British Monsters Volume 2

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Thomas Neill Cream

The Lambert Poisoner

It was 1892, four years since the deadly psychopath known only as Jack the Ripper had killed the last of his five victims. The Ripper had not been forgotten, though, his horrendous crimes lived on in the memory, and speculations as to his identity were still a popular topic of conversation. Yet, even as the Ripper continued to cast his pall over London’s East End, another ghoul appeared to prey on the city’s streetwalkers. In many ways, this new fiend was more sadistic, more frightening, than the Ripper. Whereas Saucy Jack’s kills were executed quickly, by strangulation or the flash of a blade, this brute’s hapless victims were consigned to the agonizing death of strychnine poisoning. His name was Dr. Thomas Neill Cream. Many believe he was also Jack the Ripper.

Thomas Neill Cream was born in Glasgow, Scotland, on May 27, 1850, the first of William and Mary Cream’s eight children. Four years after his birth, the family immigrated to Canada and settled in Wolfe's Cove, Quebec. Here, William Cream found employment as a manager with Gilmour & Company, a shipbuilding and lumber firm. Years later, William used his acquired knowledge to start his own lumber business, which prospered. All of the Cream offspring followed their father into this trade, except Thomas who displayed little interest in commerce. An excellent student with a sharp intellect, Thomas decided early on that he wanted to be a doctor. He realized this ambition in April 1876, graduating from the reputable McGill University.

The ink had hardly dried on Cream’s diploma when he was in trouble. During his internship he’d been courting a teenaged girl by the name of Flora Brooks, the daughter of a wealthy hotel owner. When Flora became ill after a visit from Cream, a doctor was called and his examination determined that the young girl had recently had an abortion. The Brooks clan was enraged. They hunted Cream down and forced him to “do the right thing” and marry Flora. Left with no option, Cream went through with the nuptials. But he didn’t stick around long. On the morning after the wedding, he was gone, fled to London, England.

Cream arrived in London in October 1876. As a foreign-qualified doctor, he was required to undergo certification before being allowed to practice medicine in Britain. To this extent he registered at St. Thomas' Hospital, in Lambeth, south London, to undergo further training. However, after six months of study, Cream failed to pass the entrance exam at the Royal College of Surgeons, due in the main to his extra-curricula activities. Cream spent more time escorting various society ladies around town than at his studies. He also enjoyed visiting the East End’s many taverns, brothels, music halls and vaudeville theaters.

However, if he wanted to earn a living as a doctor in Britain, he needed to buckle down and pass his examinations. He therefore removed himself from the temptations of London and moved to Edinburgh where he received the requisite qualification from the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons. Before departing London, though, Cream had had news from his homeland. His wife, Flora, had died, apparently from consumption. Later, a more sinister explanation would surface for Flora’s untimely death. It would emerge that she’d died after swallowing some pills that her errant husband had sent her from England.

With certification in hand from the Royal College, Cream was now free to commence his medical career in Britain. However, for some inexplicable reason, he returned to Canada in late 1878 and set up practice in the bustling town of London, Ontario. The practice, on Dundas Street, quickly picked up a solid roster of patients and appeared to be doing well until it was embroiled in scandal. In May 1879, a patient named Kate Gardener was found dead in a shed behind the surgery. An examination revealed that the unmarried woman was pregnant at the time of death, and it was surmised that she’d come to Dr. Cream for an abortion. Under questioning, Cream admitted that that was the case but said that he had refused her. As the corpse had reeked of chloroform, he suggested suicide by that means. The inquest rejected that hypothesis and ruled the death a murder. However, there was nothing to connect Cream with the crime. He avoided prosecution but lost his reputation and his practice. Before long he’d absconded for Chicago.

Cream arrived in Illinois in August 1879, setting up business at 434 West Madison, conveniently close to the red light district. He quickly gained a reputation as an abortionist. In early 1880, he narrowly escaped jail after a prostitute named Mary Anne Faulkner was found dead in a tenement flat, the result of a botched abortion. Fortunately for Cream, his politically connected lawyer managed to get the charges dropped and also got Cream off after another patient died as a result of taking one of his strychnine laced anti-pregnancy pills.

In addition to his abortion business, Cream made a tidy little sum from quack medicines. One of his most popular remedies was an elixir claiming to cure epilepsy. A number of patients swore by this treatment. One of them, a man named Daniel Stott, made the mistake of sending his attractive young wife to Cream's surgery for regular doses of the drug. Soon, Cream and Julia Stott were lovers and when her husband became suspicious of the affair, Cream doctored his medication with strychnine. Mr. Stott died on June 14, 1881, and Cream would likely have gotten away with the murder had it not been for his own paranoia.

