Jolly Jane and Typhoid Mary – The Household Killers

A SURE sign you’ve reached the top of the fame totem pole must surely be when you’re known by just your first name – Marilyn, Madonna, Britney and Beyonce are synonymous with the glitz and glamour of showbiz.

But fame on first-name terms is not really that modern a phenomenon. Spanning the 19th and 20th centuries there were two single, independent-minded women – both of Irish parentage – whose names would echo throughout America. One would even be known around the world, and both would forever be linked to death and misery.

These harbingers of gloom were Honora Kelley and Mary Mallon, but they would become better known by their monikers of Jolly Jane and Typhoid Mary.

Honora Kelley was a private nurse who would go down in infamy as a prolific poisoner of patients – killing at least 31 along the way.

Jane Toppan

Jane Toppan

Born in 1857, Jane was a plain woman but one who is said to have had a warm personality, so warm, in fact, that in time many would know her as Jolly Jane.

Her own background was far from jolly, though. Honora was the daughter of Irish immigrants, Bridget and Peter Kelley. Bridget died of TB, leaving the alcoholic and mentally unstable Peter to raise Honora and her sister. It is said that Peter was so disturbed that he once sewed his eyelids together while working as a tailor.

Unable to care for his daughters, Kelley  placed them in the care of the Boston Female Asylum in 1863, where Honora stayed for over a year before being placed as an indentured servant with Ann Toppan of Lowell, Massachusetts. Honora took on her employer’s surname and also changed her first name to Jane.

In 1885, Jane began training as a nurse at Cambridge Hospital, in Massachusetts. It is here that the first hint to her murderous nature was revealed. Jane liked to experiment on those in her care – using drugs to send them into fluctuating states of consciousness, bringing them to the cusp of death using morphine before reviving them with doses of atropine.

Excited, Jane would lie beside her bedridden charges, clutching them as they teetered on the brink of life, watching their struggle. Then she would administer a final dose and let them die.

It wasn’t quite the bedside manner her instructors had hoped to foster and, over time, hospital authorities must have had their suspicions about Jane because she left the facility before fully qualifying as a nurse. Undeterred, though, and armed with the knowledge from her training, Jolly Jane set herself up as a private nurse.

In 1901, she tended to the ailing wife of a Mr Alden Davis. If Mrs Davis had been ill before Jane’s visits, she was dead as a duck by the end of them. A distraught Mr Davis asked Jane move into the family home to care for him. It would prove to be a fatal mistake.

Within a few weeks, it appeared that Alden had succumbed in a similar fashion to his late wife, as did Alden’s two daughters. It’s said that Jane felt so sorry for the girls, grieving their lost parents, that she felt it only right to help them on their way to effect a heavenly family reunion.

But Jane’s murder spree didn’t end there. She then moved back to her hometown and began courting a man to whom she took a shine. Jane’s courtship was, to say the least, unorthodox. She began by killing the man’s sister (presumably to ensure there would be no other female distractions), then set about poisoning him, but only to the extent that she could then nurse him back to health, thereby impressing him with her caring loyalty.

Meanwhile, Jane’s past was catching up with her, in the form of the surviving Davis family members, who had smelled a rat and ordered a toxicology report on the youngest daughter of Alden Davis. The report proved that the young woman had indeed been poisoned.

On October of 1901, Jane Toppan was arrested for murder.

During her interrogation, Jolly Jane admitted to 31 murders. She was later found guilty and committed to an insane asylum for life. After her death in 1938, the New York Journal, printed what was purported to be Toppan’s confession to her lawyer in which she claimed to have killed far more than her 31 listed victims (some say the figure is over a hundred).

Mary Mallon

Mary Mallon

Mary Mallon may have been less calculating in how she went about her business, but she may have even more deadly.

Born in Cookstown, Co Tyrone, in 1869, she emigrated to the United States in 1883, where she lived with an aunt and uncle before forging a career for herself as a household cook for affluent families.

She began to make her presence felt as she moved around New York cooking for seven different families between 1900 and 1907. Within two weeks of staring work for a family in the Mamoroneck area, typhoid fever was diagnosed among the residents.

Mary moved on. In 1901, she was in Manhatten working in the kitchen for another family. Here, members developed fevers and suffered diarrhoea, and the family’s laundress died.

Her next posting was working for a lawyer. By the time she left there, seven of the eight residents had fallen ill.

One wonders what must have gone through Mary Mallon’s mind as she moved from one job to the next, leaving illness and death in her wake. Was she really so bad a cook or was it mere coincidence that all of her employers were prone to sudden debilitating illness.

Surely some niggle of doubt must have presented itself in her head as people succumbed all around her. It would seem not, for Mary blinkered herself to all that was happening and carried on with her cooking in household after household.

