The man who would be Jack the Ripper

DR THOMAS Neil Cream was hanged for the murder of four London prostitutes in November 1892. His final words, "I am Jack" uttered before dancing the Tyburn jig, were ominous.

Ever since, Ripperologists have debated whether this was the "deathbed" confession of Jack the Ripper - who killed at least five prostitutes in Victorian London - or the ramblings of a raving egomaniac.

Cream was born in Glasgow in 1850, the eldest of eight children. The family moved to Canada when he was four, and in 1867 he enrolled at McGill College in Montreal as a medical student, graduating four years later.

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His first foray into crime may have been arson, setting fire to his college room to claim the insurance but his murderous tendencies towards women had yet to manifest themselves. They would soon.

When Flora Elizabeth Brooke, the daughter of a wealthy hotel owner, fell pregnant to Cream, he performed an abortion that nearly proved fatal for Brookes. Her irate father forced them to marry but it was short-lived, as Cream fled to London soon after.

Cream enrolled at medical school in London in 1876 but his social life interfered with his studies and he failed to earn his certificate. He subsequently moved to Edinburgh, where he successfully completed his studies at the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons. Cream returned to Canada, where his killing spree is said to have begun.

He preformed abortions, illegal at that time, and the first two killings appear connected his "work". The body of Kate Gardener was found in a shed smelling of chloroform. Under questioning Cream confirmed that she had requested an abortion but persuaded the coroner that he had only tried to help. As soon as he was set free Cream moved to Chicago.

It was not long before the body of a prostitute was found in mysterious circumstances. Once more a bungled abortion was to blame. Once more Cream got off.

In his spare time he manufactured and supplied anti-epilepsy drugs. When Daniel Stott grew suspicious about the frequency of his wife Julia's visits to Cream to pick up his prescription, the good doctor added a dash of strychnine to the epilepsy medicine. The husband died in June 1881.

Cream would probably have got away with murder had it not been for his suspicious behaviour. He wrote to the coroner accusing the pharmacist of poisoning Stott with strychnine. Having drawn attention to a possible crime, the body was exhumed and the poison found. But it was Cream, not the pharmacist, who stood trial for murder. He was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment at Illinois State Penitentiary.

Ten years later, in 1891, a corrupt system had released him. He boarded a ship bound for London, where he was soon prowling the city's slums hunting for victims.

He met Ellen Donworth, a prostitute, in October 1891. She was seen walking with a "topper" – a gentleman in a top hat – and later found slumped in her bed, apparently drunk. Between agonising stomach spasms she told witnesses that a tall, dark cross-eyed man had given her something to drink. She died on the way to hospital, a painful death that was later shown to be from poison – strychnine.

Just two days later Cream killed again. Matilda Clover, another prostitute, had the ignominy of having her death incorrectly attributed to alcoholism and no autopsy was performed.

The following April, Cream carried out his first double murder. This time he accompanied two prostitutes to their house. Alice Marsh and Emma Shrivell both died in excruciating pain.

By now the police realised they were dealing with a murderer, but it is entirely possible that Cream would have avoided detection had his own meddling not brought him to the attention of the authorities. He wrote letters, signed under different pseudonyms, accusing a number of respectable people of murder. One of the letters mentioned Matilda Clover, who until then had not been considered a murder suspect.

Cream's final act of self-destruction was to take a friend, a New York detective, around all the spots Cream considered the murderer would have used. He described the murders in such detail that the detective was left in little doubt that he was talking to the man responsible. Scotland Yard were informed and they began to gather evidence. Cream's Canadian convictions were uncovered and a handwriting analyst confirmed that he had written the letters.

At the trial the most damning piece of evidence came from Loo Harvey, a prostitute to whom he had given pills, but who had the foresight to throw them away.

Cream was found guilty and sentenced to hang.He would have been remembered as a heinous enough murderer in his own right, but his final death-cry brought an extra flurry of interest.

Clearly Cream had a violent and pathological hatred for women, prostitutes in particular. It is popularly thought that the Ripper may have had a medical background - which Cream certainly did. But is there any proof that he was the Whitehall killer? The short answer is no. Most of the Ripper murders took place around 1888 when Cream was serving time in an American prison.

The most enthusiastic fans can explain this seemingly watertight alibi. One bizarre theory revolves around him having a double, who did the time, while Cream did the crime. Perhaps he escaped or even bribed his way out of jail?

Few but the most impassioned pro-Cream enthusiasts really believe him to have been the Ripper. His modus operandi was to poison, not strangle. In the end Cream was as dangerous and deadly a killer of woman as the Ripper but he probably was not Jack. It seems certain that in the late 19th century London there was more than one madman prowling the streets.

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