Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Dr. Thomas Neil Cream

In Chicago

"They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I have seen your
painted women under the gas lamps luring the farm boys..."

— Carl Sandburg

Cream found it hard to believe that the city he walked through after alighting from the train in August, 1879, had been burned to the ground only eight years earlier. Chicago was now big and brawny, headstrong with assurance, a gargantuan of iron and brick. From the sandy shores of Lake Michigan, the city sprawled westward for miles, bearing with utmost confidence its experience. The air riveted a try-to-knock-me-down-again and-see-what-happens-to-you swagger. Mean sometimes, sometimes cruel, but at other times soft and winsome, even passionate, and steadfast always, Chicago was a testimonial to the longevity of the melting pot of cultures that, united, determined to remain in place, never to budge again even if the fires came straight from hell this time.

But, Chicago's mien was much, much more than idle cockiness. Its industry boomed. The Union Stockyards just south of downtown guaranteed it the meatpacking center of the world. Its geographic position being central-continental and plunked on the edge of the Great Lakes, ensured it the commercial bulls-eye of goods traveling from the Atlantic to the western frontier, and back again. Shipping and railcars converged there, to renew, to overhaul, to unload and reload before moving westward or eastward, over track or water, over prairie or mountain, to the other half of the nation that couldn't exist without Chicago being where it was, and what it was.

"Its population was soaring from some six-hundred-thousand citizens toward the million it would achieve in 1890," explains writer Angus McLaren in Prescription for Murder. "Its reputation for municipal graft, incompetent policing and working-class radicalism had already won it the title of the 'wickedest city in the world'.(That quote comes from Mark Thomas Connelly's shocking exposé of fallen angels in the Midwest entitled The Response to Prostitution in the Progressive Era.) Cream would play his part in sustaining this reputation."

Chicago Police, 1890's (Chicago Historical Society)
Chicago Police, 1890's
(Chicago Historical Society)

Dr. Cream's shingle appeared on Chicago's main artery, at 434 West Madison, the day after he passed the state board of health exam. His stay in the city was to be brief, but memorable, and would tragically involve members of the red-light district not far from where his office was located.

According to McLaren, Cream was not in Chicago long before he became suspected by the police as an abortionist who practiced the trade after regular office hours and strictly against the morality laws of the 1880s. He was not alone, for there was money to be made in the endeavor. Certain doctors who lived near the vice centers would visit female patients wishing an abortion at their own residence or at an out-of-the-way haven of their choice or dictated by a go-between "midwife" who took a percentage for her mediation. Many of the medics performing these operations were, unfortunately, quacks who botched their jobs, heartlessly leaving the unfortunate women to bleed to death or to contract illness from unclean instruments or home-made abortifacients. Cream was not a quack, but, from what is known of him, he felt little remorse if a patient succumbed.

His view of women had grown abnormal, and it was deepening. On one hand, he craved them sensually, sexually. He seemed immersed in their aura, yet perplexed, yet frightened, yet hateful of them. McLaren points to one source who bills himself only as "One Who Knew Him," who wrote of Cream: "He carried pornographic photographs" but spoke of such women in terms "far from agreeable". Others who shared conversations with Cream would later relate his aversion to females of low caste; he considered them little more than cattle made for butchering. Some scholars attribute his mania to the fact that, when in the company of a fast woman, he may have been unable to perform without the use of drugs; therefore, intimidated and reminded of his impotency, he manifested a loathing for anything that should have but failed to arouse him. Perhaps this was true, for the same anonymous author quoted above attests, "He was in the habit of taking pills, which, he said, were compounded of strychnine, morphia and cocaine and of which the effect, he declared, was aphrodisiac."

To present a psychological thesis of Thomas Neill Cream might require tomes, and it is this article's aim to state the facts, not to reflect on his psychosis. All testimony of Cream at this point tells of a man who was confused sexually, loved-hated women, and who cared nothing for the patients who came to him for an abortion beyond the coins they were willing to jingle for services rendered. To summarize, he most likely used his experiences in Chicago as an abortionist to mete out his feelings for the value — or lack of value — of lives of women outside his perception of morals and a moralistic sphere of existence.

As an abortionist in the West Madison neighborhood, Cream employed a series of self-made midwives whose duty it was to arrange for the illegal operations — brokers, if you may, between doctor and patient. When summoned by a client, the midwife rented a room in a particular lodging house to where all involved parties would converge behind drawn shades for the purpose of ending the pregnancy. Early in 1880, Cream brushed with the law, narrowly escaping a jail sentence for an abortion gone wrong. After a prostitute named Mary Anne Faulkner was found dead in a tenement flat, a fast-talking lawyer with political connections convinced a jury of twelve men that Cream's presence on the scene was to save the victim, after an unschooled midwife had bungled her abortion. The doctor was found not guilty.

Cream also managed to evade justice after supplying patient Ellen Stack with anti-pregnancy pills of his own design. She died, as they were laced with strychnine. Try as they could, the suspicious police could not directly tie the drug to their suspect.

But, he finally blundered in his murder of, surprisingly, not a female but a male patient. A brief Internet biography of Dr. Cream, written by Stephen P. Ryder and John A. Piper, tells this story: "When Cream wasn't murdering women and aborting babies, he took it upon himself to market his own personal elixir to combat epilepsy, and soon acquired quite a following by a number of patients who swore by the treatment. One of them, a railway agent named Daniel Stott, made the mistake of sending his wife to Cream's office for regular doses of the drug. Julia Stott received much more from the good doctor than just medicine...and when her husband finally became suspicious of the affair, Cream decided to add a bit of strychnine to the medicine. Mr. Stott died June 14, 1881, and had it not been for a move of great stupidity by (the) killer, Cream would have gotten off 'Stott' free..."

Worried that the death might reflect back on him, Cream wrote a letter to the coroner, accusing the pharmacist who, he claimed, added strychnine to his formula. Since the pharmacist was a man of exceptional reputation, the district attorney was wary. The body was exhumed and, as Cream attested, large doses of the poison were found in the dead man's stomach — but Cream, not the druggist, was blamed. Hearing of the warrant for his arrest, he escaped to Canada.

"On July 27 the readers of the Chicago Tribune were provided with a detailed account of Pat Garrett's tracking down and shooting in New Mexico of Billy the Kid," reports Angus McLaren. "The capture of Cream the same day by the Boone County sheriff at Bell Riviére, Ontario, was a far more prosaic affair. Cream put up no struggle and, after being questioned in Windsor, was returned to Illinois to stand trial for murder."

Mrs. Stott turned state's evidence to save her own neck and, in November, 1881, the courts sent Thomas Neill Cream packing to Joliet (Illinois) State Penitentiary for life.

By crooked means, he would receive a pardon a decade later. From behind prison walls he would emerge full of hate, evermore, for womankind.

After all, one had taken ten years off his life.

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