Monday Mystery-Mary Ann (Polly Nichols)-Jack the Ripper Part I


In the mid-19th century, Britain experienced an influx of Irish immigrants, who swelled the populations of the major cities, including the East End of London. From 1882, Jewish refugees from pogroms in Russia and other areas of Eastern Europe emigrated into the same area. The parish of Whitechapel in London’s East End became increasingly overcrowded. Work and housing conditions worsened. Robbery, violence and alcohol dependency were commonplace, and the endemic poverty drove many women to prostitution. In October 1888, London’s police estimated that there were 62 brothels and 1,200 women working as prostitutes in Whitechapel. The economic problems were accompanied by a steady rise in social tensions.  In 1888, such perceptions were strengthened when a series of vicious and grotesque murders attributed to “Jack the Ripper” received unprecedented coverage in the media.

Mary Ann Nichols (commonly called Polly) was born to locksmith Edward Walker and his wife Caroline on 26 August 1845 in London. On 16 January 1864 she married William Nichols, a printer’s machinist, and between 1866 and 1879, the couple had five children: Edward John, Percy George, Alice Esther, Eliza Sarah, and Henry Alfred. Their marriage broke up in 1880 or 1881 from disputed causes. Her father accused William of leaving her after he had an affair with the nurse who had attended the birth of their final child, though Nichols claimed to have proof that their marriage had continued for at least three years after the date alleged for the affair. He maintained that his wife had deserted him and was practising prostitution. Police reports say they separated because of her drunken habits.

Legally required to support his estranged wife, William Nichols paid her an allowance of five shillings a week until 1882, when he heard that she was working as a prostitute. Nichols spent most of her remaining years in workhouses and boarding houses, living off charitable handouts and her meagre earnings. She lived with her father for a year or more but left after a quarrel. He later heard she was living with a blacksmith. At the time of her death she was living in a Whitechapel common lodging house in Spitalfields, where she shared a room with Emily “Nelly” Holland.

The murder

Heavy rains had ushered out one of the coldest and wettest summers on record. On the night of August 30, the rain was sharp and frequent and was accompanied by peals of thunder and flashes of lightning. The sky on that night was turned red by the occasion of two dock fires.

At about 23:00 on 30 August, Nichols was seen walking the Whitechapel Road. An hour and a half later, she was seen leaving a pub in Spitalfields called the Frying Pan Public House. She made her way to a public house where money was paid nightly for residence. At around half one, she was told by the deputy to leave the kitchen of the lodging house because she could not produce her doss money. Polly, on leaving, asked him to save a bed for her. ” Never Mind!” She said, “I’ll soon get my doss money. See what a jolly bonnet I’ve got now.” She indicated a little black bonnet which no one had seen before.

She met Emily Holland, who was returning from watching the Shadwell Dry Dock fire, outside of a grocer’s shop on the corner of Whitechapel Road and Osborn Street. Polly had come down Osborn Street. Holland described her as “very drunk and staggered against the wall.” Holland called attention to the church clock striking 2:30. Polly told Emily that she had had her doss money three times that day and had drunk it away. She said she would return to Flower and Dean Street where she could share a bed with a man after one more attempt to find trade. “I’ve had my doss money three times today and spent it.” She said, “It won’t be long before I’m back.” The two women talked for seven or eight minutes. Polly left walking east down Whitechapel Road, an hour before her death. She was never seen alive again.

At about 3:40, she was found lying on the ground in front of a gated stable entrance in Buck’s Row (since renamed Durward Street), Whitechapel, about 150 yards from the London Hospital and 100 yards from Blackwall buildings, by cart driver Charles Cross. Her skirt was raised. Another passing cart driver on his way to work, Robert Paul, approached and Cross pointed out the body. Cross believed her to be dead, but Paul was uncertain and thought she might be unconscious. It was dark, and even though she had had her throat cut, there wasn’t a large amount of blood. They pulled her skirt down to cover her lower body, and went in search of a policeman. They informed PC Jonas Mizen and continued on their way to work. As Mizen was approaching the body, PC John Neil came from the opposite direction on his beat and by flashing his lantern, called a third policeman, PC John Thain, to the scene. PC Thain fetched surgeon Dr Henry Llewellyn when it was clear it was murder, who arrived at 04:00 and decided she had been dead for about 30 minutes. 

The initial inspection

Her throat had been slit twice from left to right and her abdomen mutilated with one deep jagged wound, several incisions across the abdomen, and three or four similar cuts on the right side caused by the same knife at least 6–8 inches (15–20 cm) long used violently and downwards. Llewellyn expressed surprise at the small amount of