17 September: Physician, hang thyself

Suspense: Doctor of Poison (CBS, 1951)

Charles Laughton (shown here with Rosalind Russell on another radio broadcast) plays one of history's most infamous of deadly doctors. (Photo: NBC.)

Charles Laughton (shown here with Rosalind Russell on another radio broadcast) plays one of history’s most infamous of deadly doctors. (Photo: NBC.)

The Scot-Canadian physician who tried to frame one too many for his crimes after leaving America for England and drawing the concurrent attention of the London police in the 19th Century gets the Suspense treatment tonight.

Born in Glasgow, transplanted to Canada at age four, Thomas Neill Cream—the eldest son of a shipbuilder—graduated medical school with a curious reputation for immersion in the workings of drugs that could and did de-sensitise patients. At the time it must have seemed a mere curiosity; in due course, it would be seen as an unheeded warning sign.

That graduation was also accompanied by a shotgun marriage. Cream impregnated a girl and aborted the baby soon enough, compelling her family’s outrage and insistence upon marriage. But he disappeared the morning after the wedding to travel to London and, he hoped, more advanced medical study.

Married or no, his taste for the ladies—particularly attractive and wealthy ladies at that—often interfered with his study, which helped him take longer than some believed necessary to matriculate to Scotland’s Royal College of Physicians. Concurrently, he had an equal taste for prostitutes, at first, until (it would be surmised often) their strangely easy, inexpensive availability came to mortify him.

Could that combination clashing with his shotgun marriage have seeded the transformation of a stylish (some said foppish) young dandy into a sociopathic killer? Could the death of the young wife he didn’t truly wish to marry—possibly due to ingredients in medications he sent her from abroad upon learning she was seriously ill, though it would never be proven whether he’d mixed them with deliberate intent in this instance—have ignited the transformation further?

Cream finally passed the Royal College and relocated back to Canada to practise in London, Ontario in 1878. Almost immediately, he found scandal. An unmarried patient to whom he refused abortifacient medications died. The doctor suggested it might be suicide, a suggestion rejected by a medical inquest, though he wasn’t charged formally with any crime in the case.

The scandal paralysed Cream’s practise, however, and he closed it down to move to Chicago. There, he set up as an abortionist, over which he would be prosecuted and acquitted, when his legal team convinced a jury he was trying to save a prostitute from an undertrained midwife. He also escaped prosecution in another death, a female patient who took a crude birth control pill he’d designed . . . laced with strychnine. Prosecutors and police in that case couldn’t tie him to the pill directly.

But Cream finally landed a life sentence in Joliet. The husband of a woman with whom he was having an affair died after taking a formula the doctor developed claiming it to fight epilepsy—a formula that included strychnine. Between Cream’s bid to try pinning the poisoning on an innocent pharmacist, and his paramour’s turning state’s evidence to spare herself complicity in the crime, the doctor was convicted.

He served ten years before receiving a pardon that may or may not have been paid for by a brother. He returned to London in 1891 armed with a small inheritance from his father. From there, he committed five poisonings between 1891 and 1892—with all five victims prostitutes. Again, he tried framing others, in this case two respectable physicians, neither of whom had anything to do with the crimes even peripherally.

Those attempts began causing authorities to wonder whether he might be the now-notorious Lambeth Poisoner, named in honour of the road where he lived. They received further ammunition when Cream was foolish enough to offer a visiting New York police officer a tour of the area where the Poisoner’s victims lived—and disclosed a strikingly detailed knowledge of the crimes to the visitor. Enough that the officer passed the encounter on to a British gendarme, leading to the final unraveling of the doctor’s crimes.

Thomas Neill Cream, the Lambeth Poisoner. (Photo: British Library.)

Thomas Neill Cream, the Lambeth Poisoner. (Photo: British Library.)

Cream was prosecuted formally for one of the five 1891-92 poisonings, that of Matilda Clover. He was convicted after a reputed ten minutes’ deliberation and sentenced to death, going to the gallows 15 November 1892. Though public hangings had been discontinued long before in England, a crowd outside the prison cheered when the black flag arose, the signal that the condemned had been executed.

The Lambeth Poisoner would likely have been notorious unto eternity as it was, but a legend arose that Cream on the gallows began to claim himself as Jack the Ripper just as he was to fall through the floorboard door. Ripperologists of the future would point to that often enough as part of a case for Cream being the Ripper. The problem was (and would remain) that Cream was still imprisoned in Joliet while the actual Ripper crimes were committed.

On one thing would historians agree in due course: Cream showed not a drop of remorse for his crimes. And in time it would be revealed that one of history’s most murderous physicians graduated medical school in a grotesquely ironic circumstance. The graduation ceremonies included a dean’s address with a chillingly prescient subject: “The Evils of Malpractise in the Medical Profession.”

Adapting such a story seems only too much a natural for Suspense even though the outcome is only too notorious. Tonight, Charles Laughton gives a understated, often shivering performance as Cream, heading a cast that makes even this watered-down interpretation work so vividly as to make even such a comparatively benign telling of Cream’s story a little too grisly for even the strongest stomach.

Additional cast: Jeannette Nolan, Joseph Kearns, Betty Hartford, Georgia Ellis, Alma Lawton, Herbert Butterfield. Music: Bernard Herrmann. Director: Elliott Lewis. Writer: Antony Ellis.




