Features | Death by Cream

One McGill grad's sexmurders

Of familiar, driven, type-A stock, McGill grad Thomas Neill Cream managed to kill at least nine people transatlantically in the sixteen years after receiving his medical degree in 1876.  That’s .56 people – about a half-person – per year, which is a pretty competitive rate for a medical student, and just generally a notable standard for the rest of us to think about come convocation. Some think Cream was Jack the Ripper, which is unlikely, but he was probably the first globalized modern serial killer, a fact that needs to get on McGill admissions brochures. On the Case of Cream, a certainly pale and himself-creamy British criminologist wrote, “the bare facts are sufficiently hideous; they need no embroidery.” Well, uh, I’ve come to embroider.

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It’s 1891 and Cream’s killing women in London. He’s fresh from a Chicago prison – having killed a dude, his Dad’s money subsequently bought him clemency – and mostly bored. He spends his days at home reading and writing, his nights at music halls and “having connection” with prostitutes. He’s restless, and always afraid of being alone. He wears a dark mackintosh and a flat-topped Monopoly©-man felt hat. His cross-eyes squint tight like a caricature of evil, and he’s bearding like Freud and balding like everyone else. He has a penchant for showing people photographs of 1) himself and 2) porn. He’s addicted to strychnine, morphine, and cocaine, which our man considers an aphrodisiac. And he’s obsessed with women.

His day job is as a doctor, but, mostly, he performs abortions. Girls come to him for abortifacients (abortion-inducing chemicals) to “get them out of the family way.” He tells friends back home he has “lots of fun with women” in London. Like an ashamed New Jerseyan abroad, he tells prostitutes he’s from New York. One night, after fucking a prostitute, one Violet Beverley, he prepares her what he calls an “American drink” made of the pills he often carried with him. (Violet declined). Most likely, it’s strychnine, his recreational drug of choice, which is lethal in large doses. Strychnine is a colorless, bitter alkaloid/pesticide – C21H22N2O2 – and it carries out the following procedure once about 30 milligrams get in you:

 

1. An overwhelming, blood-level feeling of terror and apprehension (consciousness is never lost; mind is 100% clear and aware throughout)

2. Sea sick nausea and stomach-emptying puking

3. Uncontrollable facial twitching; pupils & eyeballs like carrion-Jackson in the “Thriller” video

4. Mouth frothing

5. Exorcistic convulsions of the entire body

6. A respite

7. Continued violent holy-fool spasms

8. A sense of suffocation and of being stamped out

9. Blue lips, muscles rigid, lungs contracting

10. Death, setting in over the course of 1-3 hrs from lack of oxygen; your body locked in hyperex- tension; your face sometimes fixed in a macabre grin (risus sardonicus)

 

Another list – this of Cream’s victims, the people most familiar with the preceding sequence:

 

Flora Eliza Brooks (died August 12, 1877)

Kate Gardener (May 8, 1879)

Mary Anne Faulkner (August 23, 1880)

Ellen Stack (December, 1880)

Daniel Stott (June 13, 1881)

Ellen Donworth (October 13, 1891)

Matilda Clover (October 20, 1891)Emma Shrivell (April 12, 1892)

Alice Marsh (April 12, 1892)

 

Even by murderer standards, Cream’s a jerk. When he thinks one guy didn’t pay his medical bill, Cream snail-mailingly spams him: one letter says his wife and kids contracted a disease from their pater familias; he has a bastard child; his wife’s a “low, vulgar vixen.” He once killed a guy – Daniel Stott, see lists – by a strychnine overdose, claimed the druggist from whom he bought the admixture was responsible, blackmailed him, tipped the police off to him, and then helped the daughter of the deceased sue him.

But remember: our man Cream was known to the London cops as an “extremely sensual person.” It’s an attitude he picked up in his frolics at Old McGill.

