The Case of the Murderous Dr. Cream: The Hunt for a Victorian Era Serial Killer by Dean Jobb

Thomas Neill Cream (1850-92), poisoner of at least nine women and one man, a serial killer before the term was coined, a doctor whom the News of the World dubbed “the greatest monster of iniquity the century has seen”? No, me neither.

Yet 5,000 people gathered outside Newgate’s high walls on the morning of his execution even though there was nothing to see. “It’s better hanging about out here,” said one of the ghouls, “than hanging up inside.” A waxwork of Dr Cream remained in the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussauds in London until 1968.

One of the many photographs in Dean Jobb’s fascinating exhumation of Cream’s gruesome — almost incredible — career shows the youthful popinjay wearing “a formal frock coat, top hat, starched collar and a striped cravat with a stick pin”.

It’s a great shot because the mustachioed medical student looks almost handsome. You can’t tell he’s cross-eyed. He suffered from hypermetropia all his life. His eyes didn’t focus correctly, blurring his vision and bringing migraines. This may be what caused him to become addicted to pills containing cocaine, morphine and strychnine, “a deadly poison used in minute quantities as a stimulant in medicines”.

One of his regular dining companions at Gatti’s Adelaide Gallery Restaurant in the Strand, a swanky joint with “vaulted ceilings, stained glass, ornate plasterwork, a palette of blue and gold”, described Cream in 1891 as “exceedingly vicious, [he] seemed to live for nothing but the gratification of his passions”.

The pills, which Cream concocted himself, also acted as an aphrodisiac. He carried pornographic postcards in his pocket and would end the evening trolling the streets for prostitutes. Sometimes he would give the good-time girls pills that killed them, slowly. Ellen Donworth, Matilda Clover, Alice Marsh and Emma Shrivell swallowed the pills because they trusted the hand that dispensed them. Their client was a doctor.

How had a good Presbyterian boy, who sang in the church choir and taught Sunday school in his teens, turned into such a depraved debauchee? The truth is no one knows, but Jobb does a good job of laying out possible explanations.

Pill Popper to Serial Killer

Thomas was the eldest son of William Cream, who was born in Ireland about 1820 and grew up in Belfast. He moved to Scotland and married Mary Elder. Thomas was born on May 27, 1850, in Barony, just north of Glasgow.

Four years later the family crossed the Atlantic to Quebec City where “the châteaux-inspired architecture and narrow streets were frozen in time, remnants of old France transplanted to North America”. Jobb has a talent for scene-setting, whether it be London, Montreal, Edinburgh or Chicago.

William Cream prospered in the wood trade: “The scent of tar and fresh-cut wood, the din of incessant hammering and raftsmen’s shouts, the backdrop of tall ships and timber — this was Thomas’s world until he reached the age of 16.” Strangely, he never lost his Scottish accent.

Before he turned 20, Thomas, now one of six children, had lost two sisters and his mother, Mary, who, having given birth for the eighth time, died aged 43. One of his teachers remarked: “His affection and anxiety for his mother during her long sickness and his solicitude in providing her with everything that might possibly lead to her recovery was worthy of all praise.”

Thomas, perhaps traumatized by grief, decided to study medicine. At McGill University in Montreal he became “oblivious to the sight of blood, inured to the stench of death”.

In 1872 the antiseptic techniques of Joseph Lister had not yet spread everywhere. George Fenwick, who taught surgery and was considered the best surgeon in the city, “wore a black frock coat spattered with dry blood as he operated”. Scalpels were not sterilized. Few patients recovered. Even so, bodies to anatomize were scarce. Some students resorted to grave-robbing with glee.

In Edinburgh, Cream, having failed to qualify at St Thomas’ Hospital in London, finally passed his examinations. There he came face to face with Joseph Bell, the brilliant physician who made such an impression on Arthur Conan Doyle. Conan Doyle’s creation Sherlock Holmes, in The Adventure of the Speckled Band (written in the year Cream’s neck was snapped), says: “When a doctor does go wrong he is the first of criminals. He has nerve and he has knowledge.”

At McGill University, in Montreal, Thomas Cream became “oblivious to the sight of blood, inured to the stench of death.”

Cream’s criminal career began with arson in 1876 and escalated rapidly. He torched his student digs in Montreal and claimed $978.40 for the loss of his possessions. They had not long been insured for $1,000. He settled — under suspicion but not under lock and key — for $350.

