Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Dr. Thomas Neil Cream

Suspicions Early On

"No one ever suddenly became depraved."

— Juvenal

When Thomas Neill Cream, the doctor who was to poison at least seven female patients in North America and Great Britain, graduated from Quebec's McGill University, the subject of the dean's address that year was, "The Evils of Malpractice in the Medical Profession."

Throughout college, there seemed to be no forewarning of the devil stirring under his foppish clothing and dandy manners. Fellow students noticed that Cream had a chronic interest in chloroform and other drugs that desensitized patients, but did not regard that as a portent. Chemistry Professor Louis Craik would later recall that Cream's one surface persona was as a "fast and extravagant liver." He effected a fondness for money and delightfully suffered a reputation as a starch-collared, wealthy fop.

Cream as a graduate student (Notman Photographic Archives)
Cream as a graduate
student (Notman
Photographic
Archives)

However, a number of particular acquaintances wagered that it was Cream himself who, after graduation, set fire to his lodgings at 106 Mansfield Street in Montreal, kindling the place just enough to collect $350 insurance for charred clothing and a few personal effects that he planned to dispose of anyway. If Cream was the arsonist, it was a mere transgression compared to his crimes to come.

Born in Glasgow, Scotland, on May 27, 1850, he was the first of eight children of William Cream and Mary (neé Elder). Biographer W. Teignmouth Shore rues the fact that "as is too often when writing the life of a saint or of a sinner, the records of (Cream's) childhood are very meager. There is no evidence procurable as to the surroundings amid which he opened his eyes upon life or of the circumstances which molded his early years."

The Creams migrated to the burgeoning frontier of Wolfe's Cove, Quebec, Canada in 1854, where the father found a job with, and quickly worked his way up as manager of, one of the province's top shipbuilding and lumber firms, Gilmour & Company. Years passing, the family's male offspring followed in the squire's trade and joined him when he started an independent lumber wholesalery, which prospered. All except Thomas. The latter never displayed much interest in the business, preferring to spend his hours with his scholastic books and assorted ponderings. Rumor has it he made an excellent Sunday school teacher at the Chalmer School. In September, 1872, the oldest son left the Cream Lumber Mill to commence his studies at the well-reputed McGill University. He wanted to be a doctor.

Following graduation ceremonies in April, 1876, he was detained by a small vigilante committee comprised of angry members of the family Brooks, from Waterford, Quebec, whose teenage daughter and sister, Flora, had been seduced and abandoned by the young intern. He had paid her several visits over the last several months, residing at her father's hotel, and after his latest stay, the girl had become ill. Town physician Dr. Phelan had examined her to discover she had recently received an abortion performed by, Flora confessed, medical baccalaureate Thomas Neill Cream. At the point of the Brooks' moose-hunting shotguns, he was hustled back to Waterford for an expedient wedding ceremony.

The honeymoon was all too brief. Flora and her family awoke the morning after to find the wobbly-kneed groom vanished. But, he left a letter on the pillow beside her where his head should have been. The best that the prodigal could do for the bride, read the note, was to promise to keep in touch. It is doubtful he even took the time to leave a few kisses. Although he did keep in touch, as we shall see.

He was too busy scurrying off to London, England, to further his studies abroad. And London, he heard, would offer opportunities unheard of in the backwoods of Waterford, Canada.

1871, public vaccination (Engraving, F. Buchman)
1871, public vaccination
(Engraving, F. Buchman)

In the second half of the nineteenth century, Britain claimed some of the finest medical schools in the world and expected both genius and ethics from the physicians they bred. After all, both traits were wanting. London, Glasgow, Manchester and other large cities in the United Kingdom had long been bursting across their boundaries, too fast for the country to keep up. The population blossomed and, adding to it, penniless immigrants from across Europe wandered to the little island, searching for an escape from desperate conditions to find nothing better, if not worse, in the rambling slums of Britain's largest burghs. The conditions in London's East Side, for instance, were deplorable, an abomination. Disease spread rapid-fire though sexual contact and other means; it hatched in the damp rotted floorboards of antique doss houses, and rode the wings of vermin who infested the clothing that was never washed, and flowed amid putrid masses in open sewerage. The very air carried old plagues and unventilated tenements incubated new ones. In the dimmer sides of London, such as in Spitalsfield or Bluegate Fields, police reported instances — and these weren't rare — where corpses remained unburied on their beds in cheap-houses, lying amid a dozen idlers living in a room designed for no more than five, or toddlers picking bone scraps from bins beside the curb where a carcass of a dead horse lay, fly-swarmed.

By the middle of the century, the nation realized that while the Industrial Age had been grinding away to improve living conditions, it was losing the battle to abject poverty. Social Parliament shouted, "Eradicate the slums!" but in the meantime a stoppage was needed to curb the flow of death-dealing germs. This meant a sharper corps of doctors. For years, county colleges had unleashed doctors half-trained or half-eager to combat the flush-up of disease. According to W.J. Reader, author of Life in Victorian England, "At the beginning of the century, there were only three bodies in England — the Royal College of Physicians, the Royal College of Surgeons, and the Society of Apothecaries — who could claim anything like a systematic course of medical education, attested by examination. (But), the 1858 Medical Act... raised the whole standing of the medical profession by insisting on proper qualifications." Schools dedicated to the advancement of science and medicine began to appear throughout Great Britain. Hospitals began weighing the remedial needs of cities like London and putting those needs under the microscope to shape a curriculum for their lectures and exams.

