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Authors: Harold Schechter

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BOOK: Fatal
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If some of her lies were the pathetically self-aggrandizing claims of a young girl desperate for distinction, others had a more insidious aim: to prove her superiority by making other people look bad. In high school, Jane was a notorious gossip, spreading nasty rumors about classmates she envied or bore grudges against. She became a schoolroom snitch, ingratiating herself with her teachers by tattling on her misbehaving peers. Not that Jane herself was a model of behavior. On the contrary, she was an inveterate troublemaker. But more often than not, she contrived to escape punishment by pinning her misdeeds on others.

Of course, she didn’t always escape punishment, particularly at home. Jane’s foster mother believed in old-fashioned notions of discipline, and Jane was not
spared the rod. But the beatings she endured did not have the desired, uplifting effect. On the contrary, every stroke of the switch only intensified the bitter sense of grievance and injustice she bore against the world.

Her deepest feelings of envy were reserved for her foster sister, Elizabeth, who—from Jane’s jaundiced point of view—enjoyed everything that she herself had been so unfairly deprived of: social position, familial love, and—as Elizabeth matured into a handsome young woman—the ardent attentions of an exemplary suitor, a young deacon named Oramel A. Brigham. Jane’s own love life would remain forever thwarted. According to unsubstantiated stories, she was courted at one point in her early twenties by a Lowell office worker, who went so far as to give her an engagement ring engraved with the image of a bird. The relationship ended badly, however, when the young man moved to Holyoke, took a room in a boardinghouse, and fell in love with the landlady’s daughter, whom he eventually wed.

Whatever the truth of this story, it is hardly surprising that Jane Toppan never married. Possessed of a monstrous egotism—committed to nothing except absolute self-gratification—the psychopathic personality is, as Edward Glover writes, “incapable of deep attachments.” As Jane settled into permanent spinster-hood, she allowed her youthful figure to balloon. By the time she reached her late twenties, the five-foot-three-inch woman weighed nearly 170 pounds—unattractively plump even by the generous standards of her age, when, according to one guidebook, the “recognized perfection for a woman’s stature” was five-feet-five-inches tall and 138 pounds (“If she be well
formed,” advises the book, “she can stand another ten pounds without greatly showing it”).

Her frustrated erotic longings found a partial outlet in the sentimental fiction of the day. Throughout her adult life, Jane was addicted to the cloying romantic fantasies peddled in popular bestsellers like
The House of Dreams-Come-True
Miss Marjorie of Silvermead
, and
The Princess of the Purple Palace
. Even a constant diet of these sugarcoated daydreams, however, could not satisfy the strongest of her cravings; for—as events would prove—there was another, far darker side to her warped erotic nature. But many years would pass before the full extent of her depravity was revealed to a stunned and disbelieving world.

•   •   •

When Jane reached the age of eighteen, she received a payment of fifty dollars, as stipulated in her indenture. History does not record what she did with the money. We do know, however, that it was the largest amount she would ever receive from her foster mother. When Ann Toppan died a few years later, Jane was not included in the will. Everything went to Elizabeth. Shortly after her mother’s death, Elizabeth became Mrs. O. A. Brigham, and the deacon settled into his new bride’s handsome Georgian-style house.

Though Jane was now legally emancipated from her servitude, she continued to live at home for another decade, functioning in the same capacity as always. Now, however, she was working for Elizabeth—a situation that could only have exacerbated Jane’s already acute feelings of resentment toward her foster sister. Inevitably, relations between the two women became impossibly strained. The precise circumstances of Jane’s ultimate departure—whether she was expelled from the
house or left voluntarily—are unknown. What we do know for certain is that she moved out in 1885. Elizabeth—a good-natured young woman who, by and large, had always treated Jane considerately—assured her that she “was welcome to visit her old home whenever she wished. There would always be a room waiting for her.”

For twenty-two years, Jane had lived with people who—however well-meaning—had never let her forget that she was not one of them. Now, pushing thirty, she was out in the world on her own. She had no inherited money, no social position, no family to fall back on. Nor, aside from her domestic skills, did she have any definite occupation.

At a time when females were taught that their “proper sphere” was in the home, career opportunities for respectable young women were severely restricted in America. Aside from teaching—either as school-marms or as private governesses—they might become seamstresses, servants, or workers in a textile mill. None of those occupations appealed to Jane. She wanted what most people do: a job that would bring in a living wage, while offering opportunities for personal fulfillment. For many years, her deepest appetites had gone largely unsatisfied. Now, she was tired of acting out her desires entirely in fantasy. At twenty-nine years old, she hungered to taste the exquisite pleasures she had spent so much time imagining.

And so, in 1887, Jane Toppan—a classic psychopathic personality who longed to do harm—settled on the profession most congenial to her needs. She decided to become a nurse.


I solemnly pledge myself before God, and in the presence of this assembly: to pass my life in purity and to practice my profession faithfully. I will abstain from whatever is deleterious and mischievous, and will not take or knowingly administer any harmful drug.


nursing was typically handled by a bunch of remarkably unqualified women. In New York City, for example, the wards of Bellevue were staffed by former inmates of the Blackwell’s Island workhouse—women, generally arrested for drunkenness or prostitution, who were paroled on the condition that they serve a stint as nurses. Needless to say, the quality of care they offered the patients left a lot to be desired, particularly since many of them were illiterate and unable to read the directions on medicine bottles—a circumstance that often produced disastrous results.

The situation was no less bleak in Boston. As early as 1850, a sanitary commission appointed by the Massachusetts State Legislature recommended “that institutions be formed to educate and qualify females to be nurses of the sick.” It would be another twenty-three years, however, before the first nursing school was established in Boston. It was to one of these training facilities—the school attached to Cambridge
Hospital—that Jane Toppan applied for admission in 1887.

