Even by the standards of the era, Cream was considered a misogynist. He talked compulsively of his hatred of prostitutes — “a menace to society” — and spoke freely “of his desire to rid the earth of these unfortunate beings.” He would force strangers to admire pornographic postcards he carried in his pocket, and regale them with stories about sleeping with prostitutes and performing abortions.
Despite his repugnant subject, Jobb’s excellent storytelling makes the book a pleasure to read. He evokes the “plank sidewalks and muddy streets” of London, Ontario, as skillfully as he does the “netherworld of flickering gaslight and sinister fog” of London, England. Judicious shifts in time period, from Cream’s early murders in the United States to his later spree in London, keep the narrative moving, while carefully chosen digressions into the histories of poison, surgery and law enforcement provide much needed breaks from the doctor.
Jobb bolsters his narrative with fascinating supporting characters, such as the expert toxicologist Dr. Thomas Stevenson, who “could identify dozens of poisons by taste,” and the Scotland Yard inspector Frederick Smith Jarvis, who, when a murder suspect leveled a pistol at his head, “slowly closed his hand on the weapon and slipped it from his assailant’s grasp.” And he takes palpable delight in Victorian newspapers’ weakness for puns. Some of the standouts include: “whipped Cream,” “bad Cream” and “Such a cow-ardly man ought to be cream-ated.”
But it wasn’t witty headlines that brought Cream down. It was his own blistering arrogance, which bordered on stupidity. He had a strange habit of attempting to blackmail strangers for crimes he had committed. In 1881, he was arrested after sending postcards accusing a furrier of infecting his entire family with syphilis. At his arraignment, Cream pleaded ignorance, saying, “People over in Canada did this sort of thing and never got into trouble for it.”
It took a truly baffling act of self-incrimination for Cream to finally be caught. When an Illinois stationmaster named Daniel Stott died during an apparent epileptic seizure in 1881, the local coroner saw no need to perform an autopsy until he began receiving telegrams from Cream, saying Stott “did not die from natural causes. It looks as if he died from strychnine poisoning.”
After sending a series of increasingly frantic messages, Cream succeeded in having Stott’s body exhumed — and making himself the prime suspect in what was quickly declared a murder. This time, no amount of medical bravado could save him from conviction. He was sentenced to life imprisonment in Joliet, and his criminal career should have ended there.
But in less than a decade, Cream would be pardoned, allowing him to go to England and begin his work anew. As before, there would be nothing romantic about his crimes. He simply liked killing. When the world failed to punish him for it, he kept on.