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Thomas Neill Cream – born in Glasgow, raised in Quebec City – signed the McGill register on November 12, 1872. He studied medicine, and lived on Mansfield. Cream was aptly named for a denizen of Victorian Montreal, which hosted a soul-crushing whiteness of Lords and Sirs, men who could still pass with names like “Lord Strathcona” and could still bald and beard themselves unpathetically and unironically.

The son of a shipbuilding and lumber firm manager, he was classic fin-de-siècle nouveau riche stuff. He had a pleasing voice, rode down St. Denis in a stylish carriage, wore ostentatious clothes, and lots of jewelry. He was known as a “fast and extravagant liver.” Cream was that guy at frosh who barked out drink-commands, but kept to himself between pubs, that guy who would whip his dick out at Miami without being asked – those quotidian sociopaths, the “that guy”s of retrospective fun-making, who we disassociate with by third year and hope that they’ve calmed down. Or maybe he’s that dandyish, archly sartorial guy with the fedora, black and gray toned prom-suit-vest-and-tie, and ambitious plaid patterns here and there, a cigarette always at hand. Either option’s got pretty well-off parents.

In September 1874, fresh into third year, Cream took out some fire insurance. In his last month here, he set fire to his room and caused a little damage. He sent off a claim for $978.40, which was promptly disputed, but was ultimately reduced to $350 and paid out.

His graduation photo shows him with short bristling hair and long side-whiskers, a sporting young man and a good musician who occasionally taught Sunday school. During his four years as a Redman, he worked summers in Quebec City. His teacher was Sir William Osler, of Osler Library renown. He specialized in obstetrics and graduated with honours in 1876. He wrote his thesis on chloroform. His official registry document, as it reaches us in 2011, states in hurricane-windy-slanted cursive under “other information”:

 

DEAD

Tried for murder at central criminal court London England 

Found guilty 

Executed at Newgate 

 

It’s no small mark of merit to have your McGill transcript – that irreducible yet petty ticket of bureaucratic ontology – held in some actual human regard, even if it’s gravedancing. Cream did what countless anonymous student #’s never could: make an institution individualize and flesh out a man with his short plot and death. One wonders twice: why did McGill record the legal life and death of a specific alumnus? And will I – or: can I – receive the same honour?

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Now, with Cream, there’s always Women. Soon after graduation, he meets a nice girl named Flora Brooks from Waterloo, Quebec when she’s visiting Montreal. He promptly knocks her up and, then, flush with his new degree, performs the abortion himself. Mr. Brooks finds out shortly, and drives off to Montreal, where he exacts a marriage from Cream. Cream comes to Waterloo and weds at gunpoint (at the point of Mr. Brook’s gun, in fact), then sets off for England the following day. From there, he mails back some pills to Flora, who dies mysteriously, though her doctor suspects Cream of “foul play.” Regardless, Cream stakes a claim to a thousands dollars, willed out in his and Flora’s marriage contract, though Mr. Brooks only coughs up $200.

Moving between London and Chicago, he frequents prostitutes and haute society gatherings – nothing was more a la mode in 1878 than a well-kept Scot. Except for the killing part, he largely treats his prostitutes with patriarchal charm, giving them wine and roses, hopefully listening to them, and definitely talking to them. As an obstetrician, most of his patients are women. In 1803, getting an abortion became punishable by death in Britain. With the Offences Against the Person Act of 1861, Parliament cordially reduced the woman’s punishment to “penal servitude for life.” Surely, our fellow Martlet Cream, with his mellifluous name, was performing a service for women that the state would not abide.

Except he was a sordid motherfucker. Cream, to another hoary, creepy white guy (his lawyer): “I made a practice of poisoning dissolute girls in Canada.” His main conversational topics:  Money, Poison, and Women, a telling triumvirate. He’d brag of the cheapness of London prostitutes, of having three women in five hours for a shilling each. Cream wantonly blurred the usually firm line drawn between the sexual proclivities and day jobs of responsible medical practitioners. As Angus McLaren put it in his A Prescription for Murder: The Victorian Serial Killings of Dr. Thomas Neill Cream, “the straps and stirrups of the obstetrical consulting room conjured up too readily images of pornographic bondage, a pornography in which Cream indulged.”