For the two years of their training, student nurses were subjected to a brutal regimen. They worked seven days a week, fifty weeks a year, with no Christmas, Easter, or Thanksgiving holidays. They slept in cramped, dimly lit, unheated cubicles, three women to a cubicle. Typically, they were roused from their cots at 5:30
by the clanging of a wake-up bell. After making their beds, dressing, and consuming a hurried breakfast (which they were required to fix for themselves), they repaired to a parlor for morning prayers. By 7:00 A.M., they were on the job. Between their shifts on the various wards and their professional instruction, they typically worked twelve- to fourteen-hour days, with about seventy-five minutes off for lunch and supper. Their meals tended to be so sparse and unpalatable that many of the women spent all their meager wages on extra food.

For her first month, the trainee was a probationer, consigned to the most menial drudge-work—scrubbing floors, emptying chamber pots, laundering soiled bedclothes, etc. By her second week on the job, she was also given charge of a handful of patients. Under the watchful gaze of the head nurse, the trainee learned how to give baths, dress bedsores, treat wounds, administer enemas, dispense medications. The head nurses—generally, stern, if not authoritarian, personalities—enforced discipline with a military rigor. The smallest infraction (grumbling about the quality of the food, for example) could get a trainee branded as a troublemaker. The rule book for one training school specified severe punishment for “any nurse who smokes, uses liquor in any form, gets her hair done at a beauty shop, or frequents dance halls.”

If she successfully made it through her probation-ary period, the aspiring nurse was required to sign an agreement “to remain for two years in the Training School for Nurses as a pupil nurse and to obey the rules of the school and the hospital.” In return, she was promised board, lodging, a white bib-apron and a cap made of lace-trimmed organdy, plus a monthly stipend of seven dollars, out of which she was expected to pay for her clothes, textbooks, and incidental expenses.

Typically, the trainee had charge of about fifty patients. Besides her medical duties—which involved everything from catheterizing patients to draining their suppurating wounds—she was responsible for keeping her ward in proper shape. Among her daily housekeeping tasks, she was expected to sweep and mop the floors, dust the furniture and windowsills, keep the furnace fed with coal, make sure the lamps were filled with kerosene. She was also required to prepare and serve the patients’ meals, change their beds, launder their clothes, roll bandages, and keep her writing quills sharply whittled so that her records would be legible to the head nurse and attending physicians.

Once a week, generally between 8:00 and 9:00 in the evening, she was required to attend a lecture in medical theory presented by one of the hospital physicians. Subjects typically included: physiology, hygiene, dietetics, obstetrics, surgical emergencies, eye and ear diseases, pediatrics, and nervous disorders.

At the end of her second year, she was given a final examination by a board of physicians. If she passed, she received a handsome diploma, signed by both the examining doctors and the nursing-school board of
directors. The questions covered a wide range of topics, from anatomy to sickroom care. Since administering medicine was such a major part of a nurse’s duties, particular attention was paid to the subject of “materia medica.” The questions included in the final examination of one school in the 1880s—the period in which Jane Toppan received her training—reveal a great deal, not only about the knowledge expected of Victorian-era nurses, but about the kinds of medication commonly dispensed in those days:

What is the correct dose of sulfate of atropia? Of sulfate of strychnia?

How much morphia would you give to a child two years old? Four years old? Seven years old?

What would you do for a patient who has taken an overdose of opium or morphine?

What are poisons generally?

There is no doubt that, in many respects, Jane Toppan had all the makings of a first-rate nurse. Having spent twenty-two years of her life as a full-time house servant, she could easily handle the grueling drudge-work required of her. She also had a winning bedside manner that charmed many of her patients. With her increasingly roly-poly looks and bubbly personality, she became known by a nickname that would stick with her throughout the rest of her life: “Jolly Jane.”

Not everyone, however, was quite so taken with her. In fact, just as in high school, there were those who detested
Jane throughout her student-nursing years, and for the same reasons. Besides toadying up to her superiors—the head nurses and hospital physicians—she enjoyed spreading nasty gossip about people she disliked. She was exceptionally devious, with an uncanny flair for escaping the consequences of her own wrongdoing while implicating others as the culprits. In at least two instances, she spread slanderous rumors about fellow trainees that ultimately led to their dismissal. And she exulted in the trouble she caused. Even Jane’s friends were somewhat taken aback by the unconcealed glee she displayed when the two disgraced (and wholly innocent) young women were expelled from the school.

In terms of sheer mendacity, the malicious lies she told about others were matched by the outlandish fabrications she invented about herself. As had been true since childhood, Jane was absolutely shameless about making up wildly boastful stories and insisting on their truth, even in the face of the most unassailable evidence to the contrary. On one occasion, for example, she let it be known that she was thinking of moving to Russia. According to her story, the Czar had heard of the wonderful strides being made by American nurses and—wanting only the best for himself and his family—had offered Jane an enormous salary to join his personal medical staff.

Lies weren’t her only transgressions. Throughout her time at nursing school, she was suspected of stealing various items, from hospital supplies to small sums of money. Nothing could ever be proven against her, however. In all of her crimes, large and small, she was an expert at concealment. Despite the growing distrust and hostility she provoked among her peers, Jane’s vibrant personality—the sunniness she could radiate
when it suited her purposes—blinded most people to the dark realities of her nature. She continued to be a favorite among many of the patients, who brightened up visibly whenever “Jolly Jane” showed up on the ward.

BOOK: Fatal
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