Though very little records survive of Toppan’s early years, it is known that her parents were Irish immigrants, and her mother, Bridget Kelley, died of tuberculosis when she was very young. Her father, Peter Kelley, was well known as an alcoholic. In later years Kelley would become the source of many local rumors concerning his supposed insanity, the most popular of which being that his madness finally drove him to sew his own eyelids closed while working as a tailor.
In 1863, only a few years after his wife’s death, Kelley brought his two youngest children, the eight-year-old Delia Josephine and six-year-old Honora, to the Boston Female Asylum. Kelley surrendered the two young girls, never to see them again.
No records of Delia and Honora’s experiences during their time in the asylum exist, but in less than two years, in November 1864, Honora Kelley was placed as an indentured servant in the home of Mrs. Ann C. Toppan of Lowell, Massachusetts. Though never formally adopted by the Toppans, Honora took on the surname of her benefactors and eventually became known as Jane Toppan.
In 1885, Toppan began training to be a nurse at Cambridge Hospital. During her residency, she used her patients as guinea pigs in experiments with morphine and atropine; she would alter their prescribed dosages to see what it did to their nervous systems. However, she would spend a lot of time alone with those patients, making up fake charts and medicating them to drift in and out of consciousness and even get into bed with them. It is not known whether any sexual activity went on when her victims were in this state but when Jane Toppan was asked after her arrest, she answered that she derived a sexual thrill from patients being near death, coming back to life and then dying again.
She began her poisoning spree in earnest in 1895 by killing her landlords. In 1899, she killed her foster sister Elizabeth with a dose of strychnine.
In 1901, Toppan moved in with the elderly Alden Davis and his family in Cataumet to take care of him after the death of his wife (whom Toppan herself had murdered). Within weeks, she killed Davis and two of his daughters. The surviving members of the Davis family ordered a toxicology exam on Alden Davis’ youngest daughter. The report found that she had been poisoned, and local authorities put a police detail on Toppan. On October 26, 1901, she was arrested for murder.
By 1902, she had confessed to 31 murders. On June 23, in the Barnstable County Courthouse, she was found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed for life in the Taunton Insane Hospital.