Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

January 22, 2022
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The Madman of McGill

Was Jack the Ripper one of our very own?

Since Lizzie Borden wielded her infamous axe 113 years ago, our good neighbours to the south have pretty much held a monopoly on celebrity killers and trials. But it was Merry Olde England, particularly during Queen Victoria's lengthy reign, which bred the nastiest, most notorious sociopaths of the 19th century, including Jack the Ripper who was the nastiest and most notorious of them all.

The Ripper was never captured or positively identified; the mystery of who he was may well baffle criminal historians for all eternity. Theories, books and suspects have become as numerous as the stars in the sky. So far, no theory has been proven. One, put forth by several reputable scholars, suggests that the world's most infamous killer wasn't a local London loon as most believe but rather a transplanted Canadian doctor with a flair for torture and an intense hatred of women.

Dr Thomas Neill Cream, a born Scotsman who was raised in Quebec, received his medical degree from McGill University. Instead of settling down to a nice practice in Montreal, Cream became a top-tier Victorian serial killer and as likely a Ripper suspect as any. His penchant for cruelty and ferocious misogyny, as well as his need to taunt law officials, certainly fit the bill. At the very least, they afforded Cream a place in the dubious annals of criminal history.

The future monster was born in Glasgow on May 27, 1850. His parents migrated to Canada four years later, settling in Wolfe's Cove, Quebec, where his father became a successful lumber merchant. Though no records exist of young Thomas's hobbies or pastimes, it's easy to imagine that he spent his formative years torturing neighbourhood puppies and kittens. We do know that he was a good student, unlike his seven brothers and sisters, and that he was fascinated by medicine. He entered McGill Medical School in 1872, graduating with honours four years later. His doctoral thesis was on chloroform, a drug which enamoured him throughout his long career as an illegal abortionist and murderer.

When Cream took an interest in a girl, things were guaranteed to end badly. Flora Elizabeth Brooks should have run in the other direction, even though she was pregnant with his child. After Flora's father -- a wealthy hotelier from Waterford, Quebec -- discovered that his daughter had not only been seduced by the scoundrel Cream but also suffered a botched abortion at his hands, Brooks assembled an angry mob to drag Cream to the altar to wed the still-weak Flora at gunpoint in 1876.

The honeymoon didn't last long. Cream fled from Flora and her family the following morning to enrol in graduate studies at St Thomas' Hospital in London. After his apprenticeship -- during which time he notoriously seduced both prostitutes and society women alike, acquiring syphilis in the process -- he was accepted to the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons at Edinburgh. He did return to Canada to "visit" his wife a little while later however, and it was during this time that Flora died in 1877 of "a lingering illness." (Apparently, she was still suffering the effects of the crude abortion the previous year and took some pills Cream gave her -- most likely strychnine.)

Back in Britain again, Cream impregnated another young woman, who was soon found dead in the alleyway behind his office. Chloroform overdose was determined to be the cause of death. Cream was a suspect, of course, though a lack of evidence had him acquitted.

His reputation in ruins, Cream ran back to North America in 1879 where he set up shop in Ontario, offering illegal abortions to prostitutes. When a pregnant chambermaid was found dead in his office next to a bottle of chloroform, the charming Cream somehow managed to avoid prosecution once again. Her death was ruled suicide, despite the fact that she'd obviously bled out after yet another one of Cream's botched abortions. This time, Cream decided to move to Chicago.

Undeterred by his obvious failures in the field of women's health, Cream began offering his services to the prostitutes of Chicago. Apparently he enjoyed inflicting pain during the procedures. Many died, either bleeding to death or succumbing to infections caught from filthy instruments. Some were even poisoned -- a result of the "anti-pregnancy pills" Cream prescribed. Dead prostitutes were one thing, but after a desperate, pregnant young society girl died on his operating table in 1880, the police began to wonder what Cream was up to.

Might the mysterious double have served a year for him in prison while Cream satisfied his bloodier side in London's Whitechapel district in 1888? If not, perhaps Cream's last-minute confession was a way to thank his mysterious murderous friend for old favours by taking credit for his crimes. Or maybe it was simply a desperate attempt to gain immortality by being remembered as the most notorious murderer of all time.