Afraid that the cause of death might be discovered, Cream wrote a letter to the coroner, accusing the pharmacist of adding strychnine to his formula. The accusation was passed on to the district attorney who ordered Stott’s body exhumed. As Cream had attested, large doses of strychnine were found in the man's stomach - but it was Cream, not the pharmacist, who was blamed. Hearing of the warrant for his arrest, he fled to Canada but was soon captured.

Cream was returned to Chicago to stand trial and, with Julia Stott turning state’s evidence, he was found guilty of murder. In November 1881, he was sent to Joliet State Penitentiary for life. He’d spend a decade there before being paroled in July 21, 1891, thanks to his brother Daniel’s political connections and a considerable sum of money to grease the palms of corrupt state officials.

Cream returned to Canada where a sizeable inheritance of $16,000, left at his father’s passing, awaited. Ten years behind bars had taken its toll on the once handsome doctor. He looked older than his forty years, his head bald, skin weathered, eyes watery, yellowed and somewhat crossed. His once trim, square-shouldered build had drooped. He complained of throbbing headaches and spoke with an odd rattle. Prison had changed his attitude too, especially about women who he disparaged at every opportunity. His family was only too happy to bid him goodbye when he departed Canada in September 1891 aboard the SS Teutonic bound for Liverpool.

Cream was back in London by October 1891, staying first at Anderson's Hotel on Fleet Street before moving to a first-floor apartment at 103 Lambeth Palace Road, not far from St. Thomas’ Hospital. He’d lived in the same area during his previous stay in the city over a decade previous and it hadn’t changed much. Lambeth was still a slum of damp, narrow streets, run-down apartments and meager industry. It still teemed with the destitute, the unemployed, and the down-at-heel; it still reeked of fish shops, hop yards and unwashed humanity. And yet, there was no shortage of amusements, with a tavern seemingly on every corner, music halls like the Canterbury, Old Vic, and Gatti's, and plenty of entertainments of the flesh. This, of course, is what Dr. Thomas Neill Cream was most interested in.

The first unfortunate to encounter him was a pretty 19-year-old prostitute named Ellen "Nellie" Donworth. Nellie shared a room near Commercial Street with an army private named Ernest Linnell, who didn't seem to mind her occupation. At around six o'clock on the evening of October 13, she left her abode after telling a friend, Annie Clements, that she was going to meet a gentleman.

Later that evening, another friend, Constance Linfield, saw Nellie walking arm in arm with a “topper,” (Victorian slang for a well-dressed gentleman in a tophat). Not long after, James Styles spotted Nellie alone, leaning on a gate on Morpeth Place. She was barely able to stand and Styles at first assumed that she was drunk. However, as he got closer, he saw that she was in severe pain. He helped her back to her lodging house and put her to bed, but by this time she was convulsing and grabbing her abdomen in agony. “That gentleman with the tophat gave me a drink out of a bottle with white stuff in it!" she moaned.

While Nellie's landlady remained with her, Styles ran to fetch an intern named Johnson from the nearby Lambeth Medical Institute. By the time they returned, Nellie’s spasms were so severe that all of them together could not hold her down. The medic recognized her symptoms immediately as poisoning and instructed Styles to fetch a police officer. Nellie was then transported to St. Thomas Hospital. She died before she got there.

A postmortem two days later found lethal doses of strychnine in her stomach. Coroner Thomas Herbert confirmed that the last several hours of her life must have been spent in extreme agony. Strychnine poisoning is a terrible way to die, characterized by extreme muscle convulsions and the feeling of being suffocated. In the final stages, the face turns blue and all of the muscles go rigid. Eventually the lungs contract to such an extent that the person dies from lack of oxygen, the face fixed in a macabre grin. Death can take anything from one to three hours. The person remains lucid throughout.

Cream bought his supplies of strychnine from Priest's Chemists, 22 Parliament Street. Because he was a certified doctor he had no trouble getting what he wanted, although, by law, he was required to sign the poisons register. By following the entries in this journal, the police were later able to trace each of his deadly purchases.

Nellie Donworth had been given the poison in liquid form, for his next victim, Cream purchased a supply of gelatin capsules.

Twenty-seven-year-old Matilda Clover, lived at 27 Lambeth Road with her two-year-old son, her landlord Mr. Vowles and his wife, and a servant girl, Lucy Rose. Matilda had turned to prostitution after her boy’s father had deserted them. She also had an alcohol problem, but had recently started visiting a doctor to cure that affliction.

On the night of October 20, Matilda left her room just after dark. Lucy saw her leave and presumed she was on her way to meet a man named Fred. Lucy only knew about Fred because she’d seen a note from him on Matilda’s bedside table, asking her to meet him at the Canterbury.

At around 9 p.m. Matilda returned home in the company of a gentleman. Lucy got a good look at the man and would later describe him as tall and well dressed, in a cape and tophat. After leaving the man alone in her room, Matilda went out to buy some ale. A short while later the man left – alone.

