppan household was well tended to even after Ann passed away despite being left out of Ann’s will, and being the poor soul that had to prepare her body for burial.

The home was now comprised of Elizabeth and her husband Oramel “O.A.” Brigham. Jane was enamored by Oramel and would often flirt unknowingly in front of Elizabeth. Jane unaware of what flirtation really was – still innocent in her prime. She attracted few suitors but nothing momentous – she was zaftig and plump with long locks of brown hair and blue hair, often tied up on top of her head.

She looked the opposite of her Irish heritage and she did well to play her part to hide her identity, something she would soon master all too well. She would recite disparaging comments against the people of her heritage to hide any of her relation to it.

Approaching her mid-30’s now and treading against the household divide caused by her attraction to Oramel, Jane announced to the Toppan-Brigham household that she had been accepted to the Cambridge School of Nursing.

Jane started her school like many other young women of any time period: enamored with gossip and aiming to please the teachers. She would boast many outrageous lies and her schoolmates began to loathe her flagrant disregard for the truth as she remained in high regard from her professors.

She had become so conniving in fact, that she even framed her roommate’s mere months prior to their graduation for drinking and seducing men (a lie she manufactured with falsified receipts).

Tisk tisk, she thought with a mischievous smile as she watched the women leave with their luggage. Jane preferred the task of working the night shift at school – she liked the quiet calm of everyone restfully asleep. Of course, this also meant fewer eyes on her to see what she was truly up to.

Jane brought on a lot of concern by the administration in her sincere and unwavering interest in the number of autopsies she liked to perform.  As far as strange fascinations go, it did not stop there as many accounts recorded that Jane liked very much to experiment with the Morphine and Atropine in the medicine closet, she would fabricate elaborate reasons on the spot for being in there.

She always was two steps ahead of anyone who may have been suspicious. She began to experiment on her patients, drop by drop, flick of the needle she would watch as her patients would slip slowly in and out of a morphine laced daze.

Their eyes would pin, and her satisfaction grew as they struggled would surmount with each quick, labored breath they inhaled.  Despite all of this, she was dubbed, obliviously “Jolly Jane” a favorite amongst all her patients as she was always so smiling and caring. She enjoyed being so well liked – even as two of her patients mysteriously died no one questioned it and as they faded away “Jolly Jane” remained.

In 1889, Jane graduated and began work at Massachusetts General Hospital. She soon rose to the ranks once again highly favored by the head doctors. This enamorment, however was short lived.

As many more patients began to die in her care, she was soon relieved of her duties there after only a year. She then immediately returned to work at the Cambridge School of Nursing where she was soon dismissed after poisoning a rival colleague.  

It seems all too ambiguous to us now, but to know the next part of Jane’s story you must know the steps that lead her to be this insidious, remorseless creature. Was she once a girl with a promising future?

Part II will take us to the shores of Buzzards Bay where her story takes full speed. The big City of Boston was where she became a fish-eating fish in a big pond and ironically the quiet shores of the Cape are where she was caught.

Now that Jane’s background is in the open, here is where our story leads off into more familiar territory. By now, Jane was making a real living as a private nurse – earning over $25 per week when the average woman was making an astonishingly low $5 per week. 

She began to take up summer residency in a family place to us known as Cataumet. A quaint Cape Cod retreat, where she had let rooms in the Jachin Hotel located in Buzzard’s Bay.

Before the Corner Bistro, Courtyard Restaurant or the Daily Brew, the Jachin Hotel was there. It was owned by Alden Davis and his wife Anne.

They were prominent figures in the area and owned their family house just a walk away on what is known now as Mystery Ln.  It was there that Jane began to write her sister Elizabeth and invited her down to visit in August.

As Elizabeth was suffering from depression or “melancholia” as the accounts described, Oramel decided it would be a fine idea. He loaded her onto a train with a large portion of cash and sent her off to see her “Jennie” for the weekend.  

The two sisters spent the day at the beach, by my source material it is said that they were having a splendid time together – “her best friend” Elizabeth would refer to Jane as.  As Elizabeth began to feel tired from the sun, they went back for an afternoon nap.  

Elizabeth must have been stuck with Jane still in her mind as the keeper of the house requested she bring her some water. Unfortunately, for Elizabeth she would be getting a dose of Jane’s concocted “Mineral water” a mix of Hungarian spring water and a hefty dose of Morphine.

She sat in the chair next to Elizabeth’s bed and listened to her chatter until it was likely that Elizabeth began to struggle and eventually died the next day. As I flipped through the numerous pages about Jane’s killing of her own foster sister, what was unnerving was that she did it in the first place but seemingly took delight in watching her sister even if not by blood, take her last breaths from this Earth.

