Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Dr. Thomas Neil Cream

The Noose

"Be sure your sin will find you out."

— The Bible

Without him seeing it, a net was closing in on Dr. Cream. As he had stalked prostitutes in Lambeth, he was now being tracked by London police, silently. But, the law was about to climb on his boot heels and not let go until his feet dangled. It was what Robert Anderson, head of the Central Investigation Department (C.I.D.), wanted. Exasperated by its longevity, he mandated the Lambeth Poisoner case to be solved. He wanted results. Results generated quickly.

Authorities took several important steps in the wake of John Haynes' interview with Patrick McIntyre. For one, Scotland Yard discovered through passports that the suspicious doctor's real name was not Neill, but Cream, and that he stemmed from Canada. Second, plainclothesmen commenced a round-the-clock tail on said suspect. Third, morgue records and missing person's files were dredged and local citizens interviewed for whatever information anyone could tell the police about the supposed death of someone named Lou Harvey. Next, the Home Secretary issued an exhumation order for the corpse of Matilda Clover. Finally, Scotland Yard sent one of its top investigators, Frederick Jarvis, to North America to research the personal background of suspect Thomas Neill Cream.

Justice Hawkins (W H Bustin)
Justice Hawkins
(W H Bustin)

Officer Comley, the policeman who had exchanged good nights to a topper fitting Cream's description leaving Alice Marsh and Emma Shrivell's apartment building the night of the murders, was assigned to the plainclothes unit to follow Cream closely. He soon reported to his commander, George Harvey of L Division, that Cream spent many evenings outside the Canterbury Music Hall,'"watching women very narrowly indeed." After dark on May 12, Comley, along with Sergeant Alfred Ward, watched Cream buy the services of a prostitute near the Elephant and Castle, St. George's Road, and followed them to her home on Elliott's Row. They lingered outside until he left, but fortunately for the girl, there had been no incident of violence. Nevertheless, the police were gaining information on Cream's nocturnal activities, his routes, his habits.

Sergeant Ward sought out Lucy Rose who had worked as a chambermaid at the apartment where Matilda Clover had lived, and who remembered seeing "Fred," Clover's elusive boyfriend whom she brought home that fatal night. Her description matched that of Cream's.

As is the case with most professions, prostitutes have an internal network; they know each other, if not by name, then by appearance, location and reputation. Victorian London's prostitutes, at a time when Jack the Ripper and Dr. Cream were killing them, inherently banded together for protection. After the shocking Stamford Street slayings, Lambeth streetwalkers began freely communicating with the police.

Two women came forward with a startling piece of information. Eliza Masters and Lizzie May by names, they had acquainted Dr. Neill back on October 6 at Ludgate Circus, permitting him to buy them drinks at King Lud's Castle pub; they chatted a while, considering him a harmless, friendly chap, and impressed by his elegant clothing, manner and open pocketbook. Before they parted that evening, he promised to stop by at their lodging in Lambeth the following week to treat them to a night on the town. Several days later, as promised, he contacted Masters at the Oriental Rowhouses on Hercules Road and told her he was coming to visit. Both women primped and waited, but he never showed. However, that same afternoon they saw him in the company of another of their occupation: Matilda Clover.

"Matilda Clover's body was exhumed on May 6," writes Angus McLaren in Prescription for Murder. "Fourteen coffins had to be taken out of the paupers' grave before hers could be removed. Dr. Thomas Stevenson undertook the autopsy. The grave was dry and the body remarkably well preserved. Stevenson spent three weeks carrying out the complicated process of shredding the internal organs, dissolving them in methylated spirit, and boiling, cooling and filtering the residue. He found that six months after her death, Matilda Clover's viscera still contained about one-sixteenth of a grain of strychnine. Probably about as much again had been vomited up. The residue... appeared purple when color tested. A frog injected with the fluid found in the corpse's stomach, liver, brain and chest died within a matter of minutes in the throes of the characteristic symptoms of strychnine poisoning — tetanic convulsions. The autopsy left no doubt in Stevenson's mind that Clover had been poisoned."

Last but not least, revelations from Canada began to roll in, compliments of Inspector Jarvis. They told of a man, Thomas Neill Cream, whose wife died mysteriously after he'd sent her pills for her illness; who had been under suspicion of murder in Ontario; had most assuredly killed prostitutes in Chicago, and had, through political chicanery, been released prematurely from prison where he was serving a life sentence for murdering an intervening man in Illinois.

