Book review: The Case of the Murderous Dr Cream, by Dean Jobb

This thoroughly-researched book about a Victorian serial killer shows how little some things have changed in the last 130 years, writes Joyce McMillan

Dr. Thomas Neill Cream

The Case of the Murderous Dr Cream is a book that contains 322 pages of text, and almost 100 more of notes, acknowledgments and index, testifying to the sheer scale of research undertaken by its author, Canadian crime writer and creative non-fiction professor Dean Jobb, in putting together this exhaustive study of the crimes of Thomas Neill Cream. Cream was born in Glasgow in 1850, emigrated to Canada with his family as a child, saw his father become one of Quebec City’s wealthiest citizens, trained as a doctor in Montreal and London, and – between his graduation from McGill University in 1876, and his hanging in London in 1892 – became one of the most notorious killers of the 19th century, responsible for the deaths by poisoning of at least ten people, many of them prostitutes, or other young women seeking help with unwanted pregnancies.

Cream’s murders took place in two clusters, the first in Canada and the United States between 1876 and 1881, when he was convicted of murder in Chicago, and the second – after his early release from prison – in London in 1891-92, when his apparently motiveless crimes at first almost baffled a Metropolitan Police Force already under pressure following the unsolved Jack The Ripper murders of 1888.

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In telling the story of Cream’s crimes, Jobb adopts a looping structure that alternates between these two time-frames in a way that does not always make for clarity, given how similar many of Cream’s crimes were. In the end, though, the book leaves behind four strong impressions, all suggesting that while our society has changed radically since the 1890s, many of the attitudes surrounding extreme crimes such as Cream’s remain strikingly similar. Although women in the west enjoy far greater economic power and social freedom today, they are still vulnerable to the violence of men fuelled by sheer misogynistic hatred. Although the technology of crime detection has advanced by leaps and bounds, the psychology of it remains remarkably similar, marked by a tension – between lazy policemen who leap to obvious conclusions, and those driven by a real passion for truth – that still features in almost every television cop show. Although people today are said to be more sceptical of “experts”, in fact a doctor or medical professional who takes to murder remains a uniquely dangerous killer, given the high levels of trust in the profession, and their constant access to both means and opportunity.

The Case of the Murderous Dr Cream, by Dean Jobb

And above all, the public fascination with crime that Jobb describes in Britain and the USA 130 years ago remains undiminished, as police procedurals dominate television drama schedules, and a new wave of true crime podcasts rivets listeners across the world. What Jobb’s book does not do is to attempt an explanation of how Cream suddenly morphed, during his years at McGill, from a pleasant and well-liked young man into a weird and drunken killer, who actively enjoyed cruelly ending the lives of the young women he regarded as “immoral." Jobb marshals the facts, though, with exemplary skill and diligence; and delivers them in gripping style, in a book that will doubtless find a vast and fascinated audience, across the English speaking world.

The Case of the Murderous Dr Cream: The Hunt for a Victorian Era Serial Killer, by Dean Jobb, by Algonquin Books, £21.99

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