Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Dr. Thomas Neil Cream

Returning to London

"Evil be thou my Good."

— John Milton

Prisoner 4374 walked through Joliet Prison's castellated gate to freedom on July 21, 1891. His early release was made possible by two things: the intervention of his brother, Daniel, who pleaded with Illinois politicians for leniency, and the corruption of the state penal system through which bribery could be obtained. According to Henri le Caron, a Joliet employee, "Money could accomplish anything, from the obtaining of luxuries in prison to the purchase of pardon... Everything connected with the prison administration was rotten to the core."

Upon release, Cream journeyed to Canada to thank his brother for his services on his behalf and to collect a sizeable inheritance ($16,000) left him by the passing of his father. Some of the money had already been greased to Senator Fuller and Governor Fifer of Illinois to hasten the doctor's liberty, but Cream still had plenty with which to start a new life abroad. He had determined to return to the intriguing atmosphere of London.

In Quebec, Daniel and his wife were taken aback when Cream appeared at their door; prison life had etched itself across his face and form and nipped his disposition. Forty, he looked much older. His once full head of hair had ebbed to the center of his dome, his skin had weathered, and he wore a chronic glower. Watery, yellow eyes and a nervous gait indicated signs of drug use. The once-trimmed mustache grew raggedy. His once agile build had drooped around the middle. He complained of throbbing headaches. When he talked, he rattled, and Daniel's wife found him irritating. Most of all, she could not abide his constant disparaging remarks about women. She could not wait for him to leave.

He departed Canadian shores in the middle of September, 1891, on the S.S. Teutonic arriving in Liverpool on October 1.

*****

London, despite all its misgivings, was the queen of the British Empire, and the British Empire was the queen of the world. During Victoria's reign, London was a rare moment in time, an ideal of the then-modern city, a mentor, a trophy. An artist's visualization, a statesman's pride, a decorum of bearing, London was a magnificent city. Its fog that hung about it served only to preserve it in a chalk-color of phantasmagoric majesty.

Its physical self was awesome. Michael Jenner, in London Heritage, describes the city as a "predominantly Gothic image," which left behind "a vast architectural legacy (that) coincided neatly with the accession of Queen Victoria in 1837 and became the hallmark for at least the first fifty years of her reign."

In London — A Social History, author Roy Porter alludes to a description of the city by journalist Henry Mayhew after viewing it from a balloon. Wrote Mayhew: "It was a wonderful sight to behold that vast brick mass of churches and hospitals, banks and prisons, palaces and workhouses, docks and refuges for the destitute, parks and squares, and courts and alleys, which make up London...to take, as it were, an angel's view of that huge town where, perhaps, there is more virtue and more iniquity, more wealth and more want, brought together into one dense focus than in any other part of the earth."

*****

Arriving in London, Cream stayed at Anderson's Hotel on Fleet Street, but a few days later moved his belongings to a first-floor-front apartment at 103 Lambeth Palace Road, South London, in the neighborhood he had lived during his previous stay in the city, not far from St. Thomas' Hospital. Lambeth was a triangular patch of run-down public houses, apartment buildings and meager industry bound on the north by the Thames, and across from it, Blackfriars and Lambeth roads. Connecting it to the central part of London, across the river, was the huge Waterloo Bridge. Along Albert Embankment on the Lambeth side, rose Waterloo Station, from where thousands of suburban commuters emerged each morning to make their way on foot across the bridge to their workplace in the city.

Victorian London (The Queen's London)
Victorian London (The Queen's London)

"Lambeth's streets smelled of fish shops, jam factories and hop yards — the smells of the slum," reads Prescription for Murder by Angus McLaren. "Charles Booth (the founder of the Salvation Army), who studied the area in 1890s, described its narrow streets and damp courts as harboring 'poverty, dirt and sin.' The sidewalks were clogged with swarms of 'dirty and often sore-eyed' children hovered over by mothers in filthy trailing skirts and shawls...Bread, margarine and tea had to serve the basis of most meals. Meat sold in Lambeth Walk on Sunday was not fit for sale on Monday. Milk was adulterated or, if purchased by the tin, devoid of vitamins...The parish's overall mortality rate was 27.7 per 1,000 as compared to 19.3 for the rest of the metropolis."

Unemployment was high; the only institutions inside its borders that hired sizeable staffs were the Royal Hospital for Children and St. Thomas' Hospital — and these workers were largely professional who lived elsewhere.

Gaiety never seemed to lack, however. As mentioned earlier, Lambeth proffered plenty of amusement, whether in women, spirit or song. Most popular were the Canterbury, Old Vic, or Gatti's music halls, which drew revelers from all across London to their gas-lit portals beyond Waterloo Bridge.

