Updated: Apr 29, 2021
Please note that this, and all episodes of Thrice Cursed have been adapted from their original spoken form to text by myself, and some additional ad-libbed content may have been omitted. All content within is the sole property of Thrice Cursed Podcast. Please don't plagiarize. Plagiarism sucks.
Hello. I’m Rebekkah Rosewood, and this is Thrice Cursed.
To kick off National Women’s History month, I’m going to be doing things a little differently today. Usually, I will take you through a case as investigators discover it. For today’s story, that’s not exactly possible. So, here goes nothing!
Statistically speaking, female serial killers are far less common than male serial killers, with women taking a whole 15% of the cake. In fact, female serial killers are so uncommon that as late as 1998, Roy Hazelwood of the FBI was quoted on several occasions stating that ,”There are no female serial killers.” This fact is probably as fascinating to you as it is to me, as probably the most notorious female serial killer, Aileen Wuornos was sentenced to death for her serial murders in 1992. 6 years prior to those statements. Clearly, female serial killers were obviously a thing.
Today, I won’t be telling you about Aileen Wuornos, though. We’re all familiar with her crimes, and why she committed them. Instead, I’ll be talking about Jolly Jane Toppan. --Why do female serial killers always get Jolly, Happy, or Giggling attached to their name while men get cool monikers like “Night Stalker?” Maybe that’s why there aren’t as many. We get lame names. And that’s a general we there. I’m not a serial killer. As far as I know, anyways.
Today, psychiatrists say she was one of the most unusual serial killers in history. Unlike most female serial killers, her motive wasn’t financial gain or revenge. Instead, she was in it for the sexual thrill. Female killers are also more likely to kill those that they know. This wasn’t necessarily the case for Jane Toppan. Of course, murderers come in many shades. 50 Shades of Cray, if you will.
Before I get into the details, I’d just like to state that many details are up for debate due to the time this took place. Names, years of employment, etc… are all somewhat questionable. With that being said, let’s get into this.
Jane Toppan was born in 1857 as Honora Kelley. Obviously records are going to be a bit scarce due to the time frame. However, here’s what we do know. When Toppan was very young, her mother Bridget Kelley died of tuberculosis. Her father, Peter Kelley, known to many as “Kelley the Crack” (as in crackpot) quickly declined mentally after the loss of his beloved wife. It’s said that the man was found in his shop where he worked as a tailor, attempting to sew his own eyelids shut. This instance can’t be confirmed, but does speak to the general opinion of him and his mental state.
In 1863, when Jane was just 6 years old, Kelley surrendered her and her 8-year-old sister Delia Josephine to the Boston Female Asylum. This was essentially an orphanage for needy children. They would never see their father again. Aside from the mental state of James Kelley, not much is known of their home life. Save for a small note left in the girls’ scant files at the asylum. The note read, ”rescued from a very miserable home.” What exactly that means, we will never know, though it is believed the girls were abused.
Similarly to their home life, not much is known of their lives in the asylum. In November of 1864, Jane was placed in the home of Mrs. Ann C. Topen of Lowell, Massachusetts, as an indentured servant. She was never formally adopted, but took on their surname regardless. She was passed off as an Italian girl whose parents had died at sea, due to the stigma associated with the Irish at the time.
According to Ann and her husband, Jane excelled in school and seemed to be a normal, well-adjusted child. It’s even said that she had many friends. That is, until she was jilted by her fiance. After that, she attempted suicide twice. She also exhibited abnormal behavior. This behaviour included attempts to predict the future through dream analysis. One source I’d read said that as a child she “displayed the earmarks of a sociopath.” This included telling outrageous lies like her father sailed around the world, her sister married an English nobleman, or her brother was decorated at Gettysburg by Abraham Lincoln. --I have a few comments about this. For 1, that first lie is literally what her… employing family? Forced her to tell people because who she actually was, was apparently shameful. So… fucking gross. 2, she’s basically been conditioned to lie to appear better than she is. I’m not one to “blame the parents,” because people are ultimately responsible for their own actions… but at this point, she is being taught that lying is better than being honest. I don’t know that that alone was cause in and of itself to deem her a sociopath.
