Thomas Neill Cream: Lambeth Poisoner and Serial Killer

Thomas Neill Cream, also known as the Lambeth Poisoner, was a Scottish-Canadian serial killer of the late 1800s. His first known victims lived in the United States and the rest were residents of Great Britain. However, there is also the possibility some of his victims lived in Canada.

Thomas Neill Cream

Early picture of a young Thomas Neill Cream. Author’s collection.

Cream’s story begins a month or so after the death of the famous wax sculptress Madame Tussaud. She died on 16 April 1850 and he was born on 27 May 1850 in Glasgow, Scotland. At the age of four his family moved to Quebec City in Canada. In his twenties he attended McGill University in Montreal, where it is believed he set fire to his lodgings to collect $350.00 from insurance. He graduated from McGill in 1876 with a Doctor of Medicine degree having completed his thesis on chloroform.

That same year Thomas Neill Cream married Flora Brooks, supposedly at gunpoint because her father insisted Cream marry her after he got her pregnant. Cream then almost killed his new wife while aborting the baby. Although she survived, she died a year later. Some people claim she died from consumption and others chalk her death up to suspicious circumstances.

Cream’s post-graduate training was completed in 1878 in London at St. Thomas’s Hospital Medical School. There he also obtained additional qualifications to be a physician and surgeon. He then returned to Canada and began practicing in London, Ontario.

Around this same time, he began having an affair with Kate Gardener. She became pregnant and was found dead in 1879 in a shed behind his office having been poisoned by chloroform. Authorities questioned Cream and he maintained that a businessman was responsible for getting Gardener pregnant. He also alleged that she asked him to give her an abortion and that when he refused, she committed suicide.

To avoid any further questioning Thomas Neill Cream then relocated to the United States and settled in Chicago. There he established a medical practice performing illegal abortions for prostitutes near that city’s red-light district. If he thought he had escape the attention of police, it did not last long because he was soon in trouble with the law once again.

At the time he was working out of No. 434 West Madison Street and became associated with a Black nurse named Hattie Mackey. She was married, had three children, and lived on the upper floor of a two-story frame house at No. 1056 West Madison Street. The ground floor of the house was occupied by a George Green and his family and in the garret lived a Miss Ellen Hackle.

Green and Hackle knew that Mackey “had some weeks previously taken to board with her a mysterious somebody in the shape of a pretty, and ladylike, and quite delicate-looking young white woman.[1] They also saw Dr. Thomas Neill Cream visiting her three times a day and soon became suspicious despite him being described in the following manner:

“In appearance the Doctor is a highly intelligent Scotchman of easy address, is of medium build, with brown hair and blue eyes. He wears his beard in the Burnside fashion, closely trimmed.”[2]

Thomas Neill Cream

Thomas Neil Cream without a beard. Author’s collection.

Besides the frequent visits, Green and Hackle noticed that Cream was always carrying parcels of a “suspicious nature” when he visited Mackey’s residence. According to the Chicago Tribune:

“Towards 4 o’clock on Friday morning an unusual noise on Mrs. Mackey’s floor aroused Mr. Green, who, arising, saw Mrs. Mackey leave the house, together with her children. In the afternoon he went upon the second floor, but found the door to the rooms locked. A horrible stench soon afterwards began to pervade the rooms, and Mr. Green reported the occurrence to Lieut. Steele, of the West Lake Street Sub-Station, who broke in the door of Mrs. Mackey’s rooms, where the decomposing remains of the … mysterious boarder were found lying upon a bed, and presented a sight which, combined with the odor, beat the officers back, and forced them to rush for the open [air]. A search of the premises revealed the fact that the unfortunate woman’s name was Mary Anne Matilda Faulkner and that she came originally from Ottawa, the Capital of the Dominion of Canada.”[3]

Steele obtained a description of Cream from Green and Hackle and arrested him a short time later at White Brother’s Drug Store on the corner of Hyone and Madison streets. A note was also discovered left at the druggists from Mackey to Cream. She informed him that Faulkner was dead and that she was leaving. Unfortunately for Mackey, before she could make good her escape, she was arrested and locked up in a cell near her “alleged partner.”