Student's at St Thomas Hospital, 1880's. Engraving 'Illustrated London News' (Capricorn)
Student's at St Thomas Hospital, 1880's.
Engraving 'Illustrated London News'
(Capricorn)

Notwithstanding, much was expected from the foreigner Cream when he registered at St. Thomas' Hospital, Lambeth, South London, in October of 1876. He required further training and an apprenticeship before he could apply as surgeon, but the experience offered at St. Thomas was an excellent start. Within it passed the likes of Thomas Lister, the antiseptic pioneer, and Florence Nightingale, who had started a nursing college for women there. After six months of attending the medical theatres, however, he did not pass the entrance requirements at the Royal College of Surgeons. Returning to St. Thomas for extended education, supplementing it with a hands-on stint as obstetrics clerk, Cream finally applied to the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons in Edinburgh, Scotland. This time he was accepted and earned a license in midwifery.

*****

One of the reasons Cream may have gotten off to a slow professional start in London was his preoccupation with wealthy young women. As a fellow of above-average looks and a promising profession, Cream had little difficulty meeting the female sex. Feigning to be a bachelor, he spent much time courting several ladies from the Westminster (West End) society circle with elegant townhouses, glittering white carriages and many shillings accruing interest in the Bank Of England on Threadneedle Street. Instead of diving nose downward into the clinical pages of his textbooks, he whiffed the perfume tempestuous on the soft, warm throats of his favorite well-bred ladies.

Victorian London was a Lothario's paradise; it offered on plates of allure pleasure in many shapes and forms. Of London, novelist Jane Austen had jocularly written that she avoided it in fear of temptation, and her appraisal was justified. Cream, having been raised in the shadows of the pine trees and lumber mills of Western Canada, and schooled in the narrow halls of old McGill, must have found London a decadence unto itself. He no doubt marveled at ceaseless carousing available in its many music halls and vaudeville theatres; he probably got to know, at least on a nodding basis, many of the stage performers who tended to live near his residency across the Thames River in what W. Teignmouth Shore calls a "somewhat sordid and very depressing portion" of Lambeth. When not escorting one of his ladies d'elite around Hyde Park or Grosvenor Square, he succumbed to the more earthy attractions found in the halls of frivolity, drinking Bass Ale and mouthing along to the most clever and oft-naughty ditties he'd ever heard.

Waterloo Bridge in Cream's time (Borzoi)
Waterloo Bridge in Cream's time (Borzoi)

But, he also must have been shocked by the ease in which a gentleman in tophat and silk cape could pick up a street urchin for a night, and for so little tuppence. After nightfall, they hung along the ramparts of Waterloo Bridge in droves, selling themselves to passersby on their way in and out of Central London; the blowsy, bust-exposing illiterate shrill with the Cockney accent must have titillated the male in him but sickened the psychoses that told him these type of women are sirens luring a man to evil, no more than filth.

Judging by what he would become later — and the terrible crimes he would later commit against prostitutes — one can only wonder about his initial reactions and responses to London's vixens. For the record, evidence points only to his relations with the ladies of gentler class who spoke like ladies, acted like ladies and dressed like ladies, posing no threat to the idyllic virtue of womanhood as upright society — and Thomas Neill Cream — wished to regard it.

As already stated, Cream's girlfriends believed him to be unwed. Before he departed for Edinburgh, he no longer needed to lie. He was single again, his wife Flora having passed away in Canada in August of 1877. Her death certificate read: "Of consumption."

But, was her death natural? asks Angus McLaren in his Prescription for Murder. He quotes a memo from an Inspector Jarvis of Scotland Yard who was to investigate Cream later. After visiting Flora's attending physician, Dr. Phelan, in Waterloo, Canada, Jarvis wrote: "Subsequent to the marriage when Mrs. Cream became ill, he was scarcely able to understand her symptoms and he asked (her) if she had been taking anything, and she said she had been taking some medicine her husband sent her. (Phelan) told her not to take anything except what he himself prescribed and she promised not to do so, and the symptoms he had not understood gradually passed away. Dr. Phelan says he never saw any of the medicine Cream had sent his wife, but he strongly suspected him of foul play."

It must be understood at this point that the availability of most poisons to the masses was, before the twentieth century, very much over-the-counter in the English-speaking world. An 1850 edition of Britain's popular Punch magazine criticized this ease-of-purchase through a cartoon depicting a small child, shopping for her mother, asking a pharmacist's clerk for a bottle of laudanum and a pound and a half of arsenic. Frighteningly, the parody was not far off. While some forms of poison, such as strychnine, one of the most lethal, might produce a mild interrogation from the seller, a doctor or medical student ascribed to a medical college could buy any pharmaceutical he desired without explanation, as long as the sale was recorded in a log. It was a matter of form — respect, rather — not to question such a person.

*****

Nevertheless, Cream must have buckled down in Edinburgh and kept his mind off both poisons in pill form and wearing corsets, for he quickly completed his studies there. Whatever changed his mind in pursuing a medical career in the United Kingdom — a course he seemed in the midst of following — is not known, but he returned to Canada in late 1878 to set up practice as physician and surgeon in the bustling town of London, Ontario.

In the center of this lumbering and brewery town, he opened an office on Dundas Street, above Bennett's Clothing Store, and seemed to have done quite well before he became embroiled in scandal in May, 1879. A patient, Kate Gardener, was found dead in a woodshed behind the store, reeking of chloroform. Inquiries made, it was shown that she was pregnant at the time of death but, unmarried, had gone to the new doctor in town for an abortion. Cream admitted that, yes, she had called upon him for abortifacients, but he refused her request. Since chloroform was marketable to the public, Cream suggested suicide. An inquest didn't buy that; for one, there was no bottle of chloroform found near the body and the face of the corpse was badly scratched as if the woman had had the chloroform forcibly administered. The examining board ruled murder.

Cream avoided indictment, but his reputation was ruined. Too many turned heads and an empty waiting room signaled it was time to move on.

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