The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A true-crime columnist turns his attention to Victorian-era serial killer Thomas Neill Cream

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These days, when our insane gun laws permit horrific mass shootings, the notorious murder cases of the Victorian era can sometimes seem almost cozy. The studies in scarlet of a William Roughead — the early-20th-century grandmaster of true-crime writing — evoke the same peaty, round-the-fire atmosphere we associate with Sherlock Holmes mysteries or classic ghost stories. We shiver a little, feel sorry for the unfortunate victims and take another sip of our whisky or hot cocoa.

Perhaps only Jack the Ripper, the terror of London’s Whitechapel district during the autumn of 1888, truly haunts our collective imagination. Because “saucy Jack” was never apprehended, his identity continues to invite endless, often far-fetched speculation. A few Ripperologists even regard Thomas Neill Cream — the subject of Dean Jobb’s “The Case of the Murderous Dr. Cream” — as a likely candidate, partly because the convicted serial poisoner’s last words were reportedly “I am Jack . . .” Alas, whatever Cream meant to say next is lost because at that moment the scaffold’s trapdoor opened.

Jack the Ripper’s identity has been endlessly scrutinized. His victims were largely forgotten.

All attempts to link him to the Whitechapel atrocities, however, instantly confronted a seemingly immovable stumbling block: That grisly fall of 1888, Cream was serving a life sentence in the Illinois State Penitentiary at Joliet. Case dismissed? Not necessarily. Undaunted, some true believers improbably contend that Cream had a twin or double who took his place in prison. Still, would a knife-wielding slasher later alter his modus operandi to strychnine poisoning? This seems psychologically unlikely. Whatever the truth, Cream proves Sherlock Holmes’s observation that when a doctor goes wrong, “he is the first of criminals. He has nerve and he has knowledge.”

Jobb opens his account of Cream’s life and known crimes on the last day of July 1891, when this graduate of McGill University’s medical school walked out of Joliet after serving 10 years for a blackmail-murder scheme. Following a quick visit to his well-to-do family in Canada, Cream then set sail for London, where he had previously pursued an advanced degree at St. Thomas’s hospital in Lambeth. He arrived there in late September or early October.

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Two weeks later, on Oct. 13, a young Lambeth prostitute named Ellen Donworth took ill, shaking and twitching in agony. Before she died, Donworth told her landlady that “a tall, dark, cross-eyed man gave me something to drink,” some kind of “white stuff.” A week later, on Oct. 21, another streetwalker, Matilda Clover, was found in her room screaming in pain and racked by seizures. “That man Fred has poisoned me,” she gasped. “He gave me some pills.” The pills were supposed to protect her from venereal disease.

In both cases, the London police did nothing. Donworth’s death was put down as suicide, Clover’s attributed to alcoholism.

That same October, a well-dressed gentleman wearing thick spectacles accosted Louisa Harvey outside the Alhambra Theatre. The two spent the night together and he paid her an extravagant three pounds. The next day, they met again and enjoyed some wine at the Northumberland Arms public house (which, by the way, is now the Sherlock Holmes Pub, famous for its re-creation of the detective’s sitting room). Agreeing to rendezvous at a music hall at 11 p.m., the kind gentleman — who explained that he was a doctor — gave Harvey two pills that would clear up her spotty complexion. Before they parted, he insisted that she swallow them.

Instead, Harvey — no fool she — palmed the pills and later dropped them into the Thames. In the evening she waited for the doctor, but he never showed up. “It was,” writes Jobb, “as if he had never expected her to keep their appointment.”

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That same November, Cream was introduced to the respectable Laura Sabbatini and, following a whirlwind courtship, she agreed to marry him. Two months later, in January 1892, her new fiance briefly returned to Canada and while there noticed that a maid in his Quebec City hotel looked a bit peaked. After trying one of the two pills Cream generously offered her, she experienced a burning pain in her stomach and quite sensibly threw away the other. In March, the pragmatic doctor purchased a bulk order of various narcotics and poisons, mainly strychnine, from a New York drug dealer, then booked a first-class passage back to London. Losing no time, in April he managed to poison two more prostitutes, both on the same evening. Finally detecting a pattern, the London police started searching for a mysterious cross-eyed medical gentleman, possibly known as Fred.

At this point, let me stress, Jobb’s book has only just begun.

A true-crime columnist for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine as well as an author and professor of journalism at Nova Scotia’s University of King’s College, Jobb writes clean, efficient sentences and re-creates Cream’s heartless life in short, highly dramatic chapters. Though subtitled “The Hunt for a Victorian Era Serial Killer,” his book could be described more accurately as Scotland Yard’s quest for the evidence that would convict the one man they suspected all along. It is now thought that this homicidal medico either tried to kill or successfully did kill at least 15 women and one man in three countries: Canada, the United States and England. It was the poisoning of the lone man — wouldn’t you know it — that led to Cream’s prison time at Joliet.

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But why did Thomas Neill Cream murder people? No one can say for sure, since the doctor maintained his innocence to the end and would admit only to occasional extortion schemes. (He actually persuaded his naive fiancee Laura to pen some of his bizarrely inept blackmail letters — just a little joke, he told her.) Even at his final trial the brazenly self-assured Cream remained convinced he would be acquitted. Still, unlike the shadowy and elusive Jack the Ripper, the serial poisoner had done little to cover his tracks, and this time Scotland Yard got their man.

Michael Dirda reviews books for Style every Thursday.

The Case of the Murderous Dr. Cream

The Hunt for a Victorian Era Serial Killer

By Dean Jobb

Algonquin. 432 pp. $27.95

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