Late Victorian medicine was all about deceiving women re: abortion practices, even to kill them in “retributive deaths.” As these of-the-era M.Ds said: “Women are obliged to believe all that we tell them. They are not in a position to dispute anything we say to them, and we, therefore, may be said to have them at our mercy.” Or, “To save a child from death, and a mother from crime, what could be a more wonderful result.” File those under Things Doctors Said That I Wish Weren’t Said.

So, women come to him in full confidence, ask for something illegal, and Cream kills them for their trouble. In the murky, whale oil-fired light of Victorian mores, you see the sick logic: these women dwelt in crime and sought more by their abortions. If they were found out, they would spend the rest of their lives in some bronchial prison somewhere. The abortionist keeps them alive at his discretion. And, of course, failure rates for these proto-back alley abortionists were murderously high. Cream’s esteemed kill count surely balloons beyond official numbers – those untold botched abortions that were neglected, even appreciated.

Maybe W. Teignmouth Shore was referring to something more than Cream’s obvious psychopathy when he wrote in the preface of 1923’s Trial of Thomas Neill Cream,  “He may have had a half-crazy delight in feeling that the lives of the wretched women he slew lay in his power.”

 

So uh, McGill once, McGill twice…

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In his 1993 play, Thomas Neill Cream (Mystery at McGill), David Fennario wrote that “Cream was indeed the school spirit of McGill University.”  I can’t really speak to the aesthetic merit of the play – there’s this Greek chorus of women who repeat names, cliches, and finish each others’ lines, like a grimmer version of St. Laurent and Prince Arthur any given Saturday night; stage directions like “THE DEAD, LAURIER and CREAM climax”; and this gem:

 

CREAM: The essential condition for the male is sufficient erection of the penis.

 

WOMAN 1: The cock.

 

WOMAN 2: The prick.

 

WOMAN 1: The tool.

 

However much I shit on Fennario’s play, wrenched out of context, he’s got a decent take on Cream for the 2011 vintage of McGill:

 

CREAM: But no, we don’t talk about such things, do we, gentlemen? We don’t talk about why you had me erased, oh yes, from your bibliographies, purged from your official histories and expelled from my profession. A man who was your friend and associate, who shared your dreams and ambitions and helped you created the McGill that we have today. A McGill that lies, a McGill that cheats, a McGill that has very good reasons for hiding the fact that I ever existed…

 

I want very much, however spuriously, or half-comically, to echo that Cream is the school spirit of McGill. It’s an institution that matriculated a class-warring serial killer and hasn’t changed much internally since that Victorian epoch. I mean, run your eyes over the e-portraits of the current administration: it’s a thick, rich vanilla that loses out to even the Bush Administration in demographic stats. It’s an idea of a McGill that can produce a man able to solicit clemency through his father’s money and influence, a man who can – and did – sit undisturbed on a transatlantic sail after being convicted of murder, with chiefs of police as dining companions. This is a McGill of brutal injunctions, brutaler biking policy, and brutalist buildings, one that unilaterally shuts down beloved cafes, wars against the very use of their name, and generally just hates its staff and students beyond photo-ops in the pages of the McGill Reporter or the THES/QS rankings. I can’t shake this idea that perhaps we students, we vessels of Cream-y ambition, are Thomas Neill’s, McGill’s Miltonic Satans, carrying a Martlet fluttering in our breast wherever we go. It’s an idea about the ambition that keeps us in class and many of us politically remote, that fulfills McGill’s cancerous motto, grandescunt aucta labore – “by work, all things increase and grow.” Including iniquity, I guess:

 

CREAM: Oh yes, I was ambitious. A young man, a young British gentleman at the very time and peak of the British Empire. And I wanted the Good Life. I wanted my share of the power and the glory, and the fuck and the suck and the moan and the groan of it. And did you think we were only photographs? Did you think we were very much different from you?


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