For 10 years, 'Jolly Jane' poured her poisonBy Jennifer Myers,
The picnic along the Cape Cod shore started with cold corned beef and taffy.
It ended unexpectedly for one of the two revelers, with a cool summer tonic of mineral water and ... strychnine.
Three years later, in the summer of 1902, the killer confessed: "I held her in my arms and watched with delight as she gasped her life out."
Elizabeth Brigham was not her foster sister Jane Toppan's first victim and certainly not her last.
Toppan would later confess to killing at least 31 people, but she may have been responsible for as many as 100 deaths during a 10-year span.
While working as a nurse, Toppan experimented with drugs on her patients, leading her to be dubbed the "Angel of Death" by one newspaper.
Committed to Taunton State Hospital in 1902, she lived there for 36 years before dying at the age of 81 in August 1938.
Jane Toppan, one of this country's most prolific and rare female serial killers, grew up in the imposing gray house at the corner of Third and Vernon streets in Lowell's Centralville neighborhood.
She was born Honora Kelley in 1857, the daughter of Irish immigrants Peter and Bridget Kelley. Bridget died of tuberculosis when Honora, or "Nora," was very young. Peter, an abusive alcoholic, gave Nora, 6, and her older sister Delia, 8, to the Boston Female Asylum in 1863. Peter, who worked in a tailor's shop, later reportedly sewed his eyelids closed and was institutionalized.
In 1865, Nora was sent to Lowell as an indentured servant to the Toppan family of Centralville. Though never legally adopted, her name was changed to Jane Toppan.
'Brilliant and aggressive'
Jane was a mischievous child, prone to lying and petty theft, but very smart.
"In her school work, as in her profession in later years, she was one of the leaders of her class -- brilliant and aggressive in all things," read the Aug. 18, 1938 Sun story about her death.
When she turned 18 and graduated from Lowell High School, Jane was given $50 from the Toppans as per her indentured agreement. She stayed at the Toppan house for a decade, working for her foster sister Elizabeth (Toppan) Brigham and her husband Oramel, the deacon of a Lowell church.
It was reported that although Elizabeth always treated Jane well, Jane resented Elizabeth because she was beautiful and admired. Elizabeth's mother, Ann, was said to have verbally abused her foster daughter.
In 1885, Toppan left Lowell for Cambridge Hospital, where she trained to be a nurse. Popular with patients for her outgoing nature, she was dubbed "Jolly Jane." She soon began experimenting on patients, using varying doses of morphine and atropine to witness the effects on their nervous systems.
The house at the corner of Third and Vernon Streets on Christian Hill in the city's Centralville neighborhood where serial killer Jane Toppan grew up
After her arrest, the nurse admitted deriving sexual pleasure from the control she held over life and death and often curled up in bed with her patients and held them as they died.
Once Toppan was captured, Amelia Phinney, who had been a patient at Cambridge Hospital in 1887, went public with her tale. She said nurse Toppan gave her some bitter-tasting medicine after her surgery and as she drifted into unconsciousness, Toppan climbed into bed with her and began kissing her all over her face.
Before Toppan had the chance to kill Phinney, someone entered the room. The next morning Phinney wrote the incident off as a dream, until she read of Toppan's arrest 14 years later.
In 1891 Toppan became a private nurse, having been dismissed from both Cambridge Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital amid allegations she was recklessly dispensing opiates.
In 1895, she killed her landlord, Israel Dunham. Two years later, she poisoned his wife, Lovey, with whom she lived.
Later that year, she poisoned a patient, Mary McNear, and a month later, killed old friend Myra Conners so she could take her job as the dining hall matron at The Theological School.
She was fired from the post due to financial irregularities in the office.
In 1899, Toppan killed Elizabeth Brigham and six months later killed her widower's housekeeper, Florence Calkins.
She poisoned new landlords Melvin and Eliza Beedle in early 1901, but only enough to make them ill. She then poisoned their housekeeper, Mary Sullivan, to make her appear drunk so she could steal her job.
One by one, family killed
Toppan's quiet reign of terror came to an end after she killed the entire Davis family during a two-month span in the summer of 1901.
The offer of a glass of Hunyadi mineral water was welcomed by Mattie Davis. The day was sweltering, she had traveled from Bourne to Cambridge and was parched.
She soon fell ill. Over the next seven days she was brought in and out of consciousness, dosed with morphine administered by Toppan. It was July 5, 1901.
By Aug. 12, Mattie's husband and two daughters also died at the hands of the murderess, who rented a summer home from the family at Cataumet, a village in Bourne. Mattie had visited Toppan at the Beedle house to collect $500 in rent she owed on the cottage.
Following Mattie's death, Toppan moved in with her widower, Alden. The Davis family were originally from Lowell. Alden was one of the principal workers who built the Ladd and Whitney monument in front of City Hall.
On July 26, 1901, Toppan killed the Davis' youngest daughter, Genevieve Gordon, and on Aug. 8 killed Alden Davis.
She then made a request of the last surviving member of the family, daughter Minnie Gibbs, to sign off the debt she owned the family. Gibbs refused. Toppan ended Minnie's life on Aug. 12, feeding her morphine tablets. As she lay dying, Toppan held the woman's 10-year-old son.
Two weeks later, Toppan returned to Lowell, hoping to marry Oramel Brigham. She quickly killed his 70-year-old sister, Edna Barrister, who she felt was an obstacle to her happiness. Toppan also poisoned Oramel and nursed him back to health to prove her worth.
Meanwhile, back on Cape Cod, Minnie Gibbs' father-in-law, Capt. Paul Gibbs, was suspicious. How did the entire Davis family, a seemingly healthy lot, die so suddenly? He called toxicologist Leonard Wood to investigate and exhume the Davis family's bodies.
In late September, distraught that her plan to marry Oramel was not coming to fruition, Toppan overdosed on morphine. Once she recovered, Oramel threw her out of his Lowell home. She went to Amherst, N.H., to visit an old friend, Sarah Nichols.
On Oct. 26, 1901, Toppan was arrested at the Nichols house for the murder of Minnie Gibbs.
"If all of the suspicions involving the operations of Jane Toppan could be substantiated in the opinion of men acquainted with the investigations in Cataumet, Cambidge and Lowell, the succession of murders will cover a wider range and be more astounding than any series of crimes perpetuated by one person in many years," read an article in the Nov. 1, 1901, edition of The Sun.
On June 23, 1902, in an eight-hour trial, Toppan was declared not guilty by reason of insanity and sentenced to Taunton State Hospital for life. The jury deliberated for 27 minutes.
She confessed to her attorney, James Stuart Murphy, of Lowell to killing 31 people, but later said it may have been as many as 100. In a confession printed as a supplement to the New York Journal, she claimed her murderous ways were sparked by being dumped when she was 16 years old. A woman scorned.
Toppan's love interest at the time, a Lowell office worker, gave her a promise ring engraved with the image of a bird. He then moved to Holyoke and fell in love with another woman.
"If I had been a married woman, I probably would not have killed all of those people," she said. "I would have had my husband, my children and my home to take up my mind."