At around 3 a.m., the entire house was woken by horrendous screams from Matilda’s quarters. Lucy rushed to Matilda’s room and was met there by the Vowles. As they entered, they saw Matilda lying naked on the bed, her body racked by convulsions. Contorted in pain, the woman screamed that Fred had given her some pills that had poisoned her. Lucy Rose ran for a doctor but it was too late. Matilda Clover died in agony at approximately seven in the morning.

Despite learning of Matilda’s deathbed accusation against the mysterious “Fred” the doctor decided that she’d died due to mixing alcohol with a sedative she’d been prescribed. He recorded the cause of death as, “primarily, delirium tremens; secondly, syncope.” It would be six months before the police realized that Matilda Clover was the second victim of the so-called, “Lambeth Poisoner.”

In November 1881, a month after he killed Matilda Clover, Cream got a telegram from his family asking him to come home for the final disbursement of his father's property. He sailed from Liverpool aboard the SS Sernia on January 7, 1892, returning four months later. Not long after his return, Cream became engaged to the pretty and respectable Laura Sabbatini. But if the nefarious Dr. Cream was seriously thinking about settling down to matrimonial bliss, he had no plans just yet of giving up his nocturnal ramblings.

Roaming Piccadilly, he spotted an attractive young woman who he reckoned for a streetwalker. Approaching the woman, Cream introduced himself, told her he was a doctor from America and was currently practicing at St. Thomas' Hospital. He invited her to join him for dinner at the Palace Hotel and there learned that her name was Lou Harvey. Lou (real name Louise Harris) was a bright young woman and despite Cream’s urbane manner, she was wary of him.

Nonetheless, when he invited her to meet him later for drinks and a show at the Oxford Music Hall, she agreed. They arranged to meet at 7:30 p.m. Before leaving, Cream told Lou that he’d bring her some pills that would bring some color to her cheeks.

Cream arrived for the rendezvous at the appointed time, and they walked from Charing Cross underground station to the Northumberland Public-house. They had a glass of wine, before walking along the Embankment. There, Cream suddenly stopped and produced the two capsules he’d promised. Lou had already decided that she wasn’t going to take them, but she pretended to put them in her mouth. Then, as Cream looked away, she tossed the capsules over the Embankment. Once he thought she’d taken the pills, Cream suddenly remembered a meeting at St. Thomas' Hospital, and departed giving the woman 5 shillings to go to the theater. He promised to meet her there at 11, but of course he never showed.

On April 11, 1892, Cream met Alice Marsh, 21, and Emma Shrivell, 18, in St. George's Circus and arranged to go with the two prostitutes to their flat at 118 Stamford Street, Lambeth. Once there, the trio had a few drinks after which Cream promised to give them some pills that prevented venereal disease, every working girl’s nightmare in an era which customers did not use condoms. Cream spent several hours with the women, leaving eventually at around 2 a.m. Outside, he encountered the local bobby, Officer Comley, and the two exchanged greetings before Cream disappeared into the night.

At around 2:30, Mrs. Charlotte Vogt, landlady at 118 Stamford, woke to the sound of screams. She quickly roused her husband and the pair hurried upstairs. Alice Marsh lay in the hallway, her body jerked and wracked by spasms. From inside the room, Mr. Vogt heard a banging sound and found Emma Shrivell in similar agony, thrashing around, her body contorted into poses Mr. Vogt didn’t think the human body capable of, her foot slamming the wall as she fought for oxygen.

Mr. Vogt ran for a policeman, who, in turn, summoned an ambulance. It was too late. The women were dead even before they reached St. Thomas’. An autopsy revealed deadly doses of strychnine, leading the police to link these deaths to that of Ellen Donworth, six months earlier.

The killer, meanwhile, had concocted a plan whereby he might profit from his crimes. Money, of course, was not Thomas Neill Cream’s primary motive. He enjoyed killing, of that there can be little doubt. However, he now initiated an ill-conceived blackmail scheme, directing extortion notices to a number of reputable London physicians accusing them of committing the murders and offering to suppress the “evidence” he had – for a price. None of these eminent gentlemen took the bait and instead reported the extortion efforts to the police, something that would later come back to haunt Cream.

With the Metropolitan police having made the connection between the Donworth, Marsh and Shrivell murders, they stepped up their hunt for the Lambeth poisoner. Chemists' poisons registries were scoured for the names of known criminals, while the police hunted down and questioned any thug with a history of violence, especially violence towards women. When these efforts turned up no viable suspects they expanded their search beyond London. With the six-month gap between the murders (largely due to Cream’s trip to Canada) the general belief among investigators was that the murderer was a maritime man who killed at his ports of call. This line of enquiry also led nowhere.

