We Value Your Privacy

This site uses cookies to improve user experience. By continuing to browse, you accept the use of cookies and other technologies.


A Serial Killer Whose Dark Destiny Appeared Sealed From Birth

Was Jane Toppan doomed from the start? 

america's first female serial killer jane toppan

Step into the dark and unsettling world of America's first female serial killer, Jane Toppan, with Mary Kay McBrayer’s meticulously researched and superbly written true crime tale America's First Female Serial Killer.

Gabino Iglesias calls it “Capote’s In Cold Blood for serial killer enthusiasts: meticulously researched, superbly written, and incredibly vivid.”

Born as Honora Kelley, Jane Toppan’s early years were marred by abandonment and neglect, thrusting her into the cold embrace of the Boston Female Asylum. From there, she became a victim of a wealthy family who changed her name, rejected her, and taught her to despise herself. But it was through nursing that Jane seized a semblance of control—not only of her own life but also the lives of her unsuspecting victims.

With an unwavering commitment to historical accuracy, McBrayer delves beyond the facts, painting a complex and terrifying portrait of a killer who was both damaged and gifted. The chilling narrative compels readers to confront the societal injustices and cruelty that shaped Jane Toppan's transformation from a wounded child into a legendary murderer. You will be both haunted and enthralled, peering into the abyss of one of America's most notorious killers. 

America's First Female Serial Killer delivers a vivid and chilling account of Toppan's life and crimes.

Continue reading to enjoy an excerpt from the beginning of America's First Female Serial Killer by Mary Kay McBrayer, then buy the book to read Jane Toppan's story!




America's First Female Serial Killer

By Mary Kay McBrayer

Many Things Can Be True

A Note from the Author

Dear reader, Here’s the truth: I learned Jane Toppan’s story for the first time when I was trying to make myself clean my apartment on Atlanta’s west side, across from the vacant lot that still had “crime scene” tape, across its roadside entrance from the day before. I’d come home from an

ex’s house early that morning, and I had spent all day trying not to think about why that tape was up and why so many blue-lit cars were parked on my street at 6:00 a.m.

But naturally, I found myself twenty minutes later standing in my kitchen with a dripping mop, listening to My Favorite Murder. They told the story of Jane Toppan. I remember pursing my lips, dropping my mop, crossing my arms, and thinking, Okay though, America, any single one of these absolutely shit experiences would have made me strangle someone with a piano wire. I took to the internet before the episode ended. Everywhere I looked turned up the same logistical story, a list of facts barely stringing together a plot with any causality. The more facts I learned about Jane, the less I knew her. In the true spirit of the plus-one who seeks out the weirdest person at the cocktail party, Jane was the guest that I wanted to know.

jane toppan
  • camera-icon
  • Jane Toppan

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons Images

I kept reading for her, but I found different iterations of the same facts, and that frustrated me. She was not given a fraction of the attention her male counterparts were, particularly if they were white or English or American. It’s true that there are fewer female serial killers, but among

Americans Jane is the first on record. The only nonfiction book I could find on her was Harold Schechter’s Fatal, which is amazing, but not what I wanted to read. The facts were there, but the story was missing.

I just didn’t get it: why wouldn’t her contemporaries have studied her? They studied Jack the Ripper. They studied Lizzie Borden. Why wouldn’t they want to learn from her behaviors to try to prevent others?

I have a theory. People like Jane—poor, Irish (at the time considered a lesser race), smart, hardworking—were basically ignored during the Victorian era. As an ethnic minority who worked in hospitality in front of house, I could identify with that somewhat: it sucks to have a job that is

not only thankless, but if you do it well, then it looks like you were never there. Those are the jobs that Jane worked her whole life, and she didn’t like not having the attention. The fact that someone so unimportant and unwanted could commit so many murders without being caught was, basically, embarrassing. As it happened, the McKinley assassination happened at about the same time as her arrest, which diverted attention, and has allowed her to be ignored for a century more.

This book attempts to rectify that error. It is, granted, more about the murderer than the murders, which is perhaps irresponsible, but it is my best approximation as to how her society—and by extension, our society— might have made her. I tried to take into account all the things she said about herself as well, but she was a pathological liar, so everything must be taken with a pinch of salt.

I served a ten-month term through AmeriCorps at a residential mental health facility for at-risk kids right after I graduated college, trying to do that very thing. Not everyone has the constitution for dealing with, for example, juvenile sex offenders, or fifteen year old kids with face tattoos who knocked over gas stations to pay for their grandma’s diabetes medications. For some reason, I thought I did. I don’t. Very few people do.

