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Authors: Harold Schechter

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When a girl reached the age of eleven, she was “placed out” with a private family. Only a relative handful were actually adopted. Most became indentured
servants, legally bound—usually for a term of six or seven years—to the families who took them in. Indeed, the Boston Female Asylum served a dual purpose, functioning as both a refuge for indigent children and a source of cheap domestic labor.

In exchange for room, board, and the promise of “kind treatment,” the overburdened mistress of a large New England household could receive her own personal house-servant—a well-trained menial, contractually bound to perform whatever drudgery was demanded of her. It is clear that many Boston-area women regarded this as an exceptionally good bargain—a way “of obtaining the most service at the least price for which it can be procured,” as one historian of the institution noted. It was largely for this reason that “applications for the children always greatly exceeded the number to be placed out.”

The indenture lasted until the girl reached the age of eighteen, at which time she was entitled to receive her freedom from servitude, along with “two suits of clothes, one proper for Sunday, the other for domestic business.” In later years, this stipulation was revised. Instead of clothing, the girl was to be given fifty dollars upon her release. In theory, at least, the arrangement was advantageous for everyone. The indentured girls obtained the “incalculable benefits” of a “permanent home,” “thorough instruction in domestic affairs,” and the sort of moral guidance “that youth requires.” In return, their mistresses received dutiful “apprentices” to help around the house.

In reality, of course, things didn’t always work out quite so well. Many “apprentices” suffered from abusive treatment at the hands of tyrannical mistresses. And some of the girls gave their adoptive families legitimate
cause for complaint. In spite of years of instruction, there were girls who remained hopelessly recalcitrant, causing their new families “much trouble and anxiety.” According to the regulations, no child could be given back to the orphanage once an indenture was signed. In later years, however, this rule appears to have been relaxed, and dissatisfied families were permitted to return the girls after a brief trial period, as though each orphan came with a thirty-day, money-back guarantee. The official records of the asylum (preserved at the Massachusetts State Library) contain numerous entries like the following:

The Committee reported that Agnes Alexander, who had been living on trial with Mrs. Josephson in Newton, had been returned to the Asylum during the month, Mrs. Josephson having found it impossible to bear with her any longer.

The Committee reported that Louise Ostman had been returned to the Asylum by Mrs. Bartlett, who made complaints of her temper.

Agnes Parker was returned to the Asylum by Dr. and Mrs. Mill with complaints of her stupidity and untruthfulness.

On balance, however, it was generally acknowledged that the asylum had fulfilled its mission with admirable success. “It is unquestionable,” wrote its official historian, “that much wretchedness has been relieved, and much suffering and exposure to vice prevented.” If a certain percentage of the girls remained
“unworthy,” that was only to be expected. After all, “what human means have ever produced all the good results which the sanguine have anticipated?” Besides, the historian added, if all the effort expended on them had failed to improve their character, it was legitimate to wonder how much worse they would have been without it—what kind of viciously depraved creatures they would have turned into without the elevating influences of the Boston Female Asylum.

•   •   •

The asylum had been performing its charitable mission for more than half-a-century when, in early February 1863, a hard-luck case named Peter Kelley showed up at the institution with his two youngest daughters in tow: eight-year-old Delia Josephine and her six-year-old sister, Honora. The shabbily dressed Kelley—who gave off a powerful whiff of rotgut—was looking to dispose of the children, his wife, Bridget, having died of consumption several years earlier.

Though certifiable facts about him are sparse, it is clear from existing records that Kelley was a chronic drunk, prone to violent outbursts and so wildly eccentric that his neighborhood nickname was “Kelley the Crack” (as in “crackpot”). In later years, he would become the subject of bizarre legends. According to the most colorful of these, he eventually went insane, and—while working in a tailor shop—sewed his own eyelids shut.

The story is undoubtedly apocryphal, though it apparently reflected the prevailing perception of him as a frighteningly unstable individual. One fact about him, however, was undoubtedly true: he was a sorry excuse for a father. The managers needed just a single glimpse of the two little girls to see how wretched their home
life had been. By a unanimous vote, the board approved their admission to the asylum. That very day, Kelley signed the standard form of surrender—or, more accurately, endorsed it with his mark, a laboriously inscribed cross. He never saw the children again.

Of their experience as inmates of the Boston Female Asylum no record exists, though a check of existing documents shows that neither Delia nor Honora was ever awarded one of the prizes periodically handed out for industry, obedience, truthfulness, or improvement. But, then, Honora’s stay at the asylum was relatively brief—less than two years. In November 1864, she was indentured to Mrs. Ann C. Toppan of Lowell, Massachusetts, who impressed the Board as “a very respectable woman” with “a home that appeared to possess many advantages” for Honora. Delia would remain in the institution for another four years, until she reached the stipulated age of twelve and was bound out to a couple in Athol.

From a clinical point of view, it would be illuminating to know precisely how Peter Kelley mistreated his children. Though no specific details have come down to us, it seems safe to assume that they were subjected to some severe form of abuse. Modern research has conclusively shown that such brutalization is always a factor in the development of adult psychopatholgy. Sometimes the abuse takes the form of extreme corporal punishment, even to the point of torture. At other times, it is sexual. Or it may even be verbal. (One recent study lists the kind of parental taunts that female sociopaths were constantly subjected to as children. “You’re a worthless fat piece of shit” and “Why don’t you go somewhere and die?” were typical remarks.)