Like many serial killers, Dr. Cream’s downfall was largely down to his own actions. He might have remained at liberty indefinitely, might even, like his hero Jack the Ripper, have escaped justice altogether. All he had to do was keep his mouth shut about the murders. But Cream couldn’t keep his mouth shut, the world had to know of his genius.

In April 1892, a few days after the Stamford Street murders, Cream met a former New York City detective named John Haynes. The murders, having occurred just a few day’s hence, were a hot topic of conversation and the two men got talking about them. Haynes was immediately impressed by Dr. Cream’s knowledge on the subject, but somewhat confused when he mentioned two victims Haynes hadn’t heard of - Matilda Clover and Lou Harvey.

After the two men had dinner together Cream offered to walk Haynes through Lambeth and show him where the murders had been committed. The detective naturally agreed, but Cream showed him more than just the murder sites. Speaking in the third person, Cream related where he’d met each of his victims, where he’d taken them for drinks, where he’d passed his deadly prescriptions. It didn’t take Harvey long to realize that what he was hearing was virtually a confession to the crimes.

The following day, Haynes took this information to his friend, Inspector Patrick McIntyre of Scotland Yard. McIntyre was intrigued by the story, in particular Cream’s mention of Matilda Clover. At this stage, Clover was still not considered a murder victim, but her name had been mentioned in one of the blackmail letters. As to the other name – Lou Harvey – McIntyre was as much in the dark as his friend. However, he made enquiries with the morgue, and when that turned up nothing, launched a search to find the woman.

Meanwhile, Cream was placed under surveillance while background checks were run which revealed his true identity (he’d introduced himself to Haynes as Dr. Neill). The police also learned that Cream had been convicted in America of murdering a man with strychnine. With this information in hand McIntyre obtained an exhumation order for Matilda Clover. The subsequent autopsy turned up copious amounts of strychnine in her system.

The net that was closing around Cream drew ever closer when both Lucy Rose and PC Comley provided descriptions of the man they’d seen at the crime scenes – these closely matched Cream. And there was further evidence when a sample of Dr. Cream's handwriting was comparing with the extortion letters and found to be a match.

Cream was arrested on June 3. The charge at this stage was not murder, but blackmail. However, the police wanted Cream off the streets while they built their murder case.

The inquest into Martha Clover's death began at Vestry Hall, Tooting on June 22. During the two-week hearing, a succession of witnesses stepped forward to build an ever-strengthening case against Cream. Still, the doctor seemed unfazed, even writing to his fiancé to tell her not to worry and to assure her that he’d been falsely accused and would soon be free.

Cream maintained his air of indifference throughout the first week of the proceedings and through most of the second. Then, on the penultimate day, a witness was introduced that caused his mask to slip. The police had finally succeeded in tracking down Lou Harvey and, as she strode confidently forward, Cream did a double take, removed his spectacles, polished them and then replaced them on his nose. It was as though he’d seen a ghost and to him, of course, Lou was a ghost. He was sure that he’d killed her.

Harvey’s testimony sealed Cream’s fate. On July 13, the inquest concluded that Cream had administered strychnine to Matilda Clover, thereby causing her death. He was removed to Newgate Prison, to await trial for murder. In subsequent weeks, he was also charged with premeditated homicide in the deaths of Nellie Donworth, Alice Marsh and Emma Shrivell. A charge of attempted murder was added for Lou Harvey, and there were also charges of blackmail to answer.

The trial of Dr. Thomas Neill Cream took place over a five-day period from October 17 to 21, Justice Henry Hawkins presiding. The prosecution produced pretty much the same line-up of witnesses they’d called at the inquest, while the defense produced none, their strategy focused on discrediting the evidence as circumstantial. It was never likely to succeed. The jury took just 10 minutes of deliberation before pronouncing Cream guilty.

Cream went to the gallows on November 16, 1892. But he would not go quietly to his grave. In the moment just before the trapdoor was sprung, he shouted from under the hood. “I am Jack –” the rest of the phrase extinguished as he plunged to his death. Over a century later, debate still rages as to what Cream meant to say, the consensus being that he meant to identify himself as Jack the Ripper.

On the face of it, Cream makes a compelling Ripper suspect. Quiet clearly, he had a pathological hatred for women in general, and prostitutes in particular. He also had a medical background – something that most Ripper experts believe was true of Saucy Jack. And although he was slightly taller than the man spotted with some of the Ripper victims, he resembled him in other respects, and eyewitnesses do make mistakes.

So was Dr. Thomas Neill Cream the elusive Jack? Unfortunately, for those who seek an answer to the mystery, he was not. The Ripper murders took place in 1888, at which time Cream was serving a life sentence at Joliet, on the other side of the Atlantic.

British Monsters Volume Two includes 14 more riveting stories of Britain's worst serial killers