The Lambeth Poisoner

Jun 14, 2011 - by Robert Walsh

June 14, 2011

Dr. Thomas Neill Cream

Dr. Thomas Neill Cream

The United Kingdom has a long history of doctors who foreswore the Hippocratic Oath and opted instead to commit at least one murder. During the time of Jack the Ripper, Dr. Thomas Neill Cream was both a serial killer and a blackmailer.                          

by Robert Walsh

”First Do No Harm…’”– A fundamental part of the Hippocratic Oath sworn by all doctors.

“I am Jack The…” – The last words of the “Lambeth Poisoner,” Doctor Thomas Neill Cream, as the gallows trapdoors fell.

The United Kingdom has, for some unknown reason, a long history of doctors who foreswore the Hippocratic Oath and opted instead to commit at least one murder. William Palmer, William Pritchard, “Buck” Ruxton, George Lamson and, most notorious of all, Doctor Crippen, right through to Harold Shipman a few years ago (although Crippen’s medical credentials are at best somewhat dubious as he was a purveyor of quack remedies and, some say, involved in illegal abortions),. Dr. Crippen is by far the most notorious, but he’s merely one of many. But Doctor Thomas Neill Cream, AKA the “Lambeth Poisoner,” while largely forgotten except by true crime enthusiasts, was once as infamous as any of them.

Cream was born in May, 1850 in Glasgow, Scotland and would have his date with the hangman in November 1892. He spent his early life in Canada outside Quebec City after his family emigrated in 1854. Cream attended McGill University in Montreal and studied medicine at St. Thomas’s Hospital in London after returning to the UK in 1876. Even as a student Cream had a particularly strong motive for leaving Canada as he had recently married a woman named Flora Brooks, whom he made pregnant and then almost killed while carrying out an illegal abortion on her. Having been forced to marry her at gunpoint by her family, Flora would die in 1877 of tuberculosis, the first of more than one death of which Cream would be blamed but never convicted.

Having finished his studies at St. Thomas’s, Cream moved to Edinburgh to continue his training. He qualified as both a physician and surgeon in 1878 and then, presumably feeling that the trouble over Flora Brooks had died down, returned to Canada and resided in London, Ontario. It wasn’t long before Cream picked up another suspected victim. Cream was subject to allegations of his having an affair with a local woman, Kate Gardener, and before long Gardener was found dead in an alleyway behind Cream’s surgery, pregnant and having been poisoned with chloroform with an empty bottle of the drug lying beside her body. Cream claimed Gardener was expecting the child of a prominent local businessman, but when Cream himself was accused of both trying to blackmail the businessman and of murdering Kate Gardener, he soon decided that Canada was no longer safe for him and moved south to the United States.

Cream arrived in Chicago, Illinois in 1880 and soon had a thriving practice not far from Chicago’s notorious red-light district, offering illegal abortions to Chicago’s prostitutes. It was in August of 1880 that he was again under suspicion after a local prostitute, Mary Ann Faulkner, died from suspected surgical complications after an illegal abortion that Cream was accused of performing. Cream managed to escape prosecution owing to the lack of evidence against him. In December, 1880, Cream was in yet more trouble after another of his patients, a Miss Stack, also died after having been treated by Cream. Cream was again under suspicion, especially when it emerged that he had tried to blackmail the local pharmacist who made up Miss Stack’s prescription by suggesting Miss Stack died from incorrectly prepared medicine rather than any treatment by Cream himself and demanding money to not make his allegations public.

Enter Mr. and Mrs. Stott, also from Chicago, in early 1881. Cream had taken Mrs. Stott as his mistress and both Dr Cream and Mrs. Stott felt that her husband had become too great an inconvenience to endure any longer. In July 1881, Daniel Stott went to Cream (presumably not suspecting his wife and Cream of being lovers) for a remedy to treat Stott’s epilepsy. Stott promptly died of strychnine poisoning. The death of Daniel Stott was first put down to natural causes, at least until emerged that Cream had tried (again) to blackmail the pharmacist who prepared the prescription by threatening to accuse him of botching the prescription’s preparation. Cream and Julia Stott were both arrested and Julia Stott then turned on her erstwhile lover, blamed him for supplying the strychnine with which she had poisoned her husband and promptly turned State’s evidence against him at his trial in the hope of avoiding a potential trial herself for capital murder. Cream was convicted of murder and was lucky to receive a life sentence rather than a date with the hangman, although that would itself come much later. Public opinion of the case was made clear when Daniel Stott’s grave suddenly acquired a new and anonymously paid-for tombstone bearing the words:

‘Daniel Stott, died aged 61 years, poisoned by his wife and Doctor Cream.’