I thought I made an impression on them, I thought I did my part to help. What they needed and never got was someone to guide them, to prevent them from harming themselves when harm was all they knew. I was assigned to work with fourteen-to-eighteen-year-old boys, mostly wards of the state, mostly already with criminal records. When, at its end, I asked why them and not the girls, my supervisors said that someone had to do it, and I was the wild card.

One child, the most polite, Michael, whose teeth had rotted out and who was cognitively delayed from neglect in his formative years, walked into a lake on Christmas Day after he got the news from his caseworker that his mother had overdosed. Years later, my best friend called to tell me, “Don’t turn on the news.” I turned on the news. Michael had charged an elementary school with a bag of guns. At the last minute, a woman working the front desk talked him down. He told her he hadn’t really wanted to do it. He had turned eighteen, aged out of the system, and gone off his meds because the state no longer paid for them.

That could have been prevented.

Another boy, Dariaan, the smartest on the unit, the most attractive, athletic, charismatic, with tattoos already up his neck, hugged me when I left the facility for graduate school. When I came back the next month to visit, he had already discharged. Right back into the shitty home that he’d come from. He told a coworker after I left, “If I go back there, I’m not gonna make it.” He didn’t. Someone confused him for his father and shot him to death. That could have been prevented. If someone had been paying attention.

I cried for days after I heard these stories. I looked all over the internet for news. Michael had a mug shot. His mouth was closed, so I couldn’t tell if he’d gotten his teeth fixed. Dariaan had a high school yearbook picture, and one of him riding a float in a Martin Luther King Jr. parade. I think, in some way, I’m telling Jane’s story because I can’t tell theirs. Theirs ended before they were really over. And that didn’t have to happen.

I remember telling my mother when I learned that Charles Manson had died in prison. She didn’t look up from plucking her eyebrows. Her exact words were, “Whoop-dee-shit. I don’t know why we kept him alive so long anyway. What a fucking monster.”

She’s exactly right about him being a fucking monster, but on the spot, I answered, “We kept him alive so we could learn how that could happen, right? And how to prevent it?”

I say “we” because even though we know Manson for being the most twisted fuck in existence, he was a kid first, too. A severely and consistently abused kid. I’m not excusing the behavior. There is no excuse. I’m not excusing the lack of intervention on his behalf as a child, either.

You might notice that all the examples I’ve given are of boys and men. That’s what I learned. I only worked occasionally with the girls, but I did notice one chief difference: when boys have a problem, they fight. They throw a few punches, get the aggression out, and then it’s over. Girls have a longer memory. We’ll wait indefinitely, until an opportunity presents itself, to rectify a wrong. We hold grudges forever.

jane toppan
  • camera-icon
  • newspaper clipping announcing Jane Toppan's death

    Photo Credit: Murderpedia

Serial murderers are obviously still very real. We are better at catching them now, but we are still learning methods of early intervention and how to identify this type of behavior before it escalates—and we get it wrong many more times than we get it right. The human mind is complex and unknowable, and many things can be true. Jane was a human and a monster, but she might not have become one. Still, our current narratives focus more on her monstrosity, and for me, that is a problem. Monsters come from lack of humanity, and it seems to me that the human was driven out of Jane.

Of course, there’s no real way to know that. As I mentioned, there’s not a whole lot written about Jane Toppan, and even the things that are written about her were written in a different time period, when “medical science” was just on the verge of emerging from its air quotes, just after Sigmund Freud made his series of big swings and misses that ignored over half the population. Hell, even newspaper articles about her are under lock and key in a safety deposit box somewhere in suburban Boston, and journalism was just as sensational then as it is now, so who can we trust for the truth?

The answer is me. Kind of. Here’s the complex truth of many things: facts can be bent to support any argument. What I’ve written here is researched. The facts are intact. Everything that can check out does check out. What you’re about to read is what I believe to be the likeliest account of who Jane Toppan was as a person, who she became as a monster, how the people around her might have molded her into that, and what we might be able to learn from her. With those objectives in mind, and because facts are few, some things I have just had to assert through educated guess. Like, for example, what was she wearing when she met her fiancé? Who organized her foster mother’s funeral? What did Jane say to her sister just before she killed her? What was her favorite candy?

I don’t know. Those answers are lost. We have almost nothing from the mouth of Jane herself. What you’re holding now is what I have deduced. For that reason, this narrative retelling has a unique and revolving perspective: to me, it feels the truest. I hope you enjoy reading the story of Jane Toppan.

Mary Kay McBrayer August 21, 2019

Purchase the book to discover Jane Toppan's complicated tale.