This Victorian-Era Doctor Poisoned Sex Workers

Read an excerpt from Dean Jobb's The Case of the Murderous Dr. Cream.

A man clad in a mackintosh to outsmart the day’s showers, a top hat covering his bald head, turned up at the door of a townhouse at 103 Lambeth Palace Road. His name was Thomas Neill, he told the landlady, and he was in search of lodgings. He took the upper-floor room at the back. It was October 7, 1891, and Cream was back in Lambeth, one of London’s poorest, dirtiest, and most crime-ridden neighborhoods.

It was also considered the “most lurid and beastly” of the city’s red-light districts. The neighborhood surrounding Waterloo Station, a magnet for streetwalkers, became known as Whoreterloo. Brickwork supports for the station’s elevated tracks offered secluded spots where business could be transacted—the succession of “dark, damp arches,” one resident complained, “encouraged the more disreputable of the population.”

 “The brothels are many of the perfect hells,” Asker added. “Shrieks and cries, ‘murder’ and so on, frequently are heard.”

Prostitutes were described as “unfortunates” in the press, but some of the women working in the brothels, propositioning men on the street, or picking up clients at the Canterbury, Gatti’s, and other Lambeth music halls considered themselves fortunate. Life was precarious for young women from poor, struggling families. A sudden misfortune—the death of a parent or husband, the breakup of a marriage or relationship, losing a low-paying job as a maid or toiling in a factory—could leave them to fend for themselves. Some working-class women turned to prostitution, the British academic Kathryn Hughes noted in an exploration of Victorian life and attitudes, when “the usual ways in which they got an income from their bodies—by working as a milliner, or a domestic or a factory hand—had come up short.” Selling sex, even for a few weeks or months, might be their only option, and it offered something most women, regardless of their social standing, were denied in the Victorian world: income and independence. One Lambeth prostitute told Mayhew she earned as much as four pounds a week, far more than she had made “workin’ and slavin’” as a servant in Birmingham.

Prostitutes seemed to be everywhere in Lambeth. There were “more women in the street than ever, and they are more brazen and persistent,” complained Rev. G. E. Asker of St. Andrew’s Church. Even he was being propositioned as he walked through the neighborhood. “The brothels are many of the perfect hells,” Asker added. “Shrieks and cries, ‘murder’ and so on, frequently are heard.”

For Lambeth’s newest resident, it would be a perfect hunting ground.

She was leaning against a wall on Lambeth’s Waterloo Road, opposite the redbrick turret of the Wellington Public House. A steady stream of people crossed in front of her, emerging from Waterloo Station or rushing in the opposite direction to catch a train. It was a wet, bone-chilling October night. Gales and heavy rain had battered London all day, ripping boats from their moorings along the Thames and uprooting trees in city parks. But Ellen Donworth seemed to take no notice of the weather. Men stopped, spoke to her, and then accompanied her to a house a few steps away on a side street. After fifteen minutes or so, she was back at her post.

James Styles was standing outside the pub at quarter till eight when Donworth pitched forward onto the pavement. He ran to help. Her face was cut and bruised from the fall. A passing police officer stopped as well and asked if she needed medical attention. “I want to get home,” she said. Styles walked her to her room at 8 Duke Street. She was in pain and staggered as they walked the third of a mile, past the tenement blocks lining Stamford Street. Her body trembled. Her face twitched.

The spasms continued after she was put to bed. Donworth’s landlady and Annie Clements, a fellow lodger, came to her aid. Sometimes she was “perfectly sensible,” Styles recalled. Sometimes it took the three of them to hold her arms and legs as her body shook and lurched.

“A tall, dark, cross-eyed man gave me something to drink,” Donworth told Clements. The bottle contained “some white stuff.”

John Johnson, a medical assistant summoned from a nearby clinic, thought he recognized the cause of the severe, intermittent convulsions. Strychnine poisoning. “She had all the symptoms of it,” he recalled. She had to be taken to the hospital. Immediately. “Let me die at home,” Donworth protested. She was bundled into a cab for the half-mile ride to St. Thomas’. By the time the carriage arrived, she was dead.

George Percival Wyatt, coroner for the counties of London and Surrey, convened an inquest at the hospital two days later, on October 15. A picture emerged of a short, hard life. Donworth was only nineteen, the jury was told, the daughter of a laborer. Pregnant at sixteen, she had left home to live with the child’s father, Ernest Linnell, who was a teenager as well. The child died soon after it was born. Linnell worked odd jobs; Donworth was hired to paste labels onto bottles in one of Lambeth’s factories. But by the fall of 1891 both had been unemployed for months.

