Saturday, January 2, 2016

A look at one of the Ripper suspects

Prisoner 4347

By A. J. Griffiths-Jones

Publisher:  Austin Macauley Publishers Ltd. 

Pub. Date: May 29, 2015

Rating: 2 & 1/2 out of 5 stars


Of all the possible candidates for Jack the Ripper, Dr. Thomas Neil Cream may be the most unlikely. Born in 1850 and hung for murder at Newgate Prison in 1892, he is occasionally touted as one of the possible suspects. He was a murderer himself responsible for the death of several women and one man in Canada, the United States, and England. Yet his link to Jack the Ripper is only in the unsubstantiated rumor that he stated at the moment of his hanging, "I am Jack the...". (One biographer has suggested that Cream actually said in a moment of great fear and panic, "I am ejaculating" but that is probably as far fetched as "I am Jack the..".) But whatever rumors and innuendos existed to link him with Jack the Ripper, there are two bits of information that makes it nearly impossible.

1. Cream preferred poison not knives or surgical equipment. Serial killers rarely change their mode of operations. But even more convincing...

2. Thomas Neil Cream was in Joliet Prison in Illinois for a murder when the infamous Ripper slayings took place in 1888. He was not released until 1891.

In Prisoner 4374, A. J. Griffiths-Jones accounts the life and crimes of Thomas Neil Cream from his start as an abortionist at the age of 24 to his death at 42. I must say up front that I was a little disappointed with the back cover blurb that insinuated that Cream may have actually bribed his way out of prison to do the crimes and had a "doppleganger" take his place in his cell. For this is never a claim made in Griffiths-Jones' book. The author makes it clear early on that she does not believe Cream committed the Whitechapel murders. So what we have is a biography of sort about Cream who was dubbed the Lambeth Poisoner by the British press. The author chooses to tell the story of the Lambeth Poisoner in first narrative as Cream himself might have written it. And thus lies the problem. Is this a novel or a true crime documentation of his life? Although the author states she extensively researched her subject, and I am sure she did, there are no footnotes or appendix with references and some photos of Cream and papers such as a few letters and his sentence commutation which are too small to read and have no description of what they entail. With the first person narration it is difficult to assert the facts from what the author perceives in dramatic license as Creams' perception and opinion. So essentially, Prisoner 4374 only works as a fictional biography.

Fortunately, it works fairly well at that level. Griffiths-Jones does have a casual yet distinct style that brings out the personality in what must have been a charismatic if morally bankrupt man. The author adds a flair to the narrative and shows more than a little understanding of a anti-social personality depicted the way Cream makes excuses for his behavior and justifies his deeds. In its own way, it is an enjoyable read of a murderer who, despite the questionable linkage to Jack, has a certain villainous attraction of his own. One of the things that draws me to the story is that in Cream, we have a murderer who worked on two continents, something that is unusual and a dubious achievement at the time. Certainly anyone who enjoys reading about murderers and especially serial killers will find this entertaining.

But even though I enjoyed the story, It seems like there was a lot more to be said than a brief imaginary autobiography. Cream and his villainy stands equal to others in his Victorian times like H.H. Holmes and Jack the Ripper whoever he really was. There never was a real link to Jack the Ripper and it is unfortunate that the author felt she needed to tease that link to get it going. The good thing about this book is that it is a fine introduction to a singular villain of the late 19th century. The not so good thing is that it is mostly just a taste, not deciding if it wants to be fiction or biography. I would recommend this on the standalone weight of the subject matter and apart from the ludicrous Jack the Ripper connection. Also those who like books about serial killers, and there are more of us than you would guess out there, will enjoy reading about one that is lesser known than the usual subjects. But if you are attracted to the book solely on the Ripper connection, you will be disappointed.

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