Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Lambeth Poisoner

Between October 1891 and April 1892 a series of murders in London racked the city with a terror reminiscent of the fear surrounding Jack the Ripper’s murders, just three years earlier. Once again the victims were prostitutes but this time the method was poisoning. The killer was captured and identified as Dr. Thomas Neill Cream, who had already been convicted of murder by strychnine in the United States. In fact, if he had not been released early from Chicago’s Joliet Prison, four young London women would have been spared excruciating death.

Date: June 11, 1881

Location:  Belvidere, Illinois

Victim: Daniel Stott and at least four others.

Cause of Death:  Poisoning

Accused:  Dr. Thomas Neill Cream

Thomas Neill Cream was born in Glasgow, Scotland in 1850 and emigrated with his family to Canada in 1854. His father, William Cream, became the manager of a lumber and shipbuilding firm in Quebec and was successful enough to send Thomas to McGill University in Montreal.

At McGill, Thomas studied medicine with an emphasis on pharmaceuticals. He graduated in 1876 after completing a thesis on the effects of chloroform. Around the same time he became engaged to Flora Eliza Brooks whose father, Lyman Henry Brooks, owned a small hotel outside Quebec City. That September Flora became ill and her father had her examined by a physician who told him that Eliza had recently undergone an abortion. Enraged, Lyman Brooks forced Thomas to marry his daughter at gunpoint.

Leaving his new wife behind, Thomas Cream went to the British Isles to further his studies. In 1878 he qualified for a license in midwifery from The Royal Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons in Edinburgh. While he was away, Flora contracted bronchitis and in August 1877 died of consumption. Her death would later be viewed with suspicion since Cream had prescribed medicine for her before he left and told her to take nothing else.

Cream returned to Canada and began a private medical practice in London, Ontario. In May 1879, Kate Gardener, one of his patients was found dead in an outhouse behind his office. She had died of an overdose of chloroform. At the inquest her roommate, Sarah Long, testified that Kate had been pregnant and had gone to Dr. Cream to “bring her right.” Cream claimed he was treating her for “senescence” and had not given her an abortifacient. He concluded her death was suicide.

There was not enough evidence to indict Cream, but his reputation was damaged when Sarah Long testified that he not only gave her medicine, but suggested that money could be made by accusing a wealthy resident of her boardinghouse of being the father of her child. A doctor testified that it would be impossible for a person attempting suicide to hold a chloroform soaked sponge over her own nose long enough to cause death. The coroner’s jury ruled the death was murder by persons unknown. Dr. Cream quickly left for America.

Cream moved to Chicago and set up a practice near the notorious red light district in the West Side. By 1880, Dr. Cream was known to Chicago police as an abortionist, sometimes assisted by an African-American midwife named Hattie Mack. In August of that year Mack hastily moved out of her Madison Street apartment; soon after the decomposing body of Mary Ann Faulkner was found in the apartment.

Mack was arrested and quickly turned on Cream. She confirmed that he was an abortionist who had performed as many as fifteen abortions from a single sporting house. He told her he had performed at least 500 abortions in total. Mack claimed that Cream had forced her to take in Faulkner while she recovered. Cream countered that Mack had come to him for help after she had tried an abortion with instruments on Faulkner. Cream was tried for murder, but the jury was unwilling to take the word of black woman against a handsome young doctor. Cream was acquitted.

Later that month another of Cream’s patients died after taking medicine he had prescribed. He tried place the blame and extort money from the druggist who filled the prescription, Frank Pyatt. Pyatt went to the police but the investigation was inconclusive. Cream had also tried to blackmail one of his patients who had not paid his bill.

Murder Again
In February 1881, Mrs. Julia Stott, from Belvidere, Illinois, came to Dr. Cream’s office to obtain pills for her husband, Daniel, after seeing an advertisement Cream had placed for a cure for epilepsy. Daniel began to show signs of improvement, and Julia returned several times for more pills. In June, Daniel died and epileptic seizure was given as the cause of death. Cream telegraphed the coroner saying the real cause of death was an error made by the pharmacist who filled the prescription. He also helped Julia Stott file a law suit against the druggist. The skeptical coroner gave a sample of the prescription to a dog. Fifteen minutes later the dog was dead. Daniel Stott was exhumed and it was found that Stott’s stomach and intestines contained enough strychnine to kill him three times over. This knowledge did not have the effect that Cream hoped; he, not the druggist, was charged with the murder of Daniel Stott.