Cream spent the next ten years in the feared Joliet Prison and was released in July 1891 when his sentence was commuted by State Governor Joseph Fifer. Cream’s brother had made a number of pleas for leniency (and has also been accused of paying a number of bribes to senior State officials) to secure Dr. Cream’s release (amazingly, Cream had still not been struck off the doctor’s register in spite of his immensely dubious record and reputation) and Cream sailed back to England, arriving at the port of Liverpool in early October 1891. Cream’s father had died in 1887 while Cream was still serving his sentence in Joliet and Cream inherited some $10,000 which he used to move from Liverpool to Lambeth (a poor and rather squalid borough of London) almost as soon as his ship had docked. It was now that his murderous urges would drive him to the first murder for which he was apprehended.

Cream made the acquaintance of a young East London prostitute named Ellen Donworth, only 19 years old and known to her clients (and presumably the police) as ‘Nellie’ on October 13, 1891. Finding Cream’s superficial charm attractive and being impressed by his being a doctor, she had no problems in drinking a “tonic” offered her by Cream on the pretext of improving her general health. In fact, it soon killed her as the tonic was heavily spiked with strychnine. Donworth fell ill that night and was dead the next day. Cream, always on the lookout for any opportunity for easy money, wrote to the coroner in charge the inquest and offered to name the murderer in exchange for a reward of 300,000 pounds, a truly impossible sum for the early 1890’s. Cream also tried yet another attempt at blackmail (using another assumed name) by writing to the head of the W.H. Smith chain of bookstores, Mr. W.F.D Smith, accusing him of poisoning Ellen Donworth and demanding money for his silence. The “Lambeth Poisoner” had now begun his final killing spree and this was only the beginning.

A week after Ellen Donworth died, Cream met another prostitute, a 27 year old named Matilda Clover who was also an alcoholic. Matilda Clover promptly became seriously ill and died the day after meeting Cream and her death was initially put down to her chronic alcohol problem. It wasn’t until later that her organs were examined and strychnine was found, nor was it known at the time that she had met Cream.

Cream seems to have had a dry spell until April 1892. Maybe his sadistic urges had been temporarily satiated, or maybe he felt he had to control them as too many unexplained and suspicious deaths would arouse too much unwelcome attention, even deaths among London’s prostitutes who are seldom top of police priorities even today. It was in April of 1892, after a vacation in Canada, that Cream returned to London and met another young prostitute, Louisa Harvey. Harvey wasn’t nearly as impressed by Cream as the unfortunate Ellen Donworth had been, nor did she have the slightest intention of taking the pills offered her by Cream under the guise of their being narcotics. Louisa Harvey simply pretended to swallow the pills he gave her and then threw them into the River Thames once she and Cream had parted company. Why she was so suspicious will never be known. Perhaps she had heard whispers on the prostitute grapevine about Cream, or maybe she just found him too creepy to be around and trust. Either way, it was her mistrust of Cream that was to deny him his latest victim and save her own life.

Sadly, Cream, like all serial killers, was not going to be put off for long. Later that same month he met not one, but two young prostitutes. Alice Marsh was only 21 years old, while her housemate Emma Shrivell, was only 18 when Cream talked his way into their home and, just before he left, gave them both a bottle of Guinness each. Both women would die in agony that same night. Thankfully these two unfortunates would be the deadly doctor’s final victims, as Cream had been seen leaving the house by a Police Constable Cumley, who was on night duty at the time..

Cream was finally caught through his own greed. He had his long-standing habit of killing people and then trying to blackmail entirely innocent people by threatening to blame his own murders on them unless they bought his silence, and on his return to London he became especially ambitious in his blackmail attempts. For example, after poisoning Ellen Donworth, Cream sent a demand for hush money to Frederick Smith, whose father had been First Lord of the Admiralty, one of the most senior posts in the Royal Navy. Frederick Smith had also recently been elected to the Parliamentary seat previously held by his father when he received a letter accusing him of murdering Donworth. Interestingly, the letter included a demand for an “attorney” to be retained in order to prevent the release of the “evidence” the letter writer (yet another of Cream’s many false names) claimed to have against Frederick Smith. “Attorney” is a name for a lawyer commonly used in North America (where Cream spent much of his life) but is seldom used in the UK where words such as “lawyer,” “barrister” and “counsel” are the most commonly-used words for the legal profession. Smith promptly sent the letter to the detectives at Scotland Yard.

Next in the blackmail train was an even more senior figure in London society, Countess Russell.  She was in the midst of an especially bitter and lurid series of lawsuits against her then-husband, Lord Russell (they would eventually divorce in 1900). She received a letter claiming that her estranged husband was the murderer of Ellen Donworth and that evidence proving this allegation was available for a price. Countess Russell showed the letter to her lawyer, Sir George Lewis, but later claimed to have lost it. Whether she lost the letter or destroyed it, nothing came of the letter, no money was paid and Lord Russell’s name was never brought up in relation to the Lambeth poisonings.

