Excerpt: The Cast of the Murderous Dr. Cream by Dean Jobb

About the Book:

In the late 1800s, one of the first international serial killers murdered as many as ten people in the United States, Britain, and Canada. Over the span of fifteen years, Dr. Thomas Neill Cream targeted vulnerable and desperate women who came to him for medical advice, using his knowledge of poisons to conceal his crimes. Now, in the definitive account of his life, Dean Jobb’s THE CASE OF THE MURDEROUS DR. CREAM exposes the flawed detection methods, bungled investigations, corrupt officials, and stifling morality of Victorian era society that allowed Dr. Cream to prey on victims undetected, time after time. 

“When a doctor does go wrong he is the first of criminals,” Sherlock Holmes observed during one of his most baffling investigations. “He has nerve and he has knowledge.” Incredibly, at the time these words appeared in print, a real-life Victorian era doctor was well on his way to becoming one of the most prolific serial killers of his time. Dr. Cream had been a suspect in the deaths of two women in Canada and had killed as many as four people in Chicago, where he spent time in Joliet Prison but was released, arriving in London in 1891. There, he began using his signature method, pills laced with strychnine, to stalk and kill women. Jobb transports readers to the late nineteenth century as Scotland Yard tracks Dr. Cream’s movements through Canada and Chicago and finally to London, where new investigative tools called forensics were just coming into use and most investigators could hardly imagine that serial killers existed—the term was unknown. As the Chicago Tribune wrote, Dr. Cream’s crimes marked the emergence of a new breed of killer: one who operated without motive or remorse, who “murdered simply for the sake of murder.”

“Five years of research, travel, and writing took me to crime scenes, museums, courthouses, and archives in the United States, Canada, and England in search of overlooked evidence, forgotten documents and fresh insights,” says Jobb, a three-time winner of Atlantic Canada’s top journalism award, whose work as an investigative reporter has been nominated for Canada’s National Newspaper and National Magazine awards. “My goal was to tell, for the first time, the complete story of Dr. Cream’s horrific crimes, and the Scotland Yard investigation, expert testimony, and pioneering lab tests that finally brought him to justice. I wanted to see, first-hand, what survives of his world, and to expose the sexism, hypocrisy, and corruption that allowed one of history’s most prolific murderers to evade justice in three countries.”  

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A MAN CLAD IN A MACKINTOSH TO OUTSMART THE DAY’Sshowers, a top hat covering his bald head, turned up at the door of a townhouse at 103 Lambeth Palace Road. His name was Thomas Neill, he told the landlady, and he was in search of lodgings. He took the upper-floor room at the back. It was October 7, 1891, and Cream was back in Lambeth, a downtrodden maze of grimy slums and smoky factories across the Thames from the Gothic splendor of the Houses of Parliament. It was a London neighborhood he knew well: his rooming house stood opposite St. Thomas’ Hospital, where he had been a medical student more than a decade earlier. He could not help but notice that a new building, just downriver from the tower of Big Ben, had been erected since his last visit. Faced with bands of red brick and white stone and set on a foundation of granite quarried by inmates of Dartmoor and other prisons, it was the new headquarters of the Metropolitan Police, better known as Scotland Yard.

Cream was in the heart of the world’s largest city, the capital of an empire at its zenith. Swaths of scarlet on globes and maps staked Britain’s claim to the far-flung colonies and territories—and tens of millions of people—under Queen Victoria’s rule. London was a sprawling metropolis of more than five million, a glittering bastion of wealth and power built on a foundation of poverty, crime, and desperation. Church spires and the giant teapot dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral pointed skyward from a sea of slate roofs and chimneys belching black coal smoke. A chaos of carriages, freight wagons, and horse-drawn omnibuses clogged the main streets. At night, the sidewalks became a sea of bowlers and wide-brimmed feathered hats as men and women passed like ghosts through a netherworld of flickering gaslight and sinister fog. Pickpockets shouldered their way into the crowds in search of watches and billfolds. Prostitutes scanned the audiences at West End theaters and music halls in search of customers or strolled the adjacent Strand, transforming the busy thoroughfare, one observer lamented, into “one of the scandals of London.” Enclaves of the rich and privileged rubbed shoulders with foul, dangerous slums like Whitechapel where, just three years before, the notorious Jack the Ripper had brutally murdered five women. To an editor at the city’s Daily Chronicle, London was a modern Sodom and Gomorrah, “a great sin-stricken city.”

