Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Dr. Thomas Neil Cream

A Ripping Good Yarn

"It is not every question that deserves an answer."

— Publilius Syrus

When the trap door sprung below Dr. Cream, he was heard to shout — or some said he shouted — "I am Jack" and then eternity muffled the rest.

The immediate question here is: Was he about to say, "I am Jack the Ripper"? And a second question follows: "If not, what was he trying to say?"

Ripperologists love the fact that those were Cream's final words before he plunged to hell, because it adds so much to the delicious mystery of their beloved Mr. Ripper. For 112 years, everyone who had lived in Victorian London, or so it seems, was at one time or another considered for candidacy for the "Could he have been the big guy himself?" award. Among the suspects was a high-ranking member of the royal family (Prince Albert Victor), a seafarer with an Oedipus complex (Frederick Deeming), a teacher (Montague Druitt), a Polish barber (Severin Klosowski) and even a female midwife and abortionist (Mary Pearcey). Two of the more ridiculous suspects include Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland, and Francis Tumblety, an American ne'er-do-well who is also whimsically blamed for playing a cameo role in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

Now, about Cream. The fact that he was serving time in prison at Joliet, Illinois, thousands of miles across the Atlantic, while Jack was hacking away at poor prostitutes in Whitechapel (1888), hasn't deterred some from believing that Cream [might] be a fitting nominee to the Jack the Ripper Hall of Infamy.

For one, his supporters say his handwriting is close to that found in identified Ripper letters. But, so are some of the other suspects' handwriting. As well, they claim Cream had a double — yes, that's right, folks — a double, who sat in Joliet for him while he was able to travel to London and do his dirty deeds in the East End. (A mite more plausible explanation is that Cream may have bribed the guards at Joliet for an earlier release than was recorded. Considering the shenanigans of Illinois politics... well, maybe.)

Of the Cream-as-Jack theory, Stephen P. Ryder and John A. Piper write: "Most refute the theory on the grounds that Cream... was a poisoner, not a mutilator. It would make little sense for him to poison his (earliest) victims before 1888, then suddenly go on a murderous and vicious mutilating spree in that year, and then revert back to poisoning his women. His prison sentence adds only more fire to the arguments of the skeptics."

When dealing with the life story of a character personae the likes of Thomas Neill Cream, one needs to be careful; the deeper the psychoses of that person, the more abstract his or her life, the more that life generates fiction. There have been many doubtful "I knew Jack the Ripper" manuscripts passed off as fact; there has even been a Jack the Ripper "autobiography," which remains highly questionable. Many of these works are convincing, and some of them place Cream in the London of 1888 without referring to the hard facts that otherwise would have gotten in the way of a juicy tale.

So, was he going to say "I am Jack the Ripper?" We'll never know. Because of the ego he had — and he had a tremendous ego, judging by the fact that he laughed in the face of Scotland Yard by exposing his own knowledge of the Lambeth murders to anyone who listened — he might have simply wanted to go out with something many of us dream of: immortality. What better, albeit insidious, way than to claim he was the biggest thing to hit the annals of crime since Cain's murder of Abel?

If he was not going to say, "I am Jack the Ripper?", then let us muse a moment about other possibilities. "I am Jack in the Box"? "I am Jack Frost"? "I am Jack O'Lantern"? "I am Jack of All Trades"? Maybe he was reaching for sympathy by going the self-pity route: "I am a jackass"

Perhaps, he thought that if he proved his poetic skills, the Royal Poets' of London might whoosh in at the final moment and induct him into their society, thus saving his neck. What a thought! Couldn't you just hear him now?

"I am Jack the Ripper, I am Neill Cream,
I'm really schizophrenic... well, you know what we mean."

God have mercy, Dr. Cream.

...Oh, and on you, too, Mr. Ripper.

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