Another letter was sent to a noted doctor named William Broadbent (later Sir William Broadbent), accusing him of murdering Matilda Clover by poisoning. It was this that raised the first suspicions that Cream was what the London papers were by now calling the “Lambeth Poisoner.” What caught the attention of detectives was that, despite the death of Matilda Clover having been ruled as natural causes, Dr Broadbent was being accused of her murder by poison. It took very little time before Scotland Yard realized that, whoever the letter writer might be was probably also the “Lambeth Poisoner” as well on the grounds that the letter writer knew far more about the Lambeth poisonings than any innocent person was ever likely to.

There were other factors that also pointed very conclusively to Cream’s guilt and only served to increase police suspicions of him. For example, Cream met a detective from New York, who happened to be visiting London and who had heard of the “Lambeth Poisoner.” Cream, seemingly thinking he was too clever to be caught and thus above any suspicion at all, obligingly gave this detective a brief tour of where all the “Lambeth Poisoner’s” victims had lived and died. The detective mentioned the guided tour to one of his British hosts who found Cream’s in-depth knowledge of the case both highly surprising and equally suspicious. Soon, Scotland Yard had Cream under surveillance. They noted his fondness for employing prostitutes and also contacted their American colleagues asking whether Cream had a criminal record in the United States. Once they were informed of Cream’s 10 years in Joliet and much of his other unsavory history, they were swift to move in and Cream was finally arrested in July 1892 and charged with the murder of Matilda Clover.

Cream’s trial was a media frenzy. Journalists have always loved a good story, newspaper owners have always loved a story that boosted circulation figures. The trial of the “Lambeth Poisoner” was both. The court was packed with reporters and members of the public as Cream spent four days in October of 1892 on trial for his life. It was a futile fight, given the evidence against him. On October 21, and after deliberating for only 10 minutes, the jury brought in a guilty verdict, the judge donned the traditional Black Cap and then passed the sentence then standard for murder in a British court:

“Thomas Neill Cream, it is the sentence of this Court that you be taken from this place to a lawful prison and thence to a place of execution where you shall be hanged by the neck until you are dead, and that you body shall be cut down and buried within the precincts of the prison in which you were last confined before execution. And may the Lord have mercy upon your soul. Remove the prisoner.”

Things always moved far quicker in the UK for condemned inmates than they do in the USA nowadays. Before the last executions in the UK in August of 1964, prisoners were only entitled to a period of three Sundays between sentencing and execution unless an appeal to either the Home Secretary or the ruling monarch was successful. In Cream’s case, no clemency was forthcoming. On November 15, 1892, Thomas Neill Cream was woken at dawn in the condemned cells of Newgate Prison and led to the gallows by the chief public executioner, James Billington. Once Cream stood on the trapdoors, hooded, strapped and noosed, he is claimed to have uttered the final statement of ‘I am Jack the…’ as the trapdoors fell and he was immediately dead. Only Billington claimed to hear Cream’s final claim to have been history’s most infamous serial killer and it will never be known whether or not Cream was also Jack.

Cream’s motives for his series of crimes remain unclear. He’s been described as always being greedy for money (his repeated attempts at blackmail would tend to support this idea), that he was a rampant misogynist who killed women largely because he hated them, that he was simply a sadist who enjoyed inflicting pain and the feeling of power and omnipotence that serial killers often feel when taking a life. Personally, I believe that all of these factors have their role to play in Cream’s deeply disturbed and equally deadly mindset. He was certainly no friend of women in general and seems to have held them in contempt for much of his life, seldom making references to women that weren’t at best disparaging and at worst outright disturbing. And I wouldn’t doubt for a second that he secretly derived great pleasure from sneaking away from his later victims, enjoying the knowledge of what his pills and potions were going to do to these poor people. But the dominant motive in Cream’s case is, I would argue, sadism.

Britain was a poisoner’s paradise at the time Cream was plying his trade. Anybody over a certain age could buy pretty much any drug or poison he or she wanted to from any pharmacist. As long as the pharmacist had the required substance in stock, and was satisfied that the buyer wanted it for the purpose they claimed to want it for, then all that had to be done was for the buyer and seller to complete an entry in the Poisons Register required in all pharmacies after the introduction of the Arsenic Act in 1851.