In London, Cream found that the headaches he had been suffering since his confinement in Joliet were worsening. He had always had slightly crossed eyes, which he never bothered to correct; but only lately did he notice that his vision had become somewhat blurred. On October 9, he paid a visit to optician James Atchison's Fleet Street shop, where Atchison diagnosed his problem as extreme hypermyopia and recommended spectacles to regulate the imbalance of his eyes and improve his sight. While his focus clarified, the headaches did not let up. He began ingesting low-grain morphine, which, when under its spell, gave his face a clenched look and his eyes a squint.

*****

Thomas Neill Cream needed an outlet and his outlet became obvious. Posing as a resident doctor from St. Thomas and signing his name "Thomas Neill, MD," Cream back in Lambeth "practically confined his activities, finding there the victims whose slaughter brought him to the scaffold," asserts W. Teignmouth Shore in the Trial of Neill Cream. Now with thick-lens spectacles and a balding head he did not look like the young devil-may-care charmer he had been more than a decade previously. That, in fact, was his aim: To take on the mien of a sagacious professor to whom women would listen — and believe — and trust.

The first unfortunate person to encounter the city's newest sage was pretty 19-year-old prostitute Ellen "Nellie" Donworth. The daughter of a laborer, Ellen had taken to the streets of Lambeth after finding her life as a capper in the Vauxhall Bottle Factory a drudgery. In 1891, she shared a room near Commercial Street with army private Ernest Linnell, who didn't seem to mind her occupation. About six o'clock on the evening of October 13, she left her abode telling charwoman Annie Clements that she was off to see a gentleman whom she had recently met.

After the sun set on London, friend Constance Linfield noticed Ellen and a "topper," the term for a well-dressed gentleman of the era, emerge arm in arm from an unlit courtyard behind the Wellington Public House, but paid them little attention. Not much later, another friend, James Styles spotted Ellen alone, barely able to stand erect, leaning on a gate on Morpeth Place. Assuming she was drunk, and perhaps might have fallen (for she seemed to be in pain), Styles braced her until they reached her lodging house. By the time he got her to her bed, she was convulsing and grabbing her abdomen and chest in torment. "That gentleman with whiskers and a tophat gave me a drink twice out of a bottle with white stuff in it!" she sobbed.

While Ellen's landlady and others, including soldier Linnell, remained with her, Styles fetched an intern named Johnson from nearby Lambeth Medical Institute; by the time Johnson arrived, Ellen's spasms were so terrible that her company could not keep her in place as she writhed across the mattress and gasped for breath. The medic recognized her symptoms immediately as system poisoning. Police arrived and, on Johnson's orders, removed her to St. Thomas Hospital. She died in the carriage on the way.

A postmortem two days later uncovered lethal doses of strychnine in her stomach. Coroner Thomas Herbert confirmed that her last several hours must have been spent in agonizing pain.

Angus McLaren's Prescription for Murder paints a horrid description of the agony effected by strychnine intake: "The most terrifying aspect...is that although the convulsions are terrible, you do not lose consciousness; in fact, the mental faculties are largely unimpaired until death ensues. You know you are dying. The first symptoms are feelings of apprehension and terror followed by muscle stiffness, twitching of the face, and finally tetanic convulsions of the entire body. The body relaxes, and then the spasms strike again. You have a sense of being suffocated. Indeed, death is actually caused by anoxia — lack of oxygen due to contraction of the lungs. All the muscles go rigid and the face and lips turn blue. Death occurs in one to three hours, the face fixed in a macabre grin..."

Cream purchased the tools of his trade — the strychnine and other forms of poison — from Priest's Chemists, 22 Parliament Street. Because he was a certified doctor attending a run of lectures at St. Thomas (or so he fabricated) he had no trouble getting what he wanted. As, by law, he was required to sign the weekly register of sales, we are able to trace each deadly order. In retrospect, he prepared well for Ellen Donworth's demise and others. During the first week of October, for example, he made a purchase of nux vomica in liquid form (containing two alkaloids, brocine and strychnine). Around Saturday the 10th, he ordered gelatin capsules which, when he picked them up on the 13th, he judged to be too large, and returned them for a box of the smaller "No. 5," or Planter's, capsules. Donworth, who died October 13, appears to have been killed by the fluid that he mixed into a drink. His next victim, streetwalker Matilda Clover, most certainly perished after taking the gelatins.

Matilda Clover (The British Library)
Matilda Clover
(The British Library)

Twenty-seven-year-old Clover, brown-eyed, slightly buck-toothed and with a pleasant smile, lived at 27 Lambeth Road with her two-year-old son, landlords Mr. and Mrs. Vowles, and a servant girl, Lucy Rose. The boy's father had left Matilda, forcing her to the streets in order to make her monthly rent as well as afford an alcoholic habit. To her credit, a week before she was killed, she had begun visiting a Dr. Graham for her drink infliction. To calm her recklessness, he had prescribed a sedative, bromide of potassium.