When questioned Mackey confessed that she knew Cream because she had been given an abortion by him. She owed him $15 for it and therefore when he asked her to board Faulkner, she did so to pay back the debt. She also stated that Faulkner told her she had been abandoned by her husband and was “determined” to get rid of the child she was pregnant with because the child would be an “impediment” to her earning a living. Mackey also claimed that Faulkner maintained that she met Cream because another doctor referred her to him because he was an abortion doctor.

Mackey alleged that on Thursday 12 August 1880 Cream brought various instruments to her house to perform the abortion on Faulkner. Mackey further maintained that she refused to enter the room where Cream operated and the only thing she knew about the operation was what she heard. She then stated that there was no conversation just “moans” from Faulkner. According to Mackey, after the surgery Cream left and the patient’s condition steadily worsened until she died at 6 o’clock Friday morning.

Thomas Neill Cream had a completely different story. He claimed that Mackey had induced him to come and aid a sick woman and that when he arrived, he found not only Faulkner in terrible shape but a “3-months’ child” dead on the bed. He claimed that Mackey confessed that she had committed the abortion and had done so “with a catheter and bent wires ― one of which perforated the wound.”[4] In addition, Cream maintained that his records for what he prescribed for Faulkner were appropriate and that the druggist would back his story.

Authorities found several problems in prosecuting Cream for the death of Faulkner. For example, newspapers reported it was unclear whether an abortion occurred or not, although medical authorities did report that Faulkner was undoubtedly pregnant. Mackey’s and Cream’s stories also widely differed and therefore it seemed impossible to figure out who was telling the truth. There was also a lack of solid evidence against Cream. He thus escaped prosecution, but once again he would not stay out of trouble for long.

In December 1880 suspicion surrounded him regarding a patient named Miss Ellen Stack. She died after she ingested strychnine in what she thought were birth control pills. The pills were supposedly manufactured by Cream, but nonetheless he was never charged even though he attempted to blackmail the pharmacist who filled the prescription.

In the summer of 1881 headlines screamed about the death of Daniel Stott. He was married to Julia A. (Abbey) Stott and they lived together in Boone County, Illinois. Stott died of strychnine poisoning on 14 July 1881, but the coroner gave another reason for his death. The New York Daily News reported:

“On June 12, just 20 minutes after swallowing a dose of Cream’s medicine … Daniel Stott suffered a violent fit and fell back dead. The coroner called his passing ‘natural death’ and the certificate reads ‘epilepsy.’’[5]  

Stott’s funeral was a gaudy affair with his lodge brothers and the whole town present. As to the widow Abbey she was described as “35 years of age, very delicate looking, and very plain spoken.”[6] S was reportedly “wearing heavy mourning, [and] wept copiously.”[7] That would have been the end of the situation if Thomas Neill Cream had not been having an affair with her and and had not implicated himself in her husband’s death.

Cream began sending telegrams and letters making accusations that the drugs Stott had taken were tampered with and that he was poisoned. A dog was then used to test Stott’s remaining medication for poison. When the dog died, authorities had Stott’s body exhumed. They then tested the contents of his stomach and learned Stott had taken enough strychnine to kill three out of every four men.

Old time strychnine bottle with pills. Author’s collection.

