America’s first female serial killer was a poor Irish nurse named Honora Kelley, later known as Jane Toppan. She poisoned at least thirty-one victims in Victorian-era Boston.
If that comes as a surprise to you, you’re in good company. As Mary Kay McBrayer writes, notorious murderers like Jack the Ripper and Lizzie Borden have been studied in great detail, but Toppan remains relatively unknown, in part because she was poor and Irish, a hardworking and unvalued laborer who her patients and bosses overlooked. “The fact that someone so unimportant and unwanted could commit so many murders without being caught was, basically, embarrassing,” McBrayer writes (14).
Her book, America’s First Female Serial Killer, corrects this oversight by introducing us to Jane’s story. It’s a fact based account, or narrative retelling, based on what is known of Jane’s life, from her early childhood in a Boston asylum on to her sensational trial and sentencing. We learn about Jane first from a close third-person narrator, and then from the perspectives of some of her victims and survivors. It’s a captivating and chilling performance that asks us, not to make apologies for Toppan’s crimes, but to look at the social circumstances that shaped her into the killer she became. It’s a delicate balance, and McBrayer handles it beautifully.
There’s so much to praise in this book, but I was especially moved by the account of Jane’s childhood and early years. We learn that Jane’s father dropped her off at an asylum with her sister, where Jane tells stories and works hard, desperate to earn praise and approval from the staff. At age eight, she’s taken to live and work in the Toppan household as an indentured servant. Mrs. Toppan is cruel to her, and physically abuses her for telling stories to her daughter Elizabeth, a pampered woman who Jane comes to envy (and, much later, kill).
Elizabeth regards Jane as a sister and wants Jane to feel sisterly towards her as well, despite the fact that Jane has none of her privileges or social standing. McBrayer paints the tension between the two women with eerie premonitory overtones. Like this passage, for instance, which takes place in the Toppans’ parlor:
“Elizabeth flipped slowly through the scrapbooks of criminals that she had clipped from the papers to entertain her many frilly acquaintances who stopped by on their walks in the afternoons. Jane did not enjoy watching Elizabeth raise one eyebrow and read the crimes aloud. She instead noticed the way the skin rippled above that eyebrow, her face so placid until Elizabeth expressed emotion. When she smiled after the litany of euphemisms, Jane watched the creases sprout from beside her eyes, the parentheses open around her mouth, and she said politely that that she still had, after all, so much to do that day” (38).
Such a visceral and unsettling dynamic between these two women. Jane watches Elizabeth intently, even as Elizabeth never really seems to see her. Instead, she pores over sensational newspaper crimes, not knowing that she will one day be a victim in the papers as well. It’s around this time that Jane first poisons the family by decorating Elizabeth’s birthday cake with wisteria, in retaliation for Mrs. Toppan’s cruel dismissal of Jane on her own birthday.
It’s not a fatal poisoning, but it sets up a pattern. From here, we begin to see Jane reaching for poison in later moments both in nursing school and in her work for families. Sometimes she does it to punish an ungrateful patient, other times because of sexual jealousy, other times in desperate effort to acquire wealth. As the book goes on, we gradually lose sight of the innocent storyteller from the Boston asylum as Jane commits murder after murder, maintaining, even at the end, that she didn’t hurt anyone.
“I am sure that hell exists because I’ve lived in it,” Jane declares, after her trial, “hell is just a place wherein nothing you say or do—no matter of working hard enough, or being smart enough, of caring deeply enough, or of soothing the ill—will ever change your status” (207). This is a unique and unsettling story by a talented writer. I’d recommend for true crime fans and readers interested in Victorian-era literature and history.