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Rock Reads: America's First Female Serial Killer


by Kevin Wierzbicki

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"America's First Female Serial Killer: Jane Toppan and the Making of a Monster"
Written by Mary Kay McBrayer

Since Jane "Jolly Jane" Toppan had the stated desire "to have killed more helpless people than any other man or woman that ever lived," no doubt the egomaniacal murderess would be over the moon if she knew her heinous spree was still being talked about now, over 100-years after the fact. And Toppan's story is getting around these days; she even got a shout-out from an ambitious (fictional) fellow female psycho in a recent Lifetime movie. No doubt the Lifetime franchise is mulling over making a movie out of Toppan's story.

Because Toppan's murders, which came through poisonings and the misapplication of legitimate medicines to persons in her care, took place so long ago, there's no way to give a day-to-day account of her actions. Except there is; author McBrayer, working with what information is available, has filled in the blanks with an imagining of some of the details. So "America's First Female Serial Killer" is true crime, partially mashed-up into a novel. With her embellishment McBrayer is mostly developing Toppan's evil personality, which when mixed with the known facts presents a horrifying glimpse into the mind of this reprehensible woman.

The story begins in 1862 when Toppan, real name Honora Kelley, is dropped-off at Boston Female Asylum, along with her sister Delia, by their soon-to-disappear father. Beginning her indentured servitude at the asylum at six-years-old, Jane was eventually placed with a private family and continued her servitude with them until she turned 18-years-old, when she could have left if she wanted to, but didn't. She experienced some of the things a normal young woman would, like a marriage proposal, but it of course went wrong.

Things really start going wrong when Toppan entered the nursing school at Cambridge Hospital where she eventually was allowed to administer drugs. We don't want to give away too much of the facts/plot; let's just say that, although she had her Jolly Jane persona in full bloom, you wouldn't want to have her anywhere near you. Years on, as it becomes clear to Jane that the jig is up on her murderous ways, she tries to kill herself with morphine, one of her favorite ways to kill; ironically she fails. The final part of the book chronicles Toppan's arrest and trial and there are about 15-pages of "Jane's confessions" where Toppan details some of her dirty deeds quite matter-of-factly. She ended up back in an asylum, this time a loony bin, where she joked with the help about returning to her old habits. Having taken more than 30 lives during her reign of terror, Toppan herself succumbed to old age at 84 in 1938. McBrayer does a great job here of bringing Toppan's story to vivid life.

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