Unlike Toppan, her sister wasn’t placed until 1868. In her later years, she turned to sex work and alcoholism. She died alone in squalor. Another sister, by the name of Ellen, joined their father in a lunatic asylum after suffering a mental breakdown in her twenties.
Whatever happened in their home must have been all kinds of traumatic.
I was unable to find what kind of work Jane did for the Toppan family. At the age of 18, Jane Toppan graduated from Lowell High School. The Toppans then freed her from her indenture, and gave her $50. In 1875, $50 was equivalent to approximately $1,189.01 USD today. Toppan remained in the home as a servant at this time.
When Ann Toppan died, her daughter Elizabeth took over the home, and continued to treat Jane as a servant. Though she was kinder to Jane than her mother had been. It’s unknown what exactly occurred, but something took place between Elizabeth and Jane, that caused Jane to leave the home she had lived in for 20 years. --My theory is that Elizabeth had stolen Jane’s fiance, and that the statement earlier about her behavior during childhood wasn’t actually made by her employers/foster parents? But that’s just me.-- In 1885, or possibly 1887, Toppan decided to train as a nurse. She trained at Cambridge Hospital. This… was not good. Not in the slightest.
It was at Cambridge Hospital that she earned her nickname, “Jolly Jane” due to her friendly and outgoing personality. She enjoyed gossiping, and celebrating the dismissal of students she didn’t like. --Honestly, who hasn’t celebrated something like that though? -- As early as her residency, she would use her patients as guinea pigs. She would experiment with morphine and atropine, changing their prescribed dosages to determine how it affected their nervous systems. She would also spend an unreasonable amount of time alone with those patients. In this time, she would make up fake charts, and medicate them to the point they would drift in and out of sleep. While they were sleeping, she would crawl into their hospital beds and hold them.
Much like during childhood, Toppan seemed to excel with her coursework. Despite this, her supervisors and colleagues slowly became unsettled by her. She began to tell lies about her life. One such lie was that the Tsar of Russia had offered her a nursing job. Even more concerning was the fact that she seemed to have an obsession with autopsies. Her colleagues recalled Toppan saying that “there was no use keeping old people alive.”
One patient by the name of Amelia Phinney had been to Cambridge for an operation. After the operation, she stated that Jane Toppan had given her a dose of bitter medicine that caused her to pass out. Jane then climbed into her bed and kissed Amelia all over her face until something startled Toppan and she stopped. By the next morning, Amelia had herself convinced that it must have been a dream. Only upon Toppan’s arrest did she come to the startling realization that it had, in fact, been real.
Within a short period of time, as serial killers do, Toppan’s behaviors escalated. Many of her “favorite” patients wouldn’t ever wake up. She held many of them to her as they died. It’s unknown if any sexual activity ever occurred between her and the patients during this time.
By 1889, Toppan began working at Massachusetts General Hospital. By 1890, Toppan had been fired from the hospital after two patients mysteriously died in her care. She returned to Cambridge Hospital for a brief time, but was quickly fired for prescribing opiates recklessly.
After this quick dismissal, Toppan decided she would try her luck with private nursing. Despite her dismissal from Mass General, many doctors would still recommend her as a private nurse to their wealthy clients. This had lethal results. Despite concerns by her clients of petty theft, her business flourished. Over the next 2 decades, she was hired by dozens of families caring for the ill and elderly in multiple states. Few survived.
In 1895, her intense poisoning spree began. To start, she killed her landlords. In 1899, her foster sister Elizabeth Toppan Brigham complained of depression. Playing the role of loving sister, Jane invited her down to The Cape. During her visit, she took Elizabeth to the beach for a picnic. Jane had prepared corned beef, taffy, and mineral water laced with strychnine, which was commonly used as rodent poison. Of this day, Jane later said “I held her in my arms and watched with delight as she gasped her life out.”
In 1901, Toppan moved in with an elderly man by the name of Alden Davis. Davis also had 2 daughters living with him at the time. Davis had been having a hard time coping with the death of his wife, and had needed extra help caring for himself and his children. Unbeknownst to him, his wife would still be alive had it not been for the very woman he brought into his home for help. Mattie Davis, an old friend of Toppan, had died under Jane’s care on July 4,1901.
Within just weeks, she had killed Davis and his two daughters. His married daughter Annie Gordon, had died on July 29th. Alden perished a few days later. This was initially written off as a “stroke.” His surviving daughter, Mary Gibbs perished on August 19th.