Though we cannot say exactly what happened to Delia and Honora, it is certain that—as noted in the offial records of the Boston Female Asylum—they “were rescued from a very miserable home.” Unfortunately, they were rescued too late. In spite of the moral instruction they received at the asylum, as well as the many advantages of the homes in which they were placed, the lives of both girls ended up badly. Delia would eventually become an outcast, sink into a life of drink and prostitution, and die in squalid circumstances.

As for Honora, though she was never formally adopted, she assumed the name of the family that took her in. She became known as Jane Toppan. And in an era that had already produced some of the most remorseless female sociopaths in American history, little Jane Toppan would grow up to be the worst of them all.



Unrelieved, unremitting self-contempt is virtually unbearable. To survive both psychologically and physically, the sufferer must somehow cast off the terrible feelings of self-hate. Some sufferers try bravado, performing risky or heroic deeds in order to restore self-esteem. If this course fails, shamelessness is likely to follow . . . the sufferer will lash out, becoming the perpetrator of malevolence.

Speaking with the Devil

nose, and somewhat olive complexion, little Jane could have hailed from Naples. And indeed, there were people in Lowell who believed that she was Italian—an orphan whose parents had died of ship fever while emigrating to America.

At home, of course, she was never allowed to forget the truth of her heritage. “You can’t help being Irish,” she would often be told by the widow Toppan, the woman she referred to as “Auntie.” “But that doesn’t mean you have to act like a ‘Paddy.’ ”

Italian, Irish—it made little difference. In the Wasp world she inhabited, Jane was constantly being put in her place—reminded of her outsider status.

To win the world’s favor, she developed a vivacious, ingratiating personality. She was renowned as a “clever and amusing” storyteller. At picnics—as one of her
childhood acquaintances would later recall—“if Jane Toppan were there, it wasn’t necessary to provide any other entertainment.” Of course, such verbal facility was common among “her kind.” After all, even the lowest-born “Paddy” was known to possess an innate “gift of gab.”

Recent criminological research teaches that shame and humiliation are common factors in the genesis of malevolent personalities. Children instilled with self-loathing—a sense that they are worthless, the lowest of the low—may grow up to be adults fueled by baleful impulses. Besides a lust for revenge—for getting back at a world that has treated them so contemptuously—they are filled with a pernicious need to prove their superiority over the rest of humankind. They are possessed, in the words of one criminal psychologist, “by a demoniac compulsion,” driven to show that they are people to be reckoned with—beings endowed with formidable, even terrifying, powers. And what power is more fearsome, more godlike, than that of holding a human life in your hands—of dispensing death on a whim?

For the first six years of her life, Jane Toppan had been subjected to shocking mistreatment at the hands of her deplorable father. Rescued from his custody, she was taken into a home in which she was continually reminded of her social inferiority. That Jane was made to feel profoundly ashamed of her heritage is clear from her later behavior. As she grew older, she displayed the classic symptoms of ethnic and religious self-hatred, lying about her origins to new acquaintances, and voicing anti-Irish and anti-Catholic sentiments more derogatory than the most bigoted remarks bandied in the polite, Protestant circles in which she moved.

And then, of course, there was her position as a bond servant. In the end, Jane would live with the Toppan family until she was twenty-eight without ever being adopted. To be sure, her material circumstances were infinitely preferable to the misery she had suffered in her early years. At the same time, she was never allowed to forget her subordinate position. It was her foster sister, Elizabeth, who was unmistakably the beloved and pampered daughter of the household. Jane, though sharing the Toppan name, was never more than a relatively well-treated menial.

In the final analysis, of course, there is no way of telling what childhood influences will turn someone into a sociopath. The sources of criminal malevolence are, in their way, as mysterious as those of creative genius. Still, it is significant that an examination of Jane Toppan’s background reveals two of the factors commonly found in the early lives of serial killers: severe childhood mistreatment by an egregious parent and unremitting humiliation throughout her formative years. And in Jane’s case, there was a third factor as well—an apparent hereditary predisposition toward mental derangement. Not only was her father notoriously unstable but another of her siblings, an older sister named Nellie, went insane and spent her adult life confined to a series of asylums.

At no point in her life did Jane appear criminally deranged. On the contrary, she struck most of her acquaintances as an exceptionally amiable and outgoing person. Certainly, she was able to win the confidence of many sound and sensible people, who welcomed her into their homes without ever suspecting that they were entrusting their lives to a monster.

Like others of her ilk, however, Jane had a hidden
self that was hopelessly diseased and that revealed itself in particular, symptomatic ways. “Despite a superficial bonhomie and apparently plausible disposition,” writes Edward Glover in his study
The Roots of Crime
, “the psychopath is outstandingly selfish, egotistical, stubborn and deceitful, with an insatiable need for prestige.” All the traits that Glover mentions—the deceit, the egotism, the desperate craving for prestige—were present in Jane Toppan from the start. Though her lively personality made her popular among some of her schoolmates, others despised her as an incorrigible liar, prone to wild fabrications that she doggedly stuck to even when they were proven to be flagrantly false. Her father, she claimed, had sailed around the world and lived for many years in China. Her brother had fought with such heroism at Gettysburg that President Lincoln himself had given him a medal. Her sister was a legendary beauty who had won the heart of an English lord.

BOOK: Fatal
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