Authorities then began taking a close look at Cream. To get out of trouble he then attempted to blackmail the pharmacist. When that did not work, he wrote to the coroner blaming the pharmacist for committing “errors.” This time, however, Cream was arrested, along with Stott’s widow. To save herself, Abbey turned state’s evidence and blamed the entire fiasco on Cream:

“‘There was something funny about the last prescription,’ said the widow. ‘Dr. Cream said to me, Don’t have this filled at the first drug store you come to. It must be filled exactly right. Take it down to Buck & Rayner’s here in the city because they will be responsible in case anything should go wrong.’”[8]

Ultimately, when Stott’s widow turned against him, Cream was thus forced to face murder on his own. Exactly how that happened was published by the Stockton, California, Daily Evening Herald:

“Dr. Cream and Mrs. Stott were in love at Belvidere, Ill, and they concocted a peculiar plan for murdering the woman’s husband safely. Stott being ill, the Doctor was called in to attend him. A prescription containing a safe amount of strychnine was sent to a druggist, and when the medicine came a large quantity of the poison was added. It calculated that Stott’s death would at once be traced to the strychnine, and that its presence in a fatal proportion would be ascribed to a blunder by the druggist. The murderers would probably never have been detected if the woman had not distrusted her partner. When she heard that he had himself announced that death was the result of poisoning, she mistakenly inferred that he meant to fix the crimes upon her, and she hastened to make a statement inculpating him.”[9]

With Abbey as a witness for the prosecution the trial did not go well for Cream. She testified that after her husband’s death their scheme was to have her give Cream power of attorney. That would allow him to sue the drug firm of Buck & Rayner’s for $10,000 citing improper preparation of the medication. Instead of receiving a windfall Cream was convicted of murder.

He was sentenced to life imprisonment in Joliet Prison with Judge Kellum also ordering that one day each year he was to serve in solitary confinement. However, despite the life sentence, ten years hardly passed before Cream was released in July 1891. He was released after Governor Joseph W. Fifer commuted his sentence. Allegations are that Cream’s father allegedly bribed politicians with $5,000 and Cream’s brother then pleaded for his brother to have leniency. That resulted in his sentence being reduced and it allowed Cream to be released unconditionally.

After his release, Cream left the U.S. and went to Canada temporarily. He then relocated to England using money he had inherited from his father, who had died in 1887. Arriving in London on 1 October 1891, Cream began passing himself off as Thomas Neill, having dropped the Cream from his name. He also took lodgings at 103 Lambeth Palace Road in Lambeth, which at the time was an area riddled with poverty, petty crime, and prostitution. Cream had also been having eye problems. He therefore went to see James Atchinson, an optician, who diagnosed him with an eye imbalance known as “extreme hypermyopia” and prescribed him thick spectacles.

Cream, now wearing spectacles, was soon up to his old tricks. Like before people associated with him began dying again. The first victim was 19-year-old Ellen “Nellie” Donworth, a prostitute. She accepted a drink from Cream on 13 October 1891. The next day she was severely ill and died three days later from strychnine poisoning. During her inquest, Cream wrote to the coroner offering to name the murderer in return for a £300,000 reward. He also attempted to blackmail W. F. D. Smith, owner of the W H Smith bookstalls, accusing him of the murder and demanding money for his silence.

Thomas Neill Cream

Photo of Thomas Neill Cream. Public domain.

Less than a week later, on 20 October, Donworth’s body was barely cold when Cream met another prostitute, Matilda Clover. She became ill and died the morning after meeting him. Her death was initially thought to be due to her alcoholism, although she was never as great an alcoholic as Jane Cakebread. Cream involved himself in Clover’s case by writing a note to Dr. William Broadbent, a prominent English neurologist, who was a leading British authority in the field of cardiology as well as neurology. In the note Cream accused Broadbent of poisoning Clover. Cream also demanded a huge amount of money to keep quiet. Broadbent wisely forwarded the mysterious blackmail note signed by someone named “Malone” on to Scotland Yard.