“A tall, dark, cross-eyed man gave me something to drink.”

What did they live on? Wyatt asked as Linnell told his story. “She used to walk the streets,” he confessed, “and bring the money home.” The revelation set off murmurs in the hearing room. Not only was Donworth a prostitute, one newspaper noted with disdain, but in addition Linnell had been living on “the proceeds of the girl’s degradation.”

An autopsy revealed no obvious cause of death. The inquest was adjourned to allow Dr. Thomas Kelloch, the house physician at St. Thomas’, to test the contents of Donworth’s stomach.

L Division of the Metropolitan Police, which patrolled the Lambeth district, opened a file on the case on October 19. Officers questioned prostitutes who had seen Donworth enter the house near Waterloo Station with three men in the hour before she collapsed. All three looked like tradesmen, and none resembled Donworth’s description of the man who gave her a drink. “Police have ascertained that she could not be in the company of a tall dark man,” Chief Inspector Colin Chisholm noted, “from the time she left home until she was found in Waterloo Road.”

When the inquest resumed on October 22, Dr. Kelloch confirmed she had been poisoned. His analysis of her stomach found strychnine and traces of morphine. A few more details emerged about the tall, cross-eyed man. Annie Clements said Donworth had received two letters from him, and he had arranged to meet her the night she died. The letters had disappeared—Clements believed the man had asked Donworth to return them. The writing on the envelopes was neat, she testified, “more like a lady’s than a gentleman’s.”

Coroner Wyatt did not realize it yet, but he had seen the same handwriting a few days earlier. He had received a strange letter claiming Donworth had been murdered:

To G. P. Wyatt, Esq., Coroner,

I am writing to say that if you and your satellites fail to bring the murderer of Ellen Donworth, alias Ellen Linnell, late of 8, Duke Street, to justice, I am willing to give you such assistance as will bring the murderer to justice, provided your Government is willing to pay me £300,000 for my services; no pay unless successful.

It was signed A. O’Brien, Detective. Three hundred thousand pounds was a ludicrous figure—tens of millions of dollars in today’s terms. Wyatt assumed the letter must be the work of a prankster. He filed it away and made no mention of it at the inquest.

With the testimony complete, the jurors agreed on a verdict. “Deceased died from strychnine and morphia poisoning,” the foreman announced, “but how administered there was no evidence to show.”

To Scotland Yard, there was only one possible explanation. “There is little doubt that she took the poison herself, knowingly,” Chief Inspector Chisholm reported to his superiors. Donworth had been depressed since the death of her child, and resorting to a life of prostitution “no doubt preyed upon her mind.” After the inquest Chisholm spoke with some of the jurors, who had reached the same conclusion—she had known she was dying, they reasoned, because she had taken poison to kill herself. There was no tall, cross-eyed man. Superintendent James Brannan of L Division agreed. “I do not think that there is the slightest evidence of foul play,” he noted after reviewing Chisholm’s report.

Robert Anderson, the assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, reviewed the file at Scotland Yard headquarters and agreed. “Clearly,” he noted, “a case of Suicide.” But one question, he added, remained unanswered. How had Donworth managed to obtain strychnine, a poison sold only to physicians?

Screams pierced the nighttime stillness, clawing their way into Lucy Rose’s dreams. In an instant, she was awake. The screams were real, coming from the room above—Matilda Clover’s room. Rose, a live-in maid, summoned landlady Emma Phillips from her room, and they rushed upstairs. Clover was lying across the foot of the bed, writhing, screaming, and “all of a twitch,” as Rose later put it. Her brown eyes “rolled about terribly” and her long, dark brown hair was a tangled mass. Her body tensed and shook in violent spasms.

“That man Fred has poisoned me,” Clover gasped after one of the fits subsided. “He gave me some pills.” Taking four of the pills before going to bed, the man had told her, “would prevent me catching the disease”—a reference, no doubt, to venereal disease.

Rose stayed at her bedside, offering what comfort she could. The fits came in waves, subsiding for a short time until the next seizure gripped her body. “In her moments of relief,” Rose said, “she was quite calm and collected.” Clover had a two-year-old son. “Bring me my baby,” she begged Rose at one point. “I think I am dying.”

Phillips left to fetch a doctor. She unlocked the front door to 27 Lambeth Road, shielded herself against the heavy rain, and hurried through darkened, odd-angled streets. By the time she rapped on the door of the home of Robert Graham, Clover’s doctor, it was half past four. He was out, she was told, attending to a patient. When she returned two hours later, she caught Graham as he was leaving on another call, this time to assist a woman in labor.