Toppan then moved back home, sights already set on her next victim. She attempted to court her late foster sister’s husband, Oramel Brigham. She wanted to marry him, herself. Within just 3 days, she murdered his housekeeper, 77-year-old Edna Bannister. She then took over housekeeping duties, attempting to impress Oramel. He’d made it clear, however, that he had no desire to keep her around as an employee or a wife. In an attempt to sway him, she decided that she would win him over through nurturing. She began to poison Oramel so that she could nurse him back to health. She then claimed he’d gotten her pregnant. To try and throw him off the trail, Toppan went so far as to poison herself in order to evoke sympathy. That… did not work. He kicked her bitch ass out of the house.
Meanwhile, the Davis family, too, had grown suspicious. A toxicology report was ordered for Mary by her husband. The report found she had been poisoned with lethal doses of morphine. The 2 other deceased were also tested, and the same lethal doses were found. A police detail was assigned to Toppan. I couldn’t find an exact explanation of what this detail included, but it sounds like they were likely watching her movements for a while. On October 26, 1901, Jane Toppan was arrested for murder in Amherst, New Hampshire.
By 1902, Toppan confessed to a total of 31 murders. Students researching her crimes believe this number to be false, and that it’s far more likely her final tally falls somewhere between 70 and 100 victims.
No official lists of Toppan-related deaths were ever compiled by hospitals, and many family members refused to exhume the bodies of their deceased family members to determine if they had, in fact, been one of her many victims.
In court, Toppan stated, “That is my ambition. To have killed more people --more helpless people-- than any man or woman who has ever lived.” On June 23, 1902, she was found not guilty by reason of insanity, and was committed for life to the Taunton Insane Hospital. Keepers remembered her as “a quiet old lady.”
Older attendants remember her smile as she called them into her room. She would tell them, “Get some morphine dearie, and we’ll go out in the ward. You and I will have a lot of fun seeing them die.” Apparently, when she’d first arrived at the asylum, she refused to eat, fearful that her food may be poisoned.
After the trials, what was supposedly Toppan’s confession to her lawyer was printed in The New York Journal. She had allegedly told her lawyer that she’d killed 21 people, and that she wanted the jury to find her insane so that she could eventually have a chance at being released.
Outside of her job and the murders, it’s said that Toppan would down beer, tell dirty jokes, and gossip non-stop. She also enjoyed turning her friends against one another. --Meanwhile someone like me has no friends. Okay. I see what I’m doing wrong now.-- To doctors and patients, she seemed like a highly skilled professional who was not only compassionate, but also cheerful with a positive disposition.
Jane Toppan died at the age of 81 in August of 1938 at the Taunton Asylum, never having been released.
In a typical episode, this is where I would speak about the victims. Unfortunately due to the time frame this all took place in, I wasn’t able to find information on any of them. So instead, I’ll simply say that, while we find serial killers and murderers fascinating, remember that these people were human beings. They had family, friends, and loved ones. Their lives were cut short because of a psychopath, and many peoples’ lives were forever changed because of that.
Now, as a surprise mini bonus, I’m going to dive into the Taunton Insane Hospital! There’s not a TON of information on the spooky goodness we all crave, but… here’s what I could dig up.
Taunton State Hospital opened in 1854 to ease some of the strain at the state hospital. Originally, it was called “The State Lunatic Hospital in Taunton.” Like many hospitals in the area, its architect based the hospital’s design off of the revolutionary ideas of Dr. Thomas Kirkbridge. He’d inspired many of the most beneficial institutes in the country. Most of those institutes are now said to be haunted, and because of this, many believe that Kirkbridge was involved with the occult. --Though honestly, what building that used to be called an insane asylum ISN’T haunted?
Taunton was designed so that patients could experience fresh air, and use the grounds to engage in occupational therapies like working the land and growing crops. Back then, that was pretty revolutionary. Patients were actually encouraged to connect with nature. The hospital was, essentially, it’s own city, situated on a 132.5 acre plot, with 15 different buildings, though expansions over the years grew to include either almost or over 40 buildings in total. (Accounts vary) These expansions included sick wards, juvenile facilities, crisis centers, and, according to one source, a prison. Though other sources indicate that the prison may actually be located a short ways up the street.