Much of what occurred immediately before and during the night of October 20 comes from eyewitness, Lucy Rose, who gave her testimony at the inquest to come. Clover left her room after dark that evening; quite chipper, probably, Lucy figured, to meet a man named Fred — that's all she knew about him. The only reason she was privy to this piece of information was due to snooping: While dusting her room the day before she had noticed a note lying on Miss Clover's bureau that read, to the best of her recollection:

"Meet me outside the Canterbury at 7:30 if you can come clean and sober. Do you remember the night I brought you your boots? You were so drunk that you could not speak to me. Please bring this paper and envelope with you. Yours, Fred."

Clover returned home with a man sometime about 9 p.m. "There was an oil lamp in the hall which did not give a very good light," Lucy remembered, but the glow was solid enough for her to ascertain a tall man in whiskers, wearing a silk hat and a frock coat with a cape. Leaving the gentleman in her room, she went out by herself for ale. Later — Lucy was unsure of the time — the man left alone.

Sometime around 3 a.m., the entire house was roused by Clover's screams. When Lucy and the Vowles couple entered her quarters, they found her naked, "all of a twitch" upon her bed. She gagged and started vomiting. Contorted in agony, grabbing the bed-posts, she was yelling that that Fred had given her pills that she knew now were poisoned.

Doctors were summoned, but could do nothing to save her. Matilda Clover died in a paroxysm of pain at approximately seven in the morning.

Unfortunately, her death was not officially recorded as murder. Her physician, Dr. Graham, diagnosed that the woman had succumbed by mixing an excessive amount of liquor — most likely brandy — with the sedative he had prescribed, a response that would have, he claimed, produced the same bodily fits she suffered. In short, he wrote her expiration off as "primarily, delirium tremens; secondly, syncope."

Had the doctor been more of a reader of newspapers he might have come across an article entitled, "The Lambeth Mystery," about Miss Donworth's strange convulsions a week previously that matched Clover's. In Donworth's case, the police had rightfully marked it as cold-blooded murder.

Why the authorities chose not to follow up Clover's dying testimony about the mysterious Fred and his poison is anyone's guess. Lucy Rose even admitted to them that Clover confessed she had met a man who promised to give her pills to prevent venereal disease, and that she now believed that man may have been Fred. But, not for six months would Matilda Clover be considered the second victim in what would be a series of similar poisonings in South London. When Clover's cheap coffin was placed in the ground at Tooting Cemetery on October 22, neither the Metropolitan Police nor Scotland Yard anticipated that they had what would be called today a "serial murderer" on their hands.

Here again, we must consider the mentality of the times — and its irony. Clover was a prostitute, and prostitutes in Victorian London died nightly by the hands of jackals they solicited; that was their life, they lived dangerously. When they were found dead, many an upright London family reading about the murders in The London Times, considered such tragedies a percentage factor. The common Londoner was not without remorse — he proved that in his sympathy for the street-women mutilated by Jack the Ripper in Whitechapel in 1888 — but he was without patience when it came to governmental hypocrisy. Statesmen condemned prostitution, but it thrived; even after the attention brought to it in the Whitechapel aberration, it thrived.

"Prostitution seems to have been a fairly flourishing trade, with clients among the most respectable," W.J. Reader tells us in Life in Victorian England. "In London...shops and more or less respectable houses in the Strand and Haymarket advertised 'beds to let' by day; in the evening, (men of all classes) might be seen entering and leaving in considerable numbers. In 1882, a select committee of the House of Lords remarked that 'juvenile prostitution, from an almost incredibly early age, is increasing to an appalling extent... especially in London.'"

But, the police found prostitutes a black mark on their beat. The London bobby "devoted decades to making the lives of such women as difficult as possible" adds Angus McLaren. "In the 1870s (constables) closed down numerous casinos and dancing rooms, driving prostitutes into the more dangerous trade on the streets. In the 1880s the police pursued them into the public thoroughfares, employing vagrancy laws to arrest those simply suspected of soliciting."

In November, 1881, a month after he slew Miss Clover, Dr. Cream — or as London knew him, Dr. Neill — received a telegram from his family asking him to come home for the final disbursement of his father's property. He made necessary arrangements for the trip, including establishing a relationship with refined Laura Sabbatini. He had met her on an excursion to Hertfordshire and, realizing he was no longer a young man, the strange twist of personalities that was Thomas Neill Cream decided he wanted a respectable, pretty wife whom he could show off in society. Before he left England, he insured himself a place in her heart by funding Laura's dream enterprise, as a designer of dresses for the West End crowd. Besides that, he escorted her and her near-deaf mother around London, treating them to dinner in elegant restaurants and showing them the finer landmarks.

Kissing her goodbye at the Liverpool docks, he boarded the SS Sernia on January 7, 1892. He planned to return to London soon.

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