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Arts & Culture

Criminal: Mysterious Murderer 'Jolly' Jane

A drawing of 'Jolly' Jane Toppin
Julienne Alexander
'Jolly' Jane Toppin

The turn of the last century was a time marked by chilling deaths at the hands of unexpected culprits.

Remember Lizzie Borden and Typhoid Mary?  In this week's Criminal podcast, Phoebe Judge takes a deeper look at a lesser-known character known as "Jolly" Jane Toppan.  

Criminal is a podcast recorded at WUNC and hosted by Phoebe Judge

“Jolly” Jane Toppin had a tragic childhood growing up in Massachusetts. Her mother died when Jane was young, and her father–an alcoholic–went insane, and sewed his eyelids shut.

Jolly Jane became an orphan and was taken in by another family, who nurtured her. She lived rather normal teenage years as a popular, cheerful and intelligent girl, and then moved on to nursing school in Cambridge, Mass.

“She was extremely smart,” said Massachusetts-based librarian and Jolly Jane enthusiast Diane Ranney. “Her professors said, ‘Wow, this woman really knows what she’s doing,’ but she had an unfortunate habit that she liked to experiment. She felt that she needed to know how her patients would react if they were given certain doses of morphine and atropine.”

Morphine is a drug used to slow down the heart rate and remove pain. In large doses, it can be lethal. Atropine, on the other hand, speeds up the heart and can be used to treat heart attacks.

Jolly Jane started giving patients alternating doses of the drugs, bringing them close to death and then back to life. It didn’t kill all of her patients, but it did kill some.

“The interesting thing is–why was she doing this?” Judge said. “Some people said she has this God complex. Other people say it was much odder, and this fulfilled some sort of sexual fantasy with her and would get into bed and comfort them as they were dying.”

Jolly Jane kept up appearances of normalcy despite her actions. All of the deaths could be explained by natural causes. Plus, her nickname was Jolly Jane.

“She was friendly and happy and in good spirits all the time,” Judge said. “People would request she come into their family’s homes and help their sick relatives.”

But eventually, someone figured out what was happening.

For years, Jolly Jane rented a house on Cape Cod from the well-to-do Davis family and had gotten to know them well. However, she had a history of not always paying her rent. One day Jolly Jane fell behind on payments and wanted to rent the house again, but the Davis family asked for the money.

The wife and matriarch, Mrs. Davis, came to collect the money. Soon she fell mysteriously ill and ended up dying. Over the next six weeks, two others in the Davis family–Mr. Davis and one of the daughters–fell ill and died. Finally, the last daughter, 30-year-old Mary Gibbs, fell ill and supposedly died of natural causes despite her seemingly good health and young age.

Mary Gibbs’ father-in-law visited her as she grew sicker, but he didn’t understand how she could have died of exhaustion.

“He asked Mary’s doctor of an injection Jolly Jane said she had given Mary, and the doctor said, ‘What are you talking about?’” Judge said.

That’s when the mystery started to unfurl.

“I didn’t order any injection. What do you mean injection?” Ranney said. “He said, ‘I was right there when Nurse Jane said she was going to give Mary an injection.’ And he said, ‘Oh no. I wouldn’t have ordered any injection.’ She had heart trouble but she was recovering. Jane thought she could get away with one more.”

Jolly Jane later admitted to killing the Davis family and 31 murders in total. She was committed to an insane asylum and spent 40 years there, admitting to 100 other murders that were never substantiated. 

You can hear the rest of the story today at the Criminal website, or by tuning in to WUNC on Sunday afternoon at 5:40 p.m.

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