Taunton Insane Hospital always seemed to be up with the new trends of mental healthcare. In the 1870’s, patients would be submerged in water tanks, then forced into frigid air in an attempt to shock them out of whatever ailed them. --So… hypothermia-induced clarity? Yeeeaahhh… That should work.-- Then, in the early 20th century, frontal lobotomies became popular. In the late 20th centuries, the patients-- or victims-- were subjected to electric shock therapy. With each new treatment, it seemed, there would also be new names for the hospital.
Throughout its years of operation, many had seen the inside of Taunton’s walls. Most notably, Lizzie Borden herself as she awaited trial. It’s rumored that a doctor at Taunton examined Borden and declared her insane, though there are no records to substantiate this. Lizzie Borden enthusiasts also refute that she was ever admitted to the hospital to begin with, but that she was simply held in the jail mentioned briefly earlier.
Now, we’re going to get into the spooky stuff. Before I start, I’d just like to give a special thank you to spookysouthcoast.com. I spent a good 8 hours trying to find instances of hauntings from a first-hand, detailed perspective, and it was a pain in the ass. I finally found spooky south coast, and that’s where any quotes going forward come from. Though many of the details ahead are pieced together from multiple sources.
In the 1920s, rumors began circulating at Taunton. Patients reported feeling uneasy whenever they passed the doorway to the basement. These patients stated that they’d seen a group of doctors, time and time again, taking some of the more incapacitated patients to the basement. While the doctors would return, the patients never would. It became widely believed that this particular group of doctors were Satanists, who were conducting experiments on patients, and using them in rituals. Likely, as sacrifices. Some stories even tell of the appearance of the Devil himself. While none of this has ever been corroborated by facts, those who’ve gone down to the basement have all stated that they were overcome by an intense feeling of paranoia, and some even saw shadows move across the walls. The basement also had many unexplained markings on the walls.
Former staff members have mentioned cold spots that followed them around the basement. In addition to moving shadows, some also claimed to have seen a ball of light that disappeared into the wall, almost as if it had walked through the wall. Another staff member, named Jacky mentioned seeing fog in the basement. She also stated, “The people that actually worked there, you know, worked for a living, said it was a ghost or something. I saw that smoky man down there twice, and the second time I quit. It wasn’t worth it.” She said that the smoky man appeared to be a little over five feet tall, and was made up of a dark, solid mist in the shape of a person. She never saw it straight on, but during both sightings, it had run in front of her as she moved through the basement. --Girl, I’m with you. I’ve quit jobs over far less than ghosts. Though I’ve also stayed at a job that had a ghost that liked to throw bags of dog food. So… maybe you’re smarter than me. No, actually I KNOW you’re smarter than me. Good on you Jacky.
Another staff member that had entered the basement recalled reaching the final step only to stop dead in his tracks. “I heard and saw everything. I could smell smoke. I heard a drum playing and weird chanting, like devil worshipers.” He quit the very next day and said, “I don’t even want to think about it, but I have nightmares. I only tell of what happened because it might make them go away.” He whole-heartedly believes that in that instance, he experienced what patients of the past went through.
A longtime resident of Taunton, Massachusetts, Sara, stated, “It looks like it feels now. Growing up down the street we loved to walk around by there. But there were places that just felt wrong. We would walk and then look at each other and want to leave. The place is evil.”
Another woman by the name of Stacy said that although she never experienced anything on the grounds of the asylum, she would keep her distance whenever an odd feeling would arise. --Honestly, same girl. Smort. Trust those instincts, they’re what keep you alive.
Older residents of Taunton, MA… the city, not the hospital… all have varying memories of the hospital. While some recall its beauty --seriously, check out the pictures on the blog post or in the Facebook group. The architecture was toight-- others recall hearing blood-curdling screams from the property. Even after it was entirely shut down. Now, that could be due to teens entering the premises on a dare to prove they were a baddie, but my money's on ghosts. Because… of course it is.
Residents of the many buildings (pre-shutdown) have said that they heard screams coming from the rooms where electric shock therapy and similar treatments were administered. Perhaps these are the screams nearby Taunton residents have heard. They also stated that their lights have flickered on and off randomly in the middle of the night.