William Broadbent from a Vanity Fair image in 1902. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Cream then attempted to poison Louise “Lou” Harris Harvey. She met him at the Alhambra Theatre and reported that he was wearing a “black topcoat, a hard felt hat, and a black suite of clothes. He had an old-fashioned gold watch and wore spectacles. He had no beard, but wore a moustache.”[10] At trial, she testified that he told her she had spots on her forehead and needed to take some medicine to clear them up. He gave her the medicine in the form of pills, and she reported that because she found his behavior suspicious, she threw them into the River Thames, the same river that London’s mudlarks searched for treasure in the 1700 and 1800s. As to how the incident with Harvey and Cream happened, the Reynold’s Newspaper reported:

“He took two pills out of his waistcoat pocket. They were wrapped in tissue paper, and were long, rather narrower at one end than the other. … It was rather dark, but they seemed to be of a light colour. [He] asked her to swallow them one by one … and not to bite them. He put them into her right hand. She pretended to take them, and passed them into her left hand. He then asked her to show her right hand, and she showed him it was empty. He then asked to see the left hand in which the pills were, and she threw them away.”[11]

The Alhambra Theatre in Leicester Square in 1874. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Cream’s next victims were two prostitutes, 21-year-old Alice Marsh and 18-year-old Emma Shrivell. Around the time Mark Twain was finishing his novel Tom Sawyer Abroad, Cream was convincing Marsh and Shrivell to accompany them to their flat. There on 10 April 1892, he offered them bottles of Guinness to drink and left shortly afterwards. The following morning, a neighbor heard Marsh screaming and when she went to her assistance, she found Marsh in great agony, writhing on the floor. Shrivell then began screaming.

Medical assistance was sought, and an emetic given. Soon thereafter Marsh made a statement to the neighbor about what Cream had given her and what she had taken. The poisoned women were taken to St. Thomas’s Hospital in excruciating pain; Marsh died on the way and Shrivell died after they arrived.

In the meantime, all the rumors of poisonings soon had Londoners nervous. They became even more uneasy after London newspapers began reporting on what was now being called the “Lambeth Poisoner.” Mention of the poisonings appeared in London’s Daily News:

“The police at Scotland-yard are still pursuing their inquiries into the recent cases of fatal poisoning of women in the neighbourhood of Lambeth, with a view to establishing a connection between the suspected person, against whom the police hold a warrant. … An experienced inspector of Scotland-yard has the matter in hand, and he is working with the aid of the local police and his own assistants to complete the web of evidence he is constructing in support of the case against the suspect. From the accounts which the police have received from various quarters concerning this individual there is every reason to believe that the opinion of the detectives is correct ― that he is suffering from a peculiar form of mental derangement which finds exercise in a desire to take away life. There is no other motive attributable to the cruel poisoning of Alice Marsh, Emma Shrivell, and Ellen Donworth; and, as the history of the Whitechapel murders shows, the indulgence of this homicidal tendency upon women in a peculiarly defenceless position is not singular to the Lambeth poisoner.”[12]

“Lambeth Poisoner” mystery. Author’s collection.

As the investigations continued, Cream’s accusatory letters drew significant attention to him because besides authorities discovering that the person being accused was innocent, they also came to realize the letter writer seemed to know things not generally known. For instance, everyone thought Clover’s death was due to her drinking, but Cream referred to it as a murder, which then helped police to realize that the letter writer was the person newspapers were calling the “Lambeth Poisoner.”

Cream also reputedly alleged to a friend that Donworth, Clover, Marsh, and Shrivell had been poisoned by his fellow lodger, a medical student named W.J. Harper. In fact, hoping to throw suspicious off him and onto Harper, Cream sent an accusatory letter to Harper’s father signed “William H. Murray.”

Matilda Clover. Author’s collection.

Cream then met a visiting policeman from New York City. The policeman had heard of the “Lambeth Poisoner” and Cream therefore offered to give him a brief tour of where the various victims lived. The policeman then happened to mention the tour to a British policeman, who found Cream’s detailed knowledge of the case suspicious.

The noose began tightening for Cream when Scotland Yard decided to put him under surveillance. Investigators quickly discovered that Cream visited prostitutes. They also contacted authorities in the United States and learned that he had been convicted and imprisoned for killing Daniel Stott in 1881. It therefore seemed reasonable to British authorities that Thomas Neill was Thomas Neill Cream.