Cream fled to Canada but was arrested in Belle Riviere, Ontario and returned to Belvedere, to stand trial.

Trial: September 1881

Thomas Cream was disowned by his father. Though his brother and sister provided a little financial support, Cream could not afford the quality of legal counsel that he was used to. Julia Stott turned state’s evidence and told the court that Cream had seduced her. He had come up with the plan to poison her husband and blackmail the drug company. Cream had tampered with the pills and when her husband took them he died almost instantly.

Another witness, Mary McClellan, testified that she heard Cream talking about Stott’s murder before it was reported. It was not public knowledge, but Cream had seduced, aborted and abandoned Mary McClellan’s daughter.

Cream countered that the wrong person was on trial. Julia Stott was a bad woman who had uttered threats against her husband and had tampered with the pills herself. This time the jury did not believe Cream and he was found guilty of murder.

Verdict:  Guilty of murder

Thomas Neill Cream was sentenced to life at the Illinois State Penitentiary at Joliet, with one day each year in solitary confinement, “for the rest of his natural life.” Cream served ten years of this sentence, then in 1891, shortly after inheriting $16,000 at his father’s death, he was declared, “a fit and proper subject for executive clemency.” His sentence was reduced to 17 years and, with time off for good behavior, he was released soon after. It is assumed that payments were made by Cream’s brother to leading Illinois politicians to secure his release.

Cream tried to track down Julia Stott for revenge, even employing the Pinkerton Detective Agency, but eventually gave up the search and moved to England. Prison had not rehabilitated Cream; he had become obsessed with women and had picked up a severe drug habit. Someone who knew him in London described Cream this way.

Women were his preoccupation and his talk of them far from agreeable. He carried pornographic photographs, which he was ready to display. He was in the habit of taking pills, which, he said, were compounded of strychnine, morphia, cocaine, and of which effect, he declared, was aphrodisiac. In short he was a degenerate of filthy habits and practices.

On October 13, 1891 a 19-year-od prostitute named Ellen Donworth died of strychnine poisoning. A week later a 27-year-old prostitute named Matilda Clover died of what was believed to be alcoholism. At the time there was nothing to link Cream to these deaths, but there is evidence that he tried to blackmail some prominent citizens concerning Donworth’s death.

After a trip back to Canada—during which Cream bought 500 strychnine pills from a drug company in Saratoga, New York—Cream returned to London and the poisonings resumed. Two more young prostitutes, Alice Marsh and Emma Shrivell were murdered by strychnine. The killer was now referred to as the “Lambeth Poisoner” in the press.

Cream’s attempt to blackmail two innocent doctors for the murder of Matilda Clover brought him to the attention of the police. Since Clover had supposedly died of natural causes, the case was reopened and Cream was charged with her murder. On October 21, 1892 he was convicted and sentenced to hang.

Dr. Thomas Neill Cream was hanged at Newgate Prison on November 15, 1892. According the executioner, James Billington, Cream’s last words, before being interrupted by the noose, were:
“I am Jack…”
The implication was that Dr. Cream was Jack the Ripper. This would have been impossible because Cream was still in Joliet Prison in 1888 when the Whitechapel murders took place. Some still believe this theory, saying Cream had a double serving his prison sentence. More likely the quote was a hoax perpetrated by the executioner.



Mclaren, Angus.A Prescription for Murder: The Victorian Serial Killings of Dr. Thomas Neill Cream (The Chicago Series on Sexuality, History, and Society). New Ed ed. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1995.


Amelia says:
October 9, 2012 at 4:41 AM

Hi there! I came across this article and noticed you have Belvedere, Illinois as the location of Mrs. Julia Stott's residence. However, the city is Belvidere, Illinois - which happens to be my hometown!

Robert Wilhelm says:
October 10, 2012 at 7:49 AM

Thanks Amelia, I have made the correction.

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