Another resident of the town said “I’d see lights over the place. I’m not willing to say it was a ghost or something cause I don’t know about that stuff.” You may not know about that stuff, Mark… but I do. It was ghosts. You’re welcome.
The grounds of Taunton Insane Hospital are said to be the home of many a ghost. And with its tortured past, literally, are you really surprised? It’s believed that spirits often walk outside the buildings, usually in the form of mist or dark clouds. Others have reported an elderly man in jeans and a dark shirt that appears, crouching and stroking the grass. While his behavior appears to me like someone who was getting out of the asylum for a moment to commune with nature, as was intended, due to the clothing he wears, it’s believed he is the spirit of a former employee as opposed to a patient. If approached, the man is said to smile just before vanishing.
While these spirits seem to do no harm, like with any location that’s seen more than its fair share of suffering, there are some dark presences. One resident of the juvenile facility on site recalled an evening there. He had found a way to get out of the building undetected, and decided that he would hide out in the cemetery while he figured out his next move. There he sat, crouching behind a tombstone on high alert, planning his escape, when all of a sudden he felt a cold hand grasp his shoulder. He must have been terrified. After all, he’d been caught trying to escape. He was certainly in for it now. He raised his arms, turning around slowly. To his surprise, no one was there. It could have simply been his paranoia, but then, he heard someone whisper, “leave.” He returned to the juvenile facility of his own volition and turned himself in, terrified of whatever or whomever had been with him in the graveyard.
For the sake of full disclosure, this youth had been admitted to the juvenile facility after having been arrested on drug charges. He was doing some time there before being sent out for treatment. It’s very possible that his drug use combined with the adrenaline and fear during his escape combined to create his phantom. Another fact that’s important to note is that an organization committed to monitoring abandoned asylums and cemeteries in Massachusetts, known as “Danvers State Memorial Committee,” has said that there is no graveyard on site.
There are other burial grounds near the hospital, so it’s possible that he’d actually gotten further in his escape than he’d realized. What the truth is though, we’ll never know.
Several of Taunton Insane Hospital’s buildings sat in various states of abandon for many years. Some were even damaged in fires. Which is why it’s so odd that in these abandoned, fire-damaged buildings, there have been sightings of rooms, fully illuminated by light. Despite the fact that electricity hasn’t worked in those buildings for years.
Probably the creepiest, grossest thing that comes to you from Taunton Insane Hospital, is the presence of a shadow man. He appears from nowhere, and often-times isn’t much more than a shadow without form. Other times he’s more solid, but appears to be almost stretched out. Picture a shadowy elasti-girl. His face is never seen. In some sightings, he crawls. Along. The wall. --If that has you wanting to scream, you’re not alone. My body is AUDIBLY cringing. Yes. I said audibly cringing. Live with it. May it Taunton you forever.
Other times, he’s seen in the corner of a resident’s room in the middle of the night, simply standing there. Almost as if he’s just watching them. Waiting. Who knows for what? Whatever it is, I don’t want to find out.
The hospital has since been dismantled. Many buildings were demolished, and several pieces were parted out to the highest bidders. Perhaps the spirits followed. If anyone involved with the piecing out of those parts could just email me which buildings they went to so I know where to avoid… that’d be great, thanks.
This has been the cursed tale of Jolly Jane Toppan and the Taunton Insane Asylum.
I’d like to thank Niki and Tyler from Page Turners and Button Mashers Podcast, Caleb, from the Paranormal Burrito, Katherine from A Few Bad Apples, Alex from Weird Distractions, as well as Adam from Microphones and Monsters for their readings in this episode. If you liked having quotes read by other podcasters, shoot me an email and let me know so I keep doing it!
For more cursed content, head over to ThriceCursedPod.com for all of my social links, and my blog. On my website you can also find links to Thrice Cursed Merch, Patreon, Buy Me A Coffee, and the discord server where I hang out far too often and chat with all of you. Or find the physical address where you can send me stuff! Again that’s ThriceCursedPod.com. Have a story you want to share with me? Shoot me an email at email@example.com
Until next time, keep your curses hexy, and your hexes sexy.
A to Z Encyclopedia of Serial Killers, Pocket Books
Michael Newton - An Encyclopedia of Modern Serial Killers - Hunting Humans