Bundy, Gacy, Manson – all of these names are well known as belonging to serial murderers, but how many people have heard of Jane Toppan, a nurse and the daughter of Irish immigrants?

This “Angel of Mercy”, Jane Toppan, is believed to have been one of America's most prolific poisoners having killed over 100 patients.

Born in Massachusetts in 1857, Toppan, who became known as “Jolly Jane,” attended Cambridge Nursing School and established herself as a private nurse in Boston working for some of the city’s wealthiest families. It wasn’t until an entire family in her care died, within weeks of each other, that her crimes surfaced.

The first-generation Irish nurse was known for her cheerful, funny demeanor, hence her nickname, but it has been said that she was the most notorious female poisoner in modern times. It’s believed that she gave injections of morphine and atropine to 31 hospital patients and a suspected 70 others, killing them all, over her two-decade career.

When she was finally caught she admitted that she wanted to kill others. Given her history of mental illness and suicide attempts, she won an insanity plea. She was confined to a state mental institution and died in prison 40 years later.

The podcast, Criminal, covered her bizarre story:

Jane Toppan wasn’t even her real name. She was born as Nora Kelley, in Boston, in 1854, to Irish immigrants, Bridget and Peter Kelly. She lost her mother, to tuberculosis, in infancy. Her father, a tailor, was an alcoholic who suffered from severe mental illness. He was known as “Kelley the Crack” and was said to have been committed to an asylum when he was found in his shop having sewn his own eyelids together.

The four Kelly daughters, Nora aka “Jolly Jane” among them, lived briefly with their paternal grandmother but were soon sent to the local orphanage.

Abner Toppan and his wife, from Lowell, MA adopted Nora in 1859. They changed her first name to Jane. As a girl, she excelled in school. She seemed completely normal before she was jilted by her fiancée, years later. This spun her into depression and Jane twice attempted suicide. She went through a period of odd behavior including believing she could predict the future through her dreams.

Sadly, around this time, Ellen, one of Jane’s sisters, joined their father in an asylum following a mental breakdown.

During the 1880s Jane seemed to stabilize and signed up as a student nurse at the hospital in Cambridge. Again she excelled academically. However, her superiors were disturbed by her obsession with autopsies. She was dismissed after two patients died mysteriously. She left without her certificate but forged the paperwork and went on to find work as a private nurse.

Over the next 20 years, she was hired by dozens of New England families to care for their ill and elderly.

On July 4, 1901, an old friend of Jane’s, Mattie Davis, came to visit. She died under her care at Cambridge. Jane accompanied the body home to Cataumet, MA for burial.

There she was retained as the family’s nurse by the patriarch Alden Davis. By July 29 his married daughter, Annie Gordon, who had turned to the nurse in distress, was dead. A few days later Davis died of “a stroke” and his surviving daughter, Mary Gibbs, was dead by August 19.

The entire family had been wiped out in six weeks. Mary’s husband realized that this was no coincidence. He demanded an autopsy on the family’s bodies and lethal doses of morphine were found in the three latest victims. By that point, Jane had fled back to Boston.

By the time Jane was arrested in Amherst, NH on October 29, she had killed her foster sister, Edna Bannister, and she was working on another patient before the police cut her plans short.

In custody, she named 31 of her victims, but it’s believed that her final tally was between 70 and 100.

No accurate list of her victims who died in hospital was ever compiled. At that time many of the New England families wished to avoid scandal and refused requests for exhumations and autopsies. Jane was only tried for 11 murders and it was her own testimony that clinched her insanity ruling.

She said, “That is my ambition, to have killed more people – more helpless people – than any man or woman who has ever lived."

Nora Kelly, Jane “Jolly Jane” Toppan, was incarcerated at the state asylum in Taunton, MA. She died in August 1938 at age 84.

* Originally published in 2016, updated in Feb 2024.