The 19th-Century Nurse Who Was Secretly a Serial Killer
“Jolly Jane” Toppan overcame a miserable Dickensian childhood to become a medical professional patients adored. She was also slowly murdering them one by one.
Illustrations by Sophie Margolin | Edited by W. M. Akers
Honora Kelley was 6 years old in 1863, the year her father surrendered her to the Boston Female Asylum. Her mother had died of tuberculosis, and that grief, along with the overt discrimination Irish immigrants faced in the United States, drove her father, Peter Kelley, a tailor, into poverty and alcoholism. Kelley signed over his parental rights to the orphanage, so that his daughter might be indentured, and, according to Harold Schechter’s book Fatal: The Poisonous Life of a Female Serial Killer, rescued from a “truly miserable” home.
There was a rumor that a few days afterward, “Kelley the Crack” (as he was widely known) became so exhausted by life that he sewed his own eyelids shut. This was most likely a fabrication — for how could anyone, even a tailor, sew both eyelids shut? — but the story haunted young Honora throughout her time in the orphanage. True or false, the tale survived because it served as an appropriate origin s…
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