A search of his office revealed bottles of pure strychnine pills, though once again Cream managed to weasel out of the charge. The following year, Cream was tried in a similar case, and even though the chemist who provided him with the poison testified against him, the case was dismissed. His luck ran out in 1881 after he was convicted of poisoning the husband of his lover, Mrs. Julia Stott, with strychnine. Mrs. Stott turned on him to save her own hide and Cream was sentenced to life in Joliet State Penitentiary in Illinois.

During the years he spent in jail, Cream's mental state deteriorated further. Mrs. Stott's betrayal and the syphilis that he'd acquired years earlier certainly didn't help his state of mind. He suffered from severe headaches and other prisoners reported he ranted and raged against women, promising revenge upon them all should he ever be released. Night after night, year after year, he detailed aloud the savage rapes, torture, disembowelment and murders of countless women, both real and imagined. Stunningly, he was about to be given the chance to make his nightmares come true.

In 1891, four years after Cream's father died leaving his son a small fortune, the murderous medic was back on the streets. While prison officials claimed he was released early on good behaviour, it's rumoured that Cream was freed because he bribed the guards and wardens who were all tiring of his ranting. Others say his brother begged (and also allegedly bribed) the governor of Illinois for lenience. Whatever the reasons, Cream was poised to live out a decade of revenge fantasies.

After a brief pit stop in Quebec to pick up his inheritance cheque and thank his brother, the 41-year-old Cream set his sights on London, the perfect place to make his twisted visions come true. The filthy, dark streets were teeming with underlife; crime was rampant in the poor, overcrowded quarters of the city and law enforcement was lax and corrupt. It was also around this time that Jack the Ripper was at work in the city, slashing the necks of prostitutes and cutting out their organs, uteruses and ovaries with a surgeon's precision and a madman's eye.

Soon after Cream settled in Lambeth, a South London slum, he became addicted to morphine and cocaine. The drugs did little to improve his disposition and the killings began soon after. In October 1891, the first prostitute was found -- 19-year-old Ellen Donworth -- and a string of three others soon followed. All four women were killed by massive doses of strychnine, dying in agony. The police were baffled by "The Lambeth Poisoner" until Cream himself idiotically set into motion a string of events that would lead to his undoing.

Instead of keeping a low profile, Cream tried to extort £1500 from his neighbour Joseph Harper, saying he had evidence of Harper's guilt in two of the murders. When Harper refused to pay, Cream wrote to both the city coroner and Harper's father, accusing him of the crime. Cream also arrogantly befriended John Haynes, an American detective, accidentally giving away details of the crime that only the killer could know. Haynes tipped off Scotland Yard and Cream was arrested. A mountain of evidence and a surprise witness -- a prostitute whom Cream had taken for dead after giving her "complexion pills" that she later threw away -- sealed the fate of the Lambeth Poisoner. The jury deliberated for all of 10 minutes, sentencing him to death.

On November 15, 1892, Dr Thomas Neill Cream was led to the gallows, loudly protesting his innocence, though he'd bragged for days to his guards that he was guilty of far more murders than anybody knew. A hood was placed over his head as he prepared to be hanged. Perhaps in a last-ditch attempt to unburden his tortured soul before meeting his maker, Cream was said to have uttered these famous last words: "I am Jack...." But the hood muffled his alleged confession and the floor gave way beneath his feet.

Similarities between Cream's killings and those of Jack the Ripper's may be too great to ignore. Both killers targeted prostitutes, bragged of their crimes to police and had obvious medical training, though one preferred the scalpel and the other poison. Some handwriting experts allege that the boastful letters each sent to the authorities were written by the same hand. Cream was officially responsible for the intentional deaths of seven women (and one man) in London, Canada and the US; Jack the Ripper as many as 17. The problem, however, comes when one looks at the dates the murders took place. Jack the Ripper's killing spree occurred in 1888, a time when Cream was serving his sentence in Illinois!

Two theories exist to explain this discrepancy. The first is that Cream actually bribed his way out of prison early in 1888, the year after he came into his inheritance. Such occurrences were certainly not unheard of at the time. The other theory holds that Cream and Jack the Ripper were friends and served as each other's doubles. They went by each other's names when the occasion called for it and used each other's periods of incarceration as impenetrable alibis. After Cream's execution, his former lawyer, Sir Edward Marshall Hall, stated that Cream had once used a doppelganger to beat a bigamy charge by claiming to be in jail in Sydney during the time of the second wedding. Prison officials confirmed that they hosted a Thomas Neill Cream matching his description at the time.


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