After obtaining samples of Dr. Cream's handwriting and comparing them with the extortion letters that followed each murder, the London constabulary arrested Cream on June 3, on suspicion of blackmail. They booked him at the Bow Street Police Station and he was forthwith charged with extortion at the Magistrate's Court. Incarcerated at Holloway Prison, North London, he refused to speak but only to exclaim his innocence. Actually the police had next to nothing to prove his guilt for either extortion or murder — and he knew it — but, Anderson, the C.I.D. chief, had manipulated the arrest as an excuse to detain him in the city in the hopes that the ongoing investigation would turn up something heady.

During the subsequent inquest of Martha Clover's death, pieces of damaging testimony indeed built, built until a solid and frightening picture began to materialize of Thomas Neill Cream. The inquiry commenced at Vestry Hall, in Tooting (near the site of her interment), on June 22. Throughout the two-week hearing, John Haynes detailed his all-too-vivid dialogue with Cream and the latter's mentioning of Clover as a murder victim before the police regarded her as such. Elizabeth Masters and Lizzie May told of seeing Cream in the company of Martha Clover not long before she passed away. A chemist named Kirby produced a bill of sale for strychnine, which was signed by Cream. Emily Sleaper, daughter of Cream's landlord, testified that Cream had told her that he had been following the Lambeth Murder case and had uncovered evidence to lay the blame on Lord Russell (one of his blackmail victims). Scotland Yard detective Bennett Tunbridge related his finding of an envelope in Cream's room bearing scrawled initials of each of the murder victims in Lambeth, and the dates of their deaths.

The hanging of Dr. Thomas Cream, from the
The hanging of Dr. Thomas Cream, from
the "Illustrated Police News" (The British
Library)

But, Cream sat through the onslaught relatively unshaken. He was a brilliant man, and he knew the law. He had written his fiancee telling her not to worry, for the police had nothing conclusive against him — much hearsay, rumors, that's all.

Then, the thunderbolt hit.

Throughout much of the inquest, Cream sat manacled before the bench, listening without comment to the proceedings. He kept as physically unmoved as his emotions remained stolid. At one point late in the hearing, however, during a break, he happened to glance toward the door of the chamber where an unusually loud bustle erupted. He saw the lady enter. He blinked. He blinked again. He whipped off his spectacles, wiped them with his 'kerchief, and placed them back on the bridge of his nose. And focused. He paled. He twitched. And his eyes bulged as she walked past him. A bailiff called her name, the name of the lady whom the police had finally found, alive and well. And eager to testify.

The presiding prosecutor turned to the woman: "Miss Lou Harvey — also known as Louisa Harris — "a man gave you two pills to take on the Charing Cross Embankment, pills that you pretended to swallow, and without his knowledge tossed into the Thames River. You suspected him of foul play — the reason you did not take those pills. Tell us, in the name of God, is that man here in court with us today?"

"Yes, he is," she answered, and pointed in Cream's direction. "There he sits, sir, as big as life."

Doctor Cream dropped his eyes to his lap, at his two wrists bound by chains. For the first time, the tightness of the steel bracelets hurt.

*****

On July 13, the inquest concluded that Cream did indeed consciously administer strychnine poison to Matilda Clover. After being officially charged with her murder, he was removed to Newgate Prison, adjacent to Old Bailey municipal hall, where the trial would take place. In subsequent weeks, the law also charged him with premeditated homicide in the deaths of Nellie Donworth, Alice Marsh and Emma Shrivell, with attempting to murder Lou Harvey, and with extortion.

The ensuing trial of Dr. Cream took place over a five-day period, October 17-21, Justice Henry Hawkins presiding. The defendant, looking more sinister than ever in a bramble-bush of a beard he had grown in his cell at Newgate, pouted in the drab, gas-lit courtroom, weighed under the percussion of verbal darts from every angle. Despite representation by brilliant barrister Gerald Geoghegan, the crown's argument (led by Attorney General Sir Charles Russell) could not be overcome. The prosecution re-enlisted pretty much the same witnesses as it had in the Clover inquest — Lou Harvey's testimony again the climax — but the defense produced none. It's central, and only, argument being that the court could not condemn their client based on circumstantial evidence.

In the eyes of the jury, the evidence was as potent as the poison Cream fed to his victims. Ten minutes of deliberation is all it took: Guilty! they said.

In passing the death sentence, Justice Hawkins told the prisoner that his willingness to murder was "so diabolical in its character, fraught with so much cold-blooded cruelty (that it could) be expiated only by your death.

Cream went to "the drop" November 16, 1892. Relates Angus McLaren, "Public hangings had been brought to an end in 1868; hangings now took place within the prison walls witnessed only by the sheriff, surgeon, justice of the peace and close relatives... The largest crowd to gather at an execution since they had ceased to be public waited outside in a fine drizzle... 'Probably no criminal was ever executed in London,' declared a Canadian newspaper, 'who had a less pitying mob awaiting his execution.' The appearance of the black flag was greeted by hoarse cries and cheers."

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