Vic & Sade: Uncle Fletcher Cleans House (NBC, 1941)—Bernadine Flynn, Art Van Harvey, Clarence Hartzell, Bill Idelson. Sade has too much work to do to accompany Ruthie Stenbottom on a downtown jaunt, a load Uncle Fletcher is only too happy to lighten for her, to her delight. Who could blame her? Announcer: Vincent Pelletier. Writer/director: Paul Rhymer.

The Great Gildersleeve: McGee’s Invention (NBC, 1944)—Harold Peary, Louise Erickson, Lillian Randolph, Walter Tetley, Earle Ross. Freshly ousted as water commissioner, Gildy’s surprised to hear from old buddy-nemesis Fibber McGee with a proposition to make both men rich . . . and annoyed that he has to wait for a letter to learn just what it is. They could have flipped this into a Fibber McGee & Molly episode and it would have been just as funny. Writers: John Whedon, Sam Moore.

The Mel Blanc Show: Mel Bakes a Prize-Winning Putty Cake (CBS, 1946)—Mel Blanc, Mary Jane Croft, Joseph Kearns, Earle Ross, Bea Benaderet. Mel and Betty look forward to the county fair, until Mel’s hired to fix the YWCA’s kitchen ovens, crimping her plans to win the fair’s baking contest. Buy the premise, buy the program, though Blanc manages to beat the weak material into near-submission. Writers: David Victor, Herb Little, Jr..

My Favourite Husband: Liz and the General (CBS; AFRS Rebroadcast, 1948)—Lucille Ball, Richard Denning, Ruth Perrott. An eccentric neighbour to Liz is a whack job to George . . . but he’s also a retired Army general whose week’s isolation isn’t exactly his normal way of life. You can just feel the writing jelling in earnest with the heart of the superstar-in-waiting. Writers: Jess Oppenheimer, Madelyn Pugh, Bob Carroll, Jr.

You Bet Your Life: The Secret Word is “Chair” (NBC, 1952)—Groucho Marx, George Fenneman. Writers, probably just to be on the safe side: Ed Tyler, Hy Freedman.

Our Miss Brooks: Elopement with Walter (CBS, 1950)—Eve Arden, Jeff Chandler, Jane Morgan, Gale Gordon, Richard Crenna, Gloria McMillan, Paula Winslowe.Boynton’s involvement with the volunteer fire department gives Connie a clever togetherness idea—assuming she can trick Conklin into leaving his house to facilitate a practise ladder rescue. A rare trite script but still delivered credibly. Writer/director: Al Lewis.


Crime Drama

The Whistler: Sing a Song of Murder (CBS, 1945)—Unidentified cast; Bill Forman as the Whistler. His singing voice threatened by the stress of his unscrupulous manager and the man’s daughter, who brushes him off, a singer is more disturbed than pleased by his unexpected and overnight success. Better than you might expect. Writer: Robert Wright.

Richard Diamond, Private Detective: The Jerome J. Jerome Case (NBC, 1949)—Dick Powell, Virginia Gregg, Ed Begley, Wilms Herbert, Sam Waxman. A man claiming to be a songwriting millionaire federal agent amuses Helen but annoys Diamond, until Levinson tells him the man’s found a corpse. Maybe this should be called a crime comedy? Writer: Blake Edwards.


Drama/Dramatic Anthology

General Electric Theater: Cyrano de Bergerac (NBC, 1953)-a—James and Pamela Mason, Dan O’Herlihy, Ben Wright. Passable adaptation of the classic Rostrand play about a disfigured dramatist providing the poetic depth by which a shallow baron romances a beauty. Adaptation: James Pohl.



Gunsmoke: Thoroughbreds (CBS, 1955)—Thoroughbred horse owner Jack Portis (John Dehner) who impresses Matt (William Conrad) and Chester (Parley Baer) with the horses and with his well turned-out, intelligent if wary manner, is targeted by a man (Lawrence Dobkin) who claims he stole the horses from their slain owner. Kitty: Georgia Ellis. Doc: Howard McNear. Additional cast: Harry Bartell. Announcer: George Fenneman. Music: Rex Khoury. Sound: Ray Kemper, Bill James. Director: Norman Macdonnell. Writer: John Meston.



Edward R. Murrow: Counting the Parachutes (CBS, 1944)—His habitual flying aboard bombing runs married to his London Blitz rooftop reporting has prompted many at CBS to ponder whether their news champion has a death wish, and today is additional evidence: Murrow flies aboard such a run to report on the Allied invasion to liberate the Netherlands from the Nazi grip. The surviving recording will last a mere minute; what he reported will endure—particularly for the Dutch.

Special Report: Announcing the Invasion (BBC, 1944)—The BBC discloses the news of “strong forces” landing this afternoon, such as those Murrow will describe right aboard their aircraft, launching the invasion in earnest.

Special Report: “Let us say to each other this was the Lord’s doing”: Montgomery Addresses His Troops (BBC, 1944)—Gen. Bernard Montgomery speaks to his charges via radio, celebrating enemy losses in D-Day and its aftermath and bracing them for the Dutch invasion about to begin.



Special Report: A Secret House of Commons Session (BBC, 1940)—At the height of the London Blitz’s destruction, knowing British troops fear government sessions might further endanger the effort against the Third Reich, Prime Minister Winston Churchill announces three measures in the House of Commons on behalf of keeping the body’s sessions secret from enemy ears, and toward protecting House members under pending Nazi attacks on their building.

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