Lambeth rivaled Whitechapel as one of the city’s poorest, dirtiest, and most crime-ridden neighborhoods. Not even the police were safe—one bobby, a rookie on one of his first patrols, confronted a group of Lambeth thugs and was thrown through a plate-glass window. When the journalist Henry Mayhew set out to expose London’s nineteenth-century underworld, he headed for the “well-known rookery of young thieves in London.”

Children as young as five, he discovered, roamed the streets in ragged clothing, stealing to survive. “Fagin, Bill Sikes, and Oliver Twist would have all seemed quite at home in Victorian Lambeth,” the celebrated author Simon Winchester has written. “This was Dickensian London writ large.”

Lambeth’s industries choked the air with smoke and soot. Maudslay’s foundry forged parts for the steam engines, pumps, and other mechanical marvels that powered the Victorian Age. Earthenware jugs, chimney pots, and drainpipes were fired in Henry Doulton’s famous pottery works. Overhead, trains puffed and clacked on elevated rail lines that sliced through the heart of the neighborhood. Their destination was Waterloo Station, one of the city’s major terminals. Thousands of people—commuters who worked in the city, travelers bound for points in southern England, steamship passengers newly arrived from abroad via Southampton—passed through its doors every day. Even the dead disturbed the living. London’s cemeteries were so overcrowded that a special railway, the Necropolis line, shunted corpses from a local station to graveyards south of the city. Lambeth, the London historian Peter Ackroyd would note, “was, in every sense, a dumping ground.”

It was also considered the “most lurid and beastly” of the city’s red-light districts. The neighborhood surrounding Waterloo Station, a magnet for streetwalkers, became known as Whoreterloo. Brickwork supports for the station’s elevated tracks offered secluded spots where business could be transacted—the succession of “dark, damp arches,” one resident complained, “encouraged the more disreputable of the population.”

Prostitutes were described as “unfortunates” in the press, but some of the women working in the brothels, propositioning men on the street, or picking up clients at the Canterbury, Gatti’s, and other Lambeth music halls considered themselves fortunate. Life was precarious for young women from poor, struggling families. A sudden misfortune—the death of a parent or husband, the breakup of a marriage or relationship, losing a low-paying job as a maid or toiling in a factory—could leave them to fend for themselves. Some working-class women turned to prostitution,

the British academic Kathryn Hughes noted in an exploration of Victorian life and attitudes, when “the usual ways in which they got an income from their bodies—by working as a milliner, or a domestic or a factory hand—had come up short.” Selling sex, even for a few weeks or months, might be their only option, and it offered something most women, regardless of their social standing, were denied in the Victorian world: income and independence. One Lambeth prostitute told Mayhew she earned as much as four pounds a week, far more than she had made “workin’ and slavin’” as a servant in Birmingham.

Prostitutes seemed to be everywhere in Lambeth. There were “more women in the street than ever, and they are more brazen and persistent,” complained Rev. G. E. Asker of St. Andrew’s Church. Even he was being propositioned as he walked through the neighborhood. “The brothels are many of the perfect hells,” Asker added. “Shrieks and cries, ‘murder’ and so on, frequently are heard.”

For Lambeth’s newest resident, it would be a perfect hunting ground.

**Excerpt from The Case of the Murderous Dr. Cream: The Hunt for a Victorian Era Serial Killer by Dean Jobb © Copyright 2021 Dean Jobb and Algonquin Books. All rights reserved.**

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About the Author: Dean Jobb is an award-winning author and journalist and a professor at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he teaches in the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction program. He is the author of eight previous books, including Empire of Deception, which the New York Times Book Review called “intoxicating and impressively researched” and the Chicago Writers Association named the Nonfiction Book of the Year. Jobb has written for major newspapers and magazines, including the Chicago Tribune, Toronto’s Globe and Mail, and the Irish Times. He writes a monthly true-crime column, “Stranger Than Fiction,” for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. His work as an investigative reporter has been nominated for Canada’s National Newspaper and National Magazine awards, and Jobb is a three-time winner of Atlantic Canada’s top journalism award.

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