The pattern repeated with depressing regularity. In 1906, Mary worked in a house in Long Island. After just two weeks, 10 of the 11 family members had typhoid. Mary left and the sorry saga continued – more deaths and illness and then a new posting for Mary. On another occasion, she worked for a wealthy banker, again in Long Island. Within a week, six of the family fell ill with typhoid.

Wherever Mary went, outbreaks occurred, but still nobody could pinpoint her as being the cause. It was only when one family hired typhoid researcher George Soper that a common thread finally began to emerge. Mary was eventually confronted, but refused to give stool or urine samples to confirm that she was an asymptomatic carrier of the disease (ie someone who is a carrier but who shows no sign of the disease herself).

In 1907, Mary was arrested and samples were taken which confirmed typhoid bacteria were present in her gallbladder. The newspapers were all over the story and, soon, Mary Mallon became known as ‘Typhoid Mary’.

It was found that Mary had been spreading the disease through poor hand hygiene – in particular through her preparation of a dessert dish, ice cream containing raw peaches.

Despite the evidence of her being a carrier, Mallon refused to have her gallbladder removed, and so, she was held in isolation at a clinic under lock and key. However, after three years, the idea of permanently incarcerating her didn’t sit well with some people. It was then decided that Mary be released back into society with the proviso that she didn’t work as a cook ever again.

Naturally, she agreed to the conditions and, in 1910, Mary was released from quarantine. She found work as a laundress, but the pay wasn’t good and, incredibly, it wasn’t too long before she decided to change her surname to Brown and go back to more lucrative work as a cook.

The pattern of death and illness started again. For five years, wherever Mary worked, typhoid outbreaks occurred. Soper tried to track her down, but she changed jobs so frequently, he couldn’t find her. Eventually, in 1915, Mary caused an outbreak at Sloane Hospital for Women in New York City, infecting 25 people and leading to the deaths of two.

She was eventually arrested and, on March 27, 1915, was placed in quarantine once again.Still refusing to have her gallbladder removed, Mallon remained in quarantine for 23 years, until pneumonia claimed her in 1938.

Anyone doubting the wisdom of locking her up until her dying day need only look at the results of her autopsy, which showed the presence of live typhoid bacteria in her gallbladder. . . even in death, Mary remained a danger.

It was difficult to track Mary Mallon through her working life, but it is estimated by some that she caused the deaths of 50 people (others put the figure at only three) before she was locked up permanently.

Mallon wasn’t the only typhoid carrier nor even the most lethal, but she was the first that was identified, and that brought her infamy.Today, the term ‘Typhoid Mary’ is used for anyone who knowingly or not carries disease.

The motivations behind Mary’s actions were not as sinister as those of Jolly Jane, but their stories run parallel in many ways -both were women of Irish parents; both worked in private households and became synonymous with death; and both were incarcerated until they died in the same year, 1938.

Jolly Jane may have been more calculating and her actions more disturbing, but Typhoid Mary’s feckless disregard for those around her . . . putting them in harm’s way so she could earn a few extra dollars, makes her just as culpable for the death and misery she sowed.

The notion of locking people up and throwing away the key may not sit well with most of us, but, sometimes, it might just be the only answer.

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About historywithatwist

I am an Associate Editor with a national newspaper. I have a keen interest in history and in writing. I have published one novel, Tan, and am currently working on a sequel
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16 Responses to Jolly Jane and Typhoid Mary – The Household Killers

  1. Loved this! Two comments here: when I read, ” If Mrs Davis had been ill before Jane’s visits, she was dead as a duck by the end of them,” I laughed out loud, and the use of “Mary blinkered herself” gave me a thrill. It’s not often I come across a word I’ve never seen used, but “blinkered” is one of them. And further, with regard to Mary, I kept thinking, “references, anybody?” You did it again, Mr. Lawlor! Oh the joy! Slainte!

  2. Thanks so much,Claire. Glad you liked the piece

  3. Wonderfully written piece.

  4. All great to hear, thanks again, Shehanne

  5. billkasal says:

    Always happy to see a new post, David. Loved this one! And the word “blinkered” was terrific. I’ve got to find a use for it.

    I wonder if I was ever married to either of these women…

  6. Gruesome but so interesting, thanks David. However, you’ve just turned me off peaches and ice-cream for life!

  7. lupachi1927 says:

    Wonderful piece! Read some about Mary, but I’d never heard of Jane. She reminds me of Amy Archer-Gillian, the inspiration behind Arsenic and Old Lace. She was one of the first people to open a home for the elderly—and killed a lot of them after they’d signed over their assets to her, of course. There’s a great book on her called “the devil’s rooming house” by William Phelps. Speaking of Mary, though, have you read Anthony Bourdain’s book about her? It’s a short, interesting take on her life as a cook, rather than anything else.

  8. nerdlovewords says:

    Great read again David! I did know about Typhoid Mary, but not in-depth.

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