The Arsenic Act, itself brought in to stem a seeming epidemic of arsenic poisoning cases and later extended to a wide variety of toxic substances, simply needed the pharmacist to record the buyer’s name, address, their purpose for buying a toxic substance, the amount purchased and the date the poison was sold. There was no requirement for a buyer to provide proof of identification and, as illiteracy was so prevalent among the mass of British people at that time, anyone who was unable to sign their own name (which was a great many people) only had to mark the Poisons Register with an X in order to satisfy the letter of the law. Coupled with the fact that even an ordinary pharmacy could sell poisons like arsenic, strychnine, cyanide, antimony and a wide range of lethal poisons over the counter, the well-intentioned (but ultimately futile) Arsenic Act was more like a poisoner’s charter than a meaningful means of stopping would-be murderers from buying the poison of their choice with virtually no questions asked.

Cream could thus buy large amounts of a great many poisons, including strychnine, and as a qualified doctor he could not have been unaware of the terrible effect that strychnine poisoning has upon a human victim. An amateur, without medical training, might choose strychnine simply because he or she knew it was a deadly poison, but Cream was a doctor and thus would have had a thorough working knowledge of the effects and symptoms of the common poisons of the day. His clear desire to inflict maximum suffering aside, the symptoms of strychnine poisoning are very similar to the symptoms of tetanus, a common disease in the UK at that time and one which can prove lethal if not correctly treated.

Again, Cream’s medical training would have ensured he knew this and, like the equally infamous “Rugeley Poisoner” and fellow doctor, William Palmer, also hanged for multiple poisoning murders, Cream could well have been hoping that the forensic detection methods available at the time (the standard of toxicology then beggars belief when compared with the standards and practices used today) might have provided a convenient smokescreen to cover the use of strychnine.

The symptoms of strychnine poisoning on a human being are, frankly, appalling. Approximately 10 to 20 minutes after taking the poison, the victim’s head and neck muscles start to spasm. The face spasms as well, giving rise to what doctors call “Risus Sardonicus,” the familiar grimace so common with strychnine poisoning and also tetanus and epileptic fits. Convulsions spread throughout the victim’s body and instantly become worse with even the slightest stimulus such as light or increase in room temperature.

The convulsions build until the victim is continuously racked with the entire body spasming to the point where only the victim’s head and heels will actually touch the floor. Other effects are lactic acidosis (a painful building of acid within the muscles), hyperthermia (a massive and swift increase in the victim’s temperature) and rhabdomyolysis (a breaking down of muscle fibres that leaches myoglobin into the bloodstream often resulting in kidney damage). Death is usually caused by either paralysis of the lungs resulting in suffocation or by extreme muscular exhaustion from the convulsions and usually occurs two to three hours after the victim has taken the initial dose. Throughout those hours the victim is usually at least partially conscious and always in the most excruciating pain. As such, strychnine is ertainly the perfect weapon of choice for anyone seeking not only to kill their victims, but also to inflict the maximum level of physical and mental anguish.

Cream is unusual in the pantheon of serial killers in that he possesses some of the traits of the classic serial killer, but he makes the relatively unusual choice of poison as a means for murder. There have been a number of serial poisoners both before and since Cream, but poison remains a relatively rare choice for anyone choosing to kill repeatedly for pleasure and/or profit.

In his later crimes, Cream seldom properly knew his victims, he had a preferred type of victim (prostitutes are often a favorite among serial killers even today), he possessed a number of psychopathic qualities such as superficial charm and warmth that readily concealed his darker side (especially to the more naïve and gullible of his victims) and, I’d argue was a particularly sadistic character owing to his use of strychnine in preference to the myriad of other poisons that are equally lethal, but nowhere near as painful, that he could have obtained just as easily.

As for Cream’s claim to being Jack the Ripper, I don’t think there’s much doubt that Cream was not. For starters, Cream was in Joliet Prison at the time of the Whitechapel murders if his prison records are to be believed, while we only have the word of the hangman James Billington that he even claimed to be Jack the Ripper. Given that a prison gallows is rarely more spacious than it needs to be and that the number of witnesses stood on and around the gallows was far larger than in later British hangings (reporters were still allowed to witness hangings in those days, and it wasn’t at all unusual for various legal officials, the prison chaplain, the prison doctor, the assistant hangman and a couple of prison guards to be standing round the trapdoors as the prisoner was hanged) it does seem unlikely, at best, that James Billington could have heard Cream claim to be Jack when not a single other witness did anything but deny hearing him when asked later by reporters.

Billington wasn’t always quite as discreet as they could have been, and at the time of the Cream hanging in 1892 he was still allowed to talk openly about his work. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that reporters were banned from witnessing executions and even then the policy was left at the discretion of prison Governors and not simply enforced across the board by the Home Office or the Prison Commissioners . Furthermore, it wasn’t for another 20 years that British executioners were banned completely from giving interviews to reporters, Albert Pierrepoint being something of an exception to the rule. So I’d argue that there’s a strong likelihood that James Billington may have been a little creative when discussing the execution with reporters, probably in the hope of providing a more saleable story.

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