Jane spent her other time when she was not on a murderous spree, she was drunk and belligerently talking smack to the local town’s men at bars. Rumors often swirled about her wrongdoings; she had a reputation and a poor one at that.

She eventually held jobs at the Woods Hole Biological School and Theological Society but eventually would be fired for thievery. By many accounts, she had killed many along the way at this point as she moonlit as a private nurse for many families with ill family members.

Sociopathy raged through her veins as much as the morphine she would poison even herself with to curry favor from gentleman callers to receive their sought-out attention.  Up until this point, Jane had killed dozens of people if not more, she began to take up regular residency at the Jachin from the Davis family.

Alden Davis was the family Patriarch the man responsible for the railroads between Cape Cod and Boston – his wife Mary and two daughters lived proudly at their Mystery Ln home.  Jane would often set fires to the Jachin – pretending to be woken up from a deep sleep when she would discover the “flames”.

It is not clear which place specifically was home to where Jane began to pluck off members of the Davis family one by one. With each glug of her special “Mineral Water” a new Davis death would pop up.

First, it was the wife, Mattie, who had gone to Boston to fetch an overdue rent payment from Jane. After watching Mary suffer, in and out of a coma, doctors arrived.

Jane cunning and on her feet would claim that it was a piece of cake that had caused this, and Mary had been a diabetic, succumbed to her ailment on the 4th of July.

Mary’s body was brought home to Cataumet where she was buried and mistakenly by the Davis family hired Jane to take care of the family as their private nurse.

Then it was Genevieve, the daughter by way of arsenic but according to Jane was “heart disease”. Genevieve followed by her father Alden who Jane would claim died from a broken heart.

Lastly, Jane would finish off Mary the other daughter – it seemed as though Jane could not help herself at this point. An entire family wiped out by August 8th, 1901 all in within a matter of weeks at the hands an attention starved succubus.

Mary’s husband and father-in-law grew suspicious, and the body of the last Davis Daughter exhumed to perform a toxicology report and autopsy to which they found fatal doses of Morphine in her blood. Jane’s reign of terror had run out as she was arrested, finally, in October 1901 in Amherst, New Hampshire.

Jane’s trial was peak media sensationalism. It reached nationwide recognition, in a time where women serial killers were virtually non-existent Jane was a rarity like that of a blood diamond, only you wish you had never found it.

In her court proceedings, Jane declared the reason behind her murderous intent was that she had been the victim of spurned romantic advances and unrequited love.

In March of 1902, three doctors declared her morally insane (Dr Henry Stedman, Dr. George Jelly and Dr. Hosea Quinby) due to her necrophiliac tendencies and affinity for coffee for breakfast. She often liked to lay in bed with her patients as they slipped away into death’s hands.

No serial killer had been prosecuted in America before and certainly it was not expected to see someone so murderous be so happy and holly even still. The national press had a field day – with Toppan describing her impulses as “No voice has as much melody in it as the one crying for life; no eyes as bright as those about to become fixed and glassy; no face so beautiful as the one pulseless and cold.”

Jane was ultimately sentenced to Taunton’s Insane Asylum where she lived out her remaining days until her death at 84 in 1938.

As I write this piece, it is Jane’s birthday, many years later. People in my research wrote about the discrepancies between the coverage of Bundy and Dahmer, how we are still haunted and fearful of those men who are no longer around and yet Jane was dubbed “Jolly Jane” even as her lethal nature became known to the world.

I could not help but feel led to this story this past month, a disturbing yet monumental piece of history for the place I call home now. 

As I was roaming the halls of my workplace, I was asked by my boss what I was covering next for the Cold Cape. When I replied about Toppan my coworker piped up “I live in her house!”.

To my shock and surprise, I got to go to the old Jachin hotel this past Saturday. I could feel the cold energy that remained now home to a rugged fisherman and my coworker. I saw the ash-stained wall from where Jane lit her fires and felt the chill of the cold past of that house on the back of my neck.

Most importantly, I drove up the road to the Davis family plot where I got to honor and thank Mary, Alden, Genevieve and Annie “Mary” and remember Jane’s sister Elizabeth who I think truly only ever wanted to be Jane’s friend. It is said that on record, Jane has confessed to 31 murders but there are many who suspect she is responsible for close to 100 deaths.

I will never forget stepping into Jane’s old home and asking the room “What in God’s name were you thinking?”

The plights of famous men are woven through our history – the zenith of the modern world was built, it feels by the throws of men on the backs of the poor, disenfranchised. There are commonly hurled tropes such as “behind every good man is a strong woman” but if it is anything we’ve learned from Jane it’s that behind a dangerous man, is an even more dangerous woman.  

By Krysta Lubold, Cape Wide News
737 West Main Street
Hyannis, MA 02601
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