The First of the Canonical Five Ripper Victims
August 31st, 1888; Whitechapel, London
It was 1:20 am and the deputy at Wilmott's Lodging House was kicking Mary Ann Nichols, known around the Whitechapel district as “Polly”, out of the house’s kitchen. Well-known to be an alcoholic, she had drunk away any money she could have spent on a bed for the night at a neighborhood public house.
“Never mind”, Polly had said, with her customary pluck, “I'll soon get my doss money. See what a jolly bonnet I've got now.” She pointed to the straw bonnet trimmed with black velvet on her head, and headed back out into the night.
By the end of August in 1888, the summer weather was long gone. The night of the 31st was drenched in rain and shocked by the flashes and claps of a thunderstorm. On top of the miserable weather, the Shadwell Dry Dock Fire painted the gloomy sky red that night. Observing the spectacle had kept Ellen Holland, Polly’s roommate at the Willmott’s Lodging House, out late that evening.
Ellen came across Polly on the corner of Osborn Street and Whitechapel Road at 2:30 am. Polly was drunkenly leaning against a wall, and bragged that she’d made her doss money three times over, but had already drunk it away.
“I've had my doss money three times today and spent it. It won't be long before I'm back.”
At the time, Polly’s services would have gone for about 3 pence, which was also the price for a tall glass of gin. The cost of a bed in the doss house was 4 pence.
Ellen tried to convince Polly to come back to the lodging house with her, but Polly refused. She was set on earning the money back one more time, claiming she would simply find a man to share a bed with after one more attempt. Leaving her to her conquest, Ellen watched Polly weave her way back down East Whitechapel Road.
It would be the last time anyone would see her alive.
A Body on Buck’s Row
3:40am on the morning of August 31st, a carter named Charles Cross made his way down the narrow avenue of Buck’s Row on his way to work. In the early morning darkness, Cross stopped at the sight of a large object lying in the doorway of a horse stable. He walked closer to investigate, thinking it was a tarpaulin abandoned in the street. A few feet closer, though, he realized the figure on the ground was human. As he hesitated, unsure of how to proceed, he heard another man’s approaching footsteps.
It was another carter, Robert Paul, also headed to work. Cross called the other carter over, telling him that there was a woman in the street. Together, in the dark, the two men approached the figure stretched out on the ground. She was lying prone, her skirts pulled up to her waist. Tentatively, they felt her hands and face, finding them cold. Cross thought that he sensed some movement in her chest, though, which allowed the possibility that she was alive. The men tugged her skirts down over her knees to at least cover her up, and argued whether they should prop her up in the doorway.
They were unsettled by the whole incident though, and they were both running late for work. They decided not to render further assistance on the scene, justifying their behavior by agreeing to tell the first constable they ran into on their way about what they had seen. They left the woman’s body alone on Buck’s Row, lying across the gateway. Minutes later they came across PC Mizen 55H.
“She looks to me to be either dead or drunk,” Cross said to the constable, “but for my part I think she is dead.”
If either of the men had possessed a lantern, however, there would have been no question that Polly Nichols was dead.
The following photographs show the location on Durward Street (formerly Buck's Row) where Mary Ann Nichols' body was discovered. Due to the unwanted attention resulting from the murder, Buck's Row was changed to Durward Street later that same year (1888).
Buck's Row / Durward Street, Then and Now
This video offers the viewer a glimpse of what the murder scene looked like back in 1888, compared with how that same area looks today. Most of the Ripper crime scenes have changed drastically since 1888, with the exception of this one. Many of the structures and buildings visible in the photographs of 1888 are still present today, including the brick wall which still stands alongside the location where the body was found.
The Life and Death of Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols
Probably more than any of the Ripper’s victims, Mary Ann Nichols’ life and decline is the best documented. This was due to extensive public inquest and prying into her personal life, as well as the personal lives of those who had been in contact with her. The years leading up to Polly’s death, particularly that final year of 1887-1888, had been marked by alcoholism, petty crime and family discord, dirty laundry of which was aired to the public during the terror of September 1888.
Nichols was born to Edward Walker, a locksmith, and his wife Caroline on 26 August 1845. She went on to marry William Nichols, a machinist for a printer, in 1864. They were together for over fifteen years and had five children: Edward John Nichols, Percy George, Alice Esther, Eliza Sarah and Henry Alfred. Then, around 1880, the marriage fell apart.
Polly’s father, Walker, was incensed by the break-up and passed around rumors that William Nichols had been responsible for the dissolution of the marriage. He claimed that Polly had been confined with ill health, and her husband had taken up with her nurse. Nichols did not deny the affair with the nurse, only the idea that this affair had been the reason for the marriage’s demise.