How had Donworth managed to obtain strychnine, a poison sold only to physicians?

“You had better call in another medical man,” he said. “I cannot come.” A doctor’s assistant, Francis Coppin, finally agreed to make a house call. It was now about seven o’clock. Clover had been writhing in pain for more than three hours.

Coppin was ushered into the bedroom. “She had a quick pulse, and was bathed in perspiration, and trembling,” he recalled. He stayed only ten minutes or so, long enough to witness one of the convulsions—a violent “twitching of the body.” He promised to send medicine to stop her frequent vomiting.

“I concluded that she was suffering from epileptic fits, convulsions, due to alcoholic poisoning,” Coppin explained later. Working as a medical assistant in Lambeth for more than a dozen years had given him “a good deal of experience of drink in its various forms,” he added. “I had no doubt that this woman was suffering from excessive drink.”

He was certain of something else. She did not have long to live. The convulsions and torment continued for another two hours. Clover died at fifteen minutes past nine. It was the morning of October 21, 1891.

Dr. Graham arrived at midday. He had been treating Clover for symptoms of alcoholism, and she had been to see him several times that month. She was only twenty-seven but “not a strong woman by any means,” he noted, “and her mode of life was not conducive to her health.” He huddled with Coppin, who had returned, and Phillips, the landlady. Coppin described Clover’s fit during his brief examination and offered his opinion: death from alcohol poisoning.

Clover had been drunk when she went to bed, Phillips added, having downed a bottle of brandy. Phillips and Coppin had overheard Clover's claim that a man named Fred had given her pills, but they did not believe her.

Dr. Graham found a pen and drafted a death certificate. “I attended Matilda Clover during her last illness,” he wrote. This, of course, was untrue. “To the best of my knowledge and belief,” he added, “the cause of her death was, primarily, delirium tremens, secondly, syncope”—loss of consciousness and heart failure due to severe symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, even though he had been told she was drinking heavily the night she died. His conclusions, based on secondhand information, were incorrect. An opportunity to detect and stop a murderer had been squandered.

Dr. Graham had spoken briefly to Lucy Rose, but he put little stock in the young maid’s description of the dying woman’s statements about a man distributing poisoned pills. If he had asked, Rose would have told him something else that was important: she suspected that the man Clover called Fred had been to the house only hours before her suffering began.

Clover had brought him to the house about midevening, Rose would tell the police months later. She had let them in and had a chance to size up the man in the light of an oil lamp burning in the hallway. He was fortyish, tall and broad, with a bushy mustache. He wore a top hat and an overcoat with a cape. Clover had left him in the rooms she rented upstairs while she ducked out to buy two bottles of Bass ale, likely at the Masons’ Arms pub, a few doors down. The man left sometime before ten o’clock. “Good-night,” Rose heard Clover say as she let him out.

While Rose had never seen the man before that evening, there was nothing strange about his visit. “Clover,” she allowed, “was in the habit of bringing men to 27.” Addicted to alcohol and struggling to raise a child alone, she earned her living as a prostitute. Rose only rarely encountered the men Clover brought home. But, as she would later reveal, she knew a lot about her last caller. Clover had told her that Fred had bought her an expensive pair of boots and offered to pay her two and a half pounds a week to keep her off the streets for the winter. And earlier that day, as she tended to Clover’s child, Rose had seen a letter lying open in her room, arranging a meeting that evening at the Canterbury Music Hall. It was signed “Yours, Fred.” Clover must have taken it to the meeting—when Rose searched the room after her death, it was gone.

Clover was buried on October 27, six days after her sudden death. The parish council paid for her burial in Tooting Cemetery, six miles southwest of Lambeth. The lid of her coffin bore a metal plate, inscribed “M. Clover, 27 years.” Fourteen other caskets were stacked above hers in “Grave No 2215H.” Her short life and agonizing death were soon forgotten. One London newspaper would later dismiss her as “a miserable street outcast, whose life was of no particular value to anybody.”

Dr. Graham’s certificate, attributing Clover’s death to heart failure and not foul play, made it unnecessary to notify the local coroner or the police. There would be no inquest.●

From The Case of the Murderous Dr. Cream © 2021 by Dean Jobb. Reprinted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. All rights reserved.

Dean Jobb is an award-winning author and journalist who teaches in the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction program at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia. His previous books include Empire of Deception, which the New York Times Book Review called “intoxicating and impressively researched” and the Chicago Writers Association named the Nonfiction Book of the Year. Jobb’s features have appeared in CrimeReads, and he writes a monthly true crime column, “Stranger Than Fiction,” for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. His website is

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