You may recall Mary Kay McBrayer’s article “The 19th-Century Nurse Who Was Secretly a Serial Killer,” about cold-blooded caregiver Jane Toppan. Ahead of the release of her book America’s First Female Serial Killer: Jane Toppan and the Making of a Monster, we talked to the writer, editor, and podcaster from her home in Atlanta about true crime, mental health, and how her love of horror movies led her to Jane.
Narratively: Your book reads almost like historical fiction. Why did you choose to frame Jane’s story this way?
Mary Kay McBrayer: I think having a beginning, middle, and end is a very intuitive way that humans remember things. I was interested when I heard Jane’s story, but the only book I could find was Fatal by Harold Schechter. And I mean, he is the man, he’s amazing, but I felt like it was all of the facts and none of the story. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to write it like a novel, because it sticks more that way, and I think it’s an important story.
Narratively: You write in your introduction that you first heard about Jane Toppan on the podcast My Favorite Murder. What role do you think true crime played in your telling of Jane’s story?
McBrayer: I heard about Jane on My Favorite Murder, and I love that podcast. Nonetheless, they will tell you straight up, “Don’t come here for facts, this is to entertain you.” They said really quickly, “Jane had a super shitty childhood,” but I just felt like there was more to it than that. As far as true crime goes, especially regarding serial killers, the only female one that people know of regularly is Aileen Wuornos, partly because she’s not that far in the past and she has a really salacious history. There’s not very many female serial killers who are talked about, but what we do have, especially on TV and with documentaries, is the vengeful murder [archetype]. The abused wife retaliates because she doesn’t know how else to do it. When we see male killers on TV, they don’t have to have a reason for them to be interesting. I think it says something about our culture that we associate women as victims who are prone to vigilante justice.
Narratively: How did you balance the investigative aspect of true crime writing without drawing unprovable conclusions?
McBrayer: I wanted to make sure that, first of all, all the facts that could check out, did check out. I did a lot of research, of course, but I think that even if [true crime writers] have all the facts, there’s still something missing about the human condition, about why people do the things that they do. Jane’s story of being a child of immigrant parents from Ireland at the turn of the century, that’s a story that was very common at the time. But all of the circumstances can be very similar from one person to the next, and the outcome can be totally different. My narrative is trying to make some of those links between cause and effect without saying, “This is for sure why she did what she did,” which I think would have been taking a real big leap. People think, “Well, she must have been crazy, no sane person would do that,” but she said no, I knew exactly what I was doing, I knew it was wrong, and I continued to do it because I wanted to.
Narratively: Jane Toppan killed 31 people, which makes me think about the failure of law enforcement at the time. Do you think they didn’t have a conception of women as killers?
McBrayer: I noticed that when I was researching. Law enforcement was very much cartoonish. To their credit, I think they were doing everything they could—well, maybe not everything—but they just didn’t have the forensics that we have now. It was a lot of misleading pseudoscience for them. I think Jane was constantly underestimated. She was a genius, and she was great at her job. One of the signs of being a good servant is that people almost forget they’re there.
Narratively: There’s an incident early in the book with flowers and food poisoning. Was that a true anecdote?
McBrayer: Jane had escalating behaviors. She definitely did tell a lot of lies and she definitely experimented on people before she was a nurse. So that was one [incident] that seemed kind of innocuous and accidental, anyone could do that. You get someone’s favorite flower for them and don’t realize that they’re very allergic. It’s something you could do by accident and then realize, “I actually liked doing that,” and continue to do it and have it look like an accident. I didn’t have a specific story for that behavior, but I had to show it somehow, because it’s documented that Jane did things like that. That’s one of my favorite chapters.
Narratively: Do you think Jane would have identified as a victim of abuse and neglect?
McBrayer: I think her situation would have been fairly common. I don’t know if she would have thought her life was so much worse than someone else’s. I think she may have thought, “This is just how it is for someone like me, but I’m different, I’m going to make the most of it and I’m going to do what I want.” When I heard her story on the podcast, I thought there’s more to this, another reason she did this, but Jane didn’t make that connection. She didn’t say, “Someone hurt me, so this is retribution.”
Narratively: We’re so much more accustomed to reading about murder now than we were in Jane’s time. Do you think we know how to have a nuanced conversation about it?
McBrayer: In the epigraph of the book, I quoted Charles Bowden. In his essay “Torch Song,” he talks about how when people read the newspaper, they look for some quality of a victim that they can immediately dissociate with. If you lived a higher risk lifestyle, it becomes, “I would never do that, that would never happen to me.” When we’re doing that sort of self-soothing, we don’t realize it’s victim-blaming as well. The victim has to “deserve it” in order for them to be a sympathetic person. And I think that’s another thing that makes Jane’s crimes so upsetting, because everyone calls a nurse or doctor when they’re sick. They did literally zero wrong.
Narratively: You have a podcast about horror movies and comedy, Everything Trying to Kill You. Do you think your horror background led you to this book, or do you think it was the other way around?
McBrayer: I think that they probably happened around the same time. I wasn’t super interested in horror before I worked in mental health. There was so much grey area, because we were working with [at-risk youth], so it was never that a person was just good or just bad. You would see them do terrible things and then you would see them excel and have very regular behaviors. It put things into perspective for me. One reason that I’m interested in both horror movies and true crime is because I have anxiety, and anything that I can put in a controlled environment is helpful. The thing that I said about reading newspapers, we also do that with horror movies: “Oh, I would never go to that party, I would get out of that situation.” Horror puts really uncontrollable things in a controlled medium. It’s kind of like a trial run for how you would act in real life. There was so much I couldn’t control about working in mental health, I needed to see someone else controlling a similar thing.
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