Walker’s rumor, however, was so widely believed that it was addressed at the inquest into Polly’s death. Nichols claimed that, though there had been an affair, it had occurred after Polly herself had left the marriage. He produced a birth certificate, testifying that his son with his mistress was born after Polly had left.
Regardless of when Nichols became involved with another woman, it is clear that Polly had plenty of demons of her own. Alcohol addiction interfered with her domestic life, her relationship with family members and her ability to keep her head above water in a financial sense. During their marriage, Nichols claimed, Polly had left him “five or six times” until finally leaving for the last time in 1881.
All five children remained with their father, and William sent Polly support payments for two years. He found out, however, that Polly had been living as a prostitute, and discontinued payments. Polly sent summons for him to keep sending her money, but William was able to win his case by proving she was living with another man. From 1882 onward, Polly drifted from one workhouse to another, at some points completely disappearing from view of her family and public record. At the time of her death, William Nichols had not seen his wife in over three years.
From March 24 – May 21 of 1883, Edward Walker took his daughter in as she attempted to pick up the pieces. He reported that she was not “fast with men” and did not stay out late carousing, but she did continue to drink at home, causing tension between the two. Their relationship was characterized by constant rows, and soon Polly was out on the street again, breaking off all contact with her father. Walker claimed that he had left of her own accord after a particularly bad argument, and that he knew, “she would come to a bad end.”
She was seen in June of 1886 at the funeral of her brother who had died when a paraffin lamp exploded and burned him. The family observed that she was dressed “respectably” possibly due to her living with a local blacksmith, Thomas Dew.
By October of 1887, she was out on the streets again, spending most of her time in the Lambeth Workhouse on Prince’s Road.
In what would be her final attempt to get her life together, Polly took a job as a domestic servant in the household of Samuel and Sarah Cowdry. Trying to quit drinking and gain some control over her life, she broke the four-year silence with her father to make amends.
“I just right to say you will be glad to know that I am settled in my new place, and going all right up to now. My people went out yesterday and have not returned, so I am left in charge. It is a grand place inside, with trees and gardens back and front. All has been newly done up. They are teetotalers and religious so I ought to get on. They are very nice people, and I have not too much to do. I hope you are all right and the boy has work. So good bye for the present.
from yours truly,
Answer soon, please, and let me know how you are.”
Walker replied to the letter, but never heard back from his daughter again. It seems that life in the home of the teetotaling Cowdry’s had been too high-pressure for Polly. After two months, she left their employment, taking 3 pounds, 10 shillings worth of stolen clothing with her. This was her last contact with her father.
Her final days were spent in Whitechapel, splitting her time between Willmott’s Lodging House and the White House doss house where men and women were permitted to share beds.
She was found murdered on Buck’s Row just five days after her 43rd birthday.
Minutes after the two carters left Polly’s body, PC John Neil 97J was walking his beat on when he came across the corpse lying on the ground on Buck’s Row. Shining his lantern onto her face, he saw that her eyes were wide open, staring lifelessly into the morning sky. As PC John Thain 96J approached to offer his help, Neil’s lantern illuminated the gashes in the woman’s throat, almost deep enough to have completely decapitated her.
Upon observing the wounds, Neil sent Thain to fetch Dr. Rees Ralph Llewellyn, who pronounced her dead on site. He judged from warmth in her extremities that she had been dead for less than half an hour. Neil himself had been within earshot of the site only a few minutes before the body was discovered and had heard nothing.
By then, a crowd of early-risers had begun to gather, and Dr. Llewellyn called for the body to be moved from the scene to the mortuary. Police canvassed the area, but no one reported having seen or heard anything unusual.
Inspector John Spratling arrived and consulted with Thain after the body had been taken away by ambulance. Thain indicated where the body had lain as one of the sons of Emma Green, a widow who owned a neighboring house, washed blood from the cobblestones. Llewellyn had noted that the blood that had spilled from the body’s throat onto the ground was about equivalent with the volume of two wine-glasses. Ambulance workers had noted that though a bit of blood had trickled from her throat onto the street, the back of her dress and her weathered brown ulster was completely soaked in congealed blood as well.
Dr. Llewellyn had gone home to bed after the body had been taken to a workhouse mortuary in Old Montague Street, but was summoned again soon afterward. While attempting to move the body from the ambulance into the morgue, Inspector John Spratling observed that unusually brutal mutilations lay beneath Nichols’ clothing. Her abdomen had been slashed, a jagged cut exposing her innards from pubis to breastbone, along with additional cuts to the abdomen. The wounds had been inflicted with violent downward stabs into the victim’s body.