On 3 June 1892, the threatening letter that Thomas Neill Cream had written to Harper’s father was what ultimately got him arrested under the name of Thomas Neill. However, Cream insisted he was not Thomas Neill Cream but rather only Thomas Neill. Ten days after his arrest he was formally charged with Clover’s death and with the deaths of Donworth, Marsh, and Shrivell. In addition, he was charged with the attempted murder of Harvey and extortion for the blackmail letters he had written.

Images of those that Thomas Neill Cream murdered in Lambeth. Author’s collection.

An inquest was held the following month during which Athelstan Braxton Hicks, the coroner in London and Surrey, read a letter purported to be from the infamous Jack the Ripper. The letter declared Neill innocent, which produced peals of laughter from everyone in the courtroom including Cream. Ultimately, however, the evidence in the inquest was overwhelming against Cream and the jury returned a verdict of guilty in the Clover case.

Cream’s trial was then slated for October. It lasted five days and began on 17 October. It was crushingly clear to the jury that Thomas Neill Cream was guilty of all charges and they found him so on all counts. Justice Henry Hawkins then sentenced him to death and ordered him to be hanged.

Thomas Neill Cream - Judge Hawkins

Judge Hawkins passing sentence on Thomas Neill Cream. Author’s collection.

Cream’s execution took place on 15 November 1892. It happened at Newgate Prison and was carried out by executioner James Billington, a hangman for the British government from 1884 until 1901. According to The Courier and Argus:

“The morning was dull and wet … By order of the High Sheriff, no pressmen were admitted to the scene of the execution … The hangman arrived … The Rope, a new hempen one, an inch in diameter, was supplied from Holloway Gaol, in accordance with new clause in the prison regulations, instead of by the executioner. Billington tested the drop, which was found in good working order. He also tested the rope … The procession was formed to the scaffold. A warder walked in front, next to whom was the chaplain in full surplice reading the opening sentences for the burial of the dead. Neill made no audible responses. He was supported on either wide by a warder, the rear being brought up by Billington and others. Neill appeared half dazed, but he walked unassisted … Billington lost not a moment in adjusting the strap round the convict’s legs. He then drew from his pocket a white cap and placed it over Neill’s head, the noose having been already fixed round the condemned criminal’s neck. As the chaplain commenced the Lord’s Prayer those supporting Neill stepped on one side, and at the same moment Billing pulled the lever. The bolts supporting the drop were drawn, and Neill was launched into eternity.”[13]  

Outside the prison as the execution was proceeding a crowd of about 300 congregated and witnessed the hoisting of the black flag. The bell of the St. Sepulchre Church also commenced tolling prior to the hour and Thomas Neill Cream’s death. After the drop fell the church bell continued to ring for a few minutes. As was customary, Cream’s body was buried the same day in an unmarked grave inside the prison walls.*

Thomas Neill Cream - police news

Cover of the Police News showing Thomas Neill Cream’s execution. Author’s collection.


*In 1907 Cream was removed from the Newgate Prison cemetery and reburied in the city of London Cemetery and Crematorium in an unmarked grave.

References:

  • [1] Chicago Tribune, “Double Murder,” August 22, 1880, p. 3.
  • [2] Chicago Tribune, “Murderers’ Row,” November 17, 1880, p. 10.
  • [3] Chicago Tribune, Double Murder,” p. 3.
  • [4] Chicago Tribune, Murderers’ Row,” p. 10.
  • [5] R. Reynolds, “When Justice,” Daily News, February 2, 1947, p. 78.
  • [6] Chicago Tribune, “Dr. Cream on Trial,” September 22, 1881, p. 5.
  • [7] R. Reynolds, p. 78.
  • [8] Ibid.
  • [9] Daily Evening Herald, October 4, 1881, p. 2.
  • [10] Reynold’s Newspaper, “Lambeth Poisoning Mystery Solved,” October 23, 1892, p. 5.
  • [11] Ibid.
  • [12] The Courier and Argus, “Execution of Neill, the Poisoner,” November 16, 1892, p. 3.
  • [13] Ibid.

Leave a Comment