Whitechapel, London, in the late 1880s was a place of fear. The notorious serial killer was stalking the streets killing women. Despite a massive police search he was never found. But three years after the killings ended, a Scot made a sensational claim as he was about to be hanged.
The last words of Dr Thomas Neil Cream, before his life was ended by the hangman’s noose were reported to be: “I am Jack.” This has left many questioning if this man, known as the Lambeth Poisoner, was indeed the Whitechapel murderer.
Although he was born in Glasgow Cream’s family moved to Canada when he was four. His life of crime may have begun there, as he turned his hand to arson; setting fire to his room as an insurance scam. It was probably also in Canada that his murderous tendencies towards women first came to light.
More sinisterly, when he got Flora Brooke, the daughter of a wealthy hotel owner, pregnant, his response was a botched abortion. It nearly killed her. Her father forced them to get married but Cream left the country soon after.
He traveled to Edinburgh where he completed his medical studies at the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons, and was soon on his way back to Canada. Once there he performed more abortions and this appears to be how his first two killings happened.
His first victim, Kate Gardener was found in a shed smelling of chloroform. Although he was arrested Cream managed to persuade the coroner that he had only tried to help. He was released and fled to Chicago. Shortly afterwards a prostitute was found dead after another bungled abortion. Once again Cream walked free.
His next murder was different. In his spare time the doctor supplied anti-epilepsy drugs. When one Daniel Stott became suspicious that his wife Julie’s visits to Cream were too frequent, Cream added strychnine to Stott’s medicine. It killed him.
In the aftermath of this 1881 murder Cream showed a side of his character that would eventually be his undoing. He wrote to the coroner accusing a pharmacist of poisoning his patient. Stott’s body was exhumed and traces of the poison found in his system. But the plot backfired and Cream was sentenced to life imprisonment at Illinois State Penitentiary.
He was freed ten years later, but the time spent in prison had not rehabilitated Cream. His killing spree continued, this time in London.
In October 1891 Ellen Donworth, a prostitute, was found lying in agony in her bed. Struggling to speak between agonizing stomach spasms she told witnesses that a tall dark, cross-eyed man had given her something to drink. She died a painful death from strychnine poisoning on her way to hospital.
Two days later Cream killed Matilda Clover, another prostitute, although at the time her death was put down to alcoholism. Then, in April, Cream killed two more prostitutes, Alice Marsh and Emma Shrivell, at their house. Both died in excruciating pain.
By now the police, already reeling from the Ripper murders, realised that they had another serial killer on the streets of London. However, as with the Stott murder, Cream might never have been caught had he not brought himself under the magnifying-glass of suspicion. He wrote letters, signed under different pseudonyms accusing a number of respectable people of murder in an attempt to blackmail them. The police realised that the letter-writer had an insight into the case that hinted at direct involvement.
Rashly, he took a New York detective to the places the killer might have haunted. As they walked he described the murders in such detail that his friend reached the inescapable conclusion that he was getting a personal tour of the killing grounds by the man responsible. Scotland Yard began to investigate the doctor. Cream’s criminal record in North America was uncovered. Handwriting analysis that the doctor had written the blackmail letters.
His trial was a sensation and the jury found him guilty. The similarities between Cream and the Ripper were too much for some, even although it had been shown that the doctor had been inside an American Jail at the time of these murders. Also, the hangman was the only source for the “I am Jack” story – and he was known to be something of a practical joker.
However, this has not put off some people from finding a way of placing him in the dark lanes of Whitechapel at the time of the Ripper crimes. One bizarre theory involves Cream having a double who, extraordinarily generously, did the time for him in jail leaving the doctor free to kill.
This is unlikely. And we can only shudder at the thought that during the late 19th century, London there was more than one prostitute-killing madman stalking the streets.