“I have seen many terrible cases,” Llewellyn stated later to a reporter from The Times, “but never such a brutal affair as this.”
Llewelyn’s complete postmortem report from September 1st is lost to time, but surviving notes taken by Spratling upon an initial examination of the body summarize findings this way:
…her throat had been cut from left to right, two distinct cuts being on left side, the windpipe, gullet and spinal cord being cut through; a bruise apparently of a thumb being on the right lower jaw, also one on left cheek; the abdomen had been cut open from centre of bottom of ribs along right side, under pelvis to left of the stomach, there the wound was jagged; the omentum, or coating of the stomach, was also cut in several places, and two small stabs on private parts; [all] apparently done with a strong bladed knife; supposed to have been done by some left handed person; death being almost instantaneous.
Speculation arose over several points including whether the killer was left-handed, and whether, perhaps, he had killed her in a separate location and then left her on Buck’s Row. This would seem to be supported by the fact that no one in the area had heard screaming, and that she was found lying on her back as if carefully placed. The blood at the scene, also, seemed to be minimal when considering the ghastly wounds to her abdomen, unless she had been killed somewhere else. That hypothesis, however, would later be dismissed. There were no trails of blood leading to the site where her body was found, and nobody had heard a carriage or other vehicle carry her to the spot. Additionally, Dr. Llewelyn confirmed that the blood from the lacerations to her abdomen had mostly congealed into the body itself.
All the wounds also showed signs of being made with the same knife, a “strong-bladed knife, moderately sharp, and used with great violence,” according to the doctor. Other facts about the possible killer were unclear, but Llewelyn speculated that he might have had some knowledge of human anatomy, due to the fact that he had attacked the vital organs and veins of the victim.
The blood spatter implied, however, that none of the lacerations were what ultimately killed the victim. If her throat were cut first, there would have been far more blood, presumably spattered against the wall of the stable or further across the cobblestones rather than pooled directly under her head. Instead, experts agree that it is very likely the woman was manually choked to death before being mutilated. The entire act would have taken place in about five minutes between 3:30 and 3:40am, and inspectors acknowledged that the approach of Charles Cross may have even interrupted and scared the killer away.
Early suspects were hard to find, and the only men initially pursued were three horse slaughterers who had the late-night shift at Barber’s slaughterhouse near Buck’s Row on Winthrop Street. These men had been some of the first observers on the street when Neil and Thain had discovered the corpse, but when interviewed separately, they were able to confirm that they had been working on Winthrop Street at the time that the murder was taking place.
There was no physical evidence, and Victorian policing conventions prioritized getting bodies off the streets and cleaned up as soon as possible. These issues were merely a foreshadowing of the frustrations and investigatory nightmares to come in trying to weed out this unusual killer.
Identifying the woman, so disfigured by her attack, was daunting at first. She was about five feet two or three inches tall with dark hair, eyes and skin. Her hair was beginning to go gray with middle age, and she was missing three teeth. Her clothing was well worn, indicating that she was likely a woman down-on-her luck. This assumption was supported by a helpful find: her petticoat showed the mark of ‘Lambeth Workhouse, P.R.’. Investigators called for someone from the workhouse on Prince’s Road to come to the mortuary and help identify the body. Mary Ann Monk, arrived and recognized the body in the morgue as Mary Ann Nichols, who had lived in that workhouse months earlier.
Word of the murder got around Whitechapel, and Ellen Holland soon came from the lodge house at 18 Thrawl Street as well to confirm that the victim was, indeed, Polly. Ellen was moved to tears at the sight of her. Despite Polly’s reputation as a drunk, Ellen found her to be an agreeable person, and reported that she was, “a very clean woman who always seemed to keep to herself.”
The following day, Polly’s father Edward Walker, and her estranged husband, William Nichols, came to provide identification for her as well. Both men were very affected by the death, and Nichols is reported to have said…
“I forgive you, as you are, for what you have been to me.”
Funeral and Burial
The three men who had loved Polly the most, her father, her estranged husband, and her eldest son, split the funeral expenses. She was buried on the 6th of September, 1888 in a polished elm coffin. Two mourning coaches accompanied the body to the City of London Cemetery at Manor Park Cemetery. She was buried there on Sebert Road, Forest Gate, London, E12, and lies under grave number 210752. In 1996, a plaque was placed to mark her grave, and it remains there to this day.
Mary Ann Nichols’ inquest would span September 1 – September 24th of 1888. As far as the evidence went, there was nothing that could identify Polly’s killer.
Nine days after her body was found, and only two after her body was laid to rest, however, another one of his victims would be brought into the mortuary.Sources