While at McGill University, Thomas Neil Cream listened assiduously when he was told that doctors must be godlike in their professional capacities. Accepting that lesson as a literal directive, he assumed the role of the omnipotent and omniscient adjudicator of human worth.
In “The Case of the Murderous Dr. Cream,” Dean Jobb recounts a tale of fact that reads more like the best of murder/mystery fiction. As we travel from one side of the Atlantic to the other and back again, we encounter an array of characters who exemplify the best, and worst, of the Victorian era. There is something for just about every taste: the accretion of clues which are either misinterpreted, never interconnected, or simply ignored; the involvement of Conan Doyle and Joseph Bell; the professional rivalry between miasma proponents and antisepsis theorists; the questioning of medical expert testimony; the nascent field of forensic science, toxicology, and handwriting analysis; the stigmatization of the lower classes – especially women of questionable morals; and, above all, the use and abuse of alkaloid poisons.
Born in Scotland, Cream earned a MDCM (Medicinae Doctorem et Chirurgiae Magistrum) degree after acceptance of his doctoral thesis on chloroform from McGill University in 1876. He went first to England to continue his training at St. Thomas’s Hospital Medical School in London and then, in 1878, obtained additional qualification as an obstetrician in Edinburgh before returning to North America.
The terms psychopath and serial killer were not widely applied to individuals exhibiting extreme antisocial behavior until the 1980s. Had they been, Cream would be a prime example. Among the prime attributes of such individuals is their ability to avoid detection and evade punishment. Cream appeared in court no less than 7 times before he was finally stopped!
It is uncertain how many people, primarily marginalized women, were killed by Cream. He nearly killed his own wife performing an abortion; she died shortly after of consumption. He was the consummate misogynist who was happy to display his collection of pornographic photos to one and all. He did not hesitate to pronounce that society would be much better without the presence of the lower classes, especially prostitutes. At the same time, he was a frequent patron of houses of ill repute.
Another aspect of his pathology was his penchant to blackmail and libel strangers for the very crimes he committed. Though he usually failed to collect any money, he managed to escape conviction.
His own hubris led to a conviction that should have ended his career but didn’t. In 1881, a man, poisoned with strychnine by Cream, was presumed to have died of an epileptic seizure; the coroner saw no need for an autopsy. Inconceivably, Cream sent a series of messages to the coroner stating that the man had been poisoned. The coroner eventually had the body exhumed, performed an autopsy, and determined the cause of death as strychnine poisoning. Cream was tried, convicted, and given a life sentence to be served in Joliet Prison. This should have been the end of his killing spree, however, after a few years, Cream received a pardon from the governor for good behavior.
Upon his return to England, Cream continued his killing spree. He has earned his place in Madam Tussaud’s and in the 1970s Reader’s Digest list of the greatest criminals of the modern era. One tabloid of the time christened him the Jack the Ripper of Poisons.