The Lambeth Poisoner
When Dr Thomas Neill Cream was found guilty of murder by poison in Illinois in 1881, that should have put an end to his murdering ways. Instead, just ten years into his sentence, the Scottish-born physician was free. According to the official records, the state Governor had given in to Cream’s brother’s petition for clemency, though it’s far more likely that some degree of bribery was involved. Whatever the reason for Cream quite literally getting away with murder, by the autumn of 1891, he was in the impoverished Lambeth area of London – and busy killing again.
The sick physician liked to target the most vulnerable members of society in Victorian London – the city’s prostitutes. On 13 October 1891, he met a 19-year-old prostitute named Nellie Donworth. She naively accepted a drink from Cream. It was laced with strychnine and she died in agony. A week later, he struck again, this time killing a 27-year-old woman. He then took a break from murdering to holiday in Canada, but in April of the following year, he was back. This time, he poisoned two young prostitutes at the same time, though one other lady got away after becoming suspicious of the pills Cream offered her.
The so-called Lambeth Poisoner might have got away with his crimes had it not been for the letters. As well as killing, Cream also took delight in trying to frame others for the crimes. He would write letters to the police, giving them anonymous tip-offs. But on one occasion, he blamed another man for a murder that was still being investigated as an accidental death. Clearly the anonymous letter writer knew far more about the crimes than an innocent, concerned citizen would. Finally, when a visiting New York policeman claimed to have been given a creepy guided tour of the Lambeth murder locations by Cream himself, the police identified him as their man.
Cream was charged with four murders in total, though he may have killed many more. The trial gripped London – after all, it involved poison, a doctor and, thanks to the victims being prostitutes, a hint of sex and scandal. The jury needed just 12 minutes to find him guilty of all charges. Less than a month later, Cream met the hangman and was on his way to an unmarked grave. But not before he gave us one last mystery. According to the hangman James Billington, Cream started to speak when the noose was around his neck. He managed to say “I am Jack…” before the trapdoor opened. Could it be that he was confessing to the crimes of Jack the Ripper? The theory has been widely dismissed, but still, to this day, the suspicion won’t go away entirely.