The hunt for the Lambeth Poisoner. ‘He had been a good deal about with women’

How Scotland Yard closed the net on the Victorian serial killer, Dr Cream

Thomas Neill Cream in the mid-1870s, when he was a medical student at Montreal’s McGill University (McCord Museum)

Thomas Neill Cream in the mid-1870s, when he was a medical student at Montreal’s McGill University (McCord Museum)

 

In the spring of 1892, London detectives were scrambling to identify and stop a killer who was stalking the prostitutes of the Lambeth neighbourhood. Four women were dead, poisoned with lethal doses of strychnine added to medicine. In this feature adapted from his new book The Case of the Murderous Dr Cream: The Hunt for a Victorian Era Serial Killer (Algonquin Books), author Dean Jobb recounts how a Canadian doctor became Scotland Yard’s prime suspect.

As the focus of Scotland Yard’s investigation of the Lambeth poisonings shifted to Thomas Neill Cream, investigators discovered one of their own had earned Cream’s trust.

Sergeant Patrick McIntyre of the Criminal Investigation Department at Scotland Yard’s headquarters had been introduced to Cream in early May at the Crown & Cushion public house. McIntyre, in his fifteenth year on the force, was a veteran investigator who had helped foil Irish American bombing plots.

Cream –the police knew him as Thomas Neill – was in a talkative mood, describing how he had studied medicine in Edinburgh before moving to America. He claimed he had never operated his own practice – selling drugs for the American-based GF Harvey Company, he said, paid better.

Later, when Cream complained to McIntyre about the policemen shadowing him, a meeting was arranged at another pub, the Pheasant. McIntyre introduced Cream to Chief Inspector John Mulvany and Inspector George Harvey of L Division and said they were local officers who would review his grievance against the police. The Metropolitan Police detectives investigating the Lambeth poisonings had heard a lot about Cream, but it was the first time they had met him face-to-face.

Cream brought along his samples case, worn at the edges from use, to prove he was a drug manufacturer’s agent. The only reason police might be interested in him, he suggested, was “some indecent portraits” he carried around. These, he assured the officers, had been destroyed. Cream admitted, as McIntyre recalled the conversation, that he had been “a good deal about with women” – being careful not to admit they were prostitutes – “but did not think that a crime.”

McIntyre arranged to meet Cream at his lodgings a few days later. As they chatted, he noted that Cream knew a lot about the Lambeth poisonings.

“He talked readily about the girls,” the sergeant recalled, “and I remarked he appeared to be well up in the history of the case.”

Cream brushed him off, saying he had been following coverage of the deaths in the British Medical Journal, which was already comparing Lambeth’s “poisoner of prostitutes” to Jack the Ripper. “Being a medical man,” Cream said, “I take an interest in matters of this kind.”

Robert Anderson, meanwhile, was under pressure to make an arrest in the Lambeth poisonings. Appointed assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police amid the Ripper killings, he had been monitoring L Division’s investigation since the previous October. But by mid-May, when the secretary of state for the Home Office, Henry Matthews – the minister responsible for Scotland Yard – asked for an update on the investigation, Anderson had little to report. Prostitutes believed to have met the killer were being tracked down and questioned, he told the minister, with little success. “These women,” as one frustrated investigator had noted in an internal report, “are so unreliable.”

Then Cream stepped squarely into Anderson’s sights. He retained the law firm Waters & Bryan to lodge a formal complaint of police harassment. He had been followed, interviewed several times, and, his lawyers claimed in a May 26th letter, threatened with arrest if he tried to leave London. “As our client is not conscious of any wrong on his part, he feels the inconvenience he is put to acutely.” His business as a drug salesman had suffered. Further contact with the police, the lawyers demanded, should be handled through Cream’s solicitors.

The commissioner of the Metropolitan Police referred the complaint to Anderson, who summoned McIntyre. Cream, the sergeant explained, was concerned he would be arrested if he left London to visit his fiancée, Laura Sabbatini, in Berkhamsted. “I told him I thought there was no fear of that,” McIntyre said, and he had offered to walk with him to Scotland Yard to confirm he was free to travel.

They were partway across Westminster Bridge, in sight of Metropolitan Police headquarters, when Cream backed out. He seemed to suspect McIntyre was luring him into a trap. “He would not go any further with me,” McIntyre recalled, “as he thought I was not acting straight with him and that he had been advised to see a lawyer.” The sergeant was surprised the incident had sparked a formal complaint.

Anderson saw an opportunity to turn the harassment allegation to Scotland Yard’s advantage. The stalled Lambeth investigation, he believed, had reached a crisis point. It was time to put a new, more experienced officer in charge of the case. He contacted Cream’s lawyers. “I am anxious to have the matter thoroughly sifted,” he assured them, and he wanted their client’s side of the story. Inspector John Bennett Tunbridge, one of his senior detectives, would investigate. Unknown to Cream, however, the detective he was about to meet was not interested in how he had been treated by the police. He was the new officer in charge of the investigation into the Lambeth poisonings.

Tunbridge was a rising star at Scotland Yard. He had joined the Metropolitan Police at 19, earned his sergeant’s stripes within four years, and was still in his twenties when he was promoted to inspector. Colleagues considered him one of the smartest detectives on the force. “As wary as a night hawk and sharp as a needle,” an awestruck reporter wrote after seeing him testify.

George Dilnot, a policeman turned writer, remembered him as a methodical investigator, “capable of a brilliant coup from meager materials.” His carefully parted hair and the upturned ends of his thick mustache showed he was as meticulous about his appearance as he was about his investigations.

Tunbridge tackled his assignment with an open-minded, follow-the-facts approach. He was determined to review every scrap of evidence and look at the facts with fresh eyes before making up his mind about the possible identity of the killer the press would soon christen the Lambeth Poisoner.

He reported to Superintendent James Brannan at L Division’s Kennington Lane station on the afternoon of May 26th. Mulvany and Harvey briefed him, then turned over the hefty investigative file for review. Tunbridge scoured the eyewitness descriptions of a man known as “Fred”, who had supplied the poisoned pills to the victims. Most mentioned he wore thick glasses and was cross-eyed or had a squint, he noted, and “Neill has this peculiarity”.

Something else stood out for Tunbridge – one of the women, as she lay dying, had said the man who gave her the pills was a doctor. “We have a man answering Neill’s description as to size and age, he was wearing glasses and, most important of all was known as the doctor.”

Tunbridge called on Cream at his Lambeth lodgings at eleven o’clock on May 29th on the pretext of seeking more information about the complaint of harassment. “He was in a highly nervous state,” the inspector recalled, “and trembled visibly.” Cream had been taking more opium and morphine than usual and seemed to be cracking under the strain of the police scrutiny.

When he refused to be drawn into a discussion of the poisoning cases, Tunbridge backed off and asked him about his work as a salesman. Cream produced his samples case and described some of the medications. The GF Harvey Company’s pills were “much more agreeable and convenient,” he said, than “old-fashioned” spoonfuls of liquid medicine. One bottle caught Tunbridge’s eye. The label indicated that each of the tiny pills inside contained one-sixteenth of a grain of strychnine.

“It would be highly dangerous to let these articles get into the hands of the public,” Cream noted. He sold them only to doctors and druggists, “who would dispense them to their patients in the proper quantities.”

Tunbridge spent about an hour with Cream. When he emerged into the bright sunshine of the spring day, his mind was made up. “Under all the circumstances,” he told his superiors, “I respectfully submit that suspicion points very strongly at present to Neill as the murderer.”

Dean Jobb, an award-winning author and the true crime columnist for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, teaches in the MFA in Creative Nonfiction program at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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