We meet the dastardly doctor in 1891 when he has just been released from the Illinois State Penitentiary having served 11 years for dispatching the husband of his mistress, who lived in a town called Garden Prairie. Do-gooders had managed to wangle him “executive clemency”; in effect, a pardon.

Daniel Stott’s sorry tombstone is still there in the local cemetery: “Poisoned by his wife & Dr Cream.” Stott wasn’t his first victim, though. Several women who consulted the self-styled expert in “diseases of the womb” in Chicago, seeking an illegal abortion, were not cured but deliberately killed. He later declared that such loose women did not deserve to live.

His engagement to Flora Brooks in Waterloo, Quebec, also in 1876 did not end well either. The prosperous hotelier’s daughter soon became pregnant, yet miraculously survived her fiancé’s lethal prescriptions. Lyman Brooks, desperate to avoid a scandal, forced Cream to wed his daughter.

The next day the bridegroom set off for England. He never saw his wife again, but continued to send her poisoned pills through the post. Flora died aged 29 in 1878. Instead of sending a note of sympathy, Cream instructed a London law firm to demand $1,000 from his wife’s estate. He eventually accepted a check for $200.

Ellen Donworth, Matilda Clover, Alice Marsh and Emma Shrivell swallowed the pills because they trusted the hand that dispensed them. Their client was a doctor.

Jobb uses a twin-ply narrative, switching between Canada and Britain, between the bulk of Cream’s life and his last two years, to heighten what is essentially a sad, sad story about a bad, bad man.

How did Cream continue his pitiless progress for so long? That’s what Inspector Jarvis of Scotland Yard wants to know as he sails across the Atlantic to uncover his horrible history. Surely the famous nabber of forgers and Fenian bombers could nail the man now referred to in the press as the Lambeth Poisoner?

Cream’s father, who died in 1887, had left a fortune. The Creams could see what solitary confinement had done to Thomas. Mary, his sister whom he hadn’t seen for almost 20 years, commented: “He was most wild and excitable. Not right in his mind.”

He was a violent Cream. The family — just to get shot of him — gave the jailbird the equivalent today of $23,000. Cream dropped the last part of his name, and as plain Thomas Neill once again headed for the “great sin-stricken city” of London, where he had done some of his training.

The police — through incompetence, negligence and prejudice; the victims, for goodness’ sake, were prostitutes! — decided that Donworth had committed suicide, Clover had died from alcoholic poisoning and dodgy tinned salmon (from Canada) had done for Marsh and Shrivell. Jobb does not spare us the effects of strychnine: “Fists clench. Eyeballs bulge.” We are left in no doubt that these women suffered dreadful deaths.

Cream was conscienceless, misogynistic and narcissistic. When, inevitably, he did attract the attention of the boys in blue he exploited it, not only blaming others for his crimes — well-known people that he had tried to blackmail, including William Smith MP, the owner of WH Smith & Son, who had sold millions of newspapers reveling in Cream’s antics — but, brazenly, also complained of police harassment. He could always afford the best lawyers.

He was finally arrested on June 3, 1892, for extortion. Three hundred and seven days after being released from jail Cream was back behind bars. Inspector Jarvis was sent to the US to find out more about the peculiar prisoner/suspected poisoner.

In the end he was betrayed by his distinctive handwriting. The letters Cream sent to potential blackmail victims revealed knowledge that only the poisoner could have known. The smile he had maintained throughout numerous inquests and trials — all vividly related by Jobb — was finally wiped off his face.

The trial that sent him to the gallows set a precedent for the admission of similar-fact evidence, allowing, for example, the prosecutors of George Joseph Smith, the “Brides in the Bath” killer, on trial for the drowning of his wife in 1915, to point out that he had disposed of two other women in the same way.

It’s difficult, once Thomas, “a young man of rare ability”, goes to medical school, to feel any sympathy for the devil in dandified form. His life, in Jobb’s hands, is a splendidly atmospheric journey through the halls of Victorian vice, virtue and, above all, hypocrisy.

Some would have us believe that Dr Cream was Jack the Ripper — even though he was banged up when the latter’s first three victims were murdered. Only one thing is certain: Cream was crackers.

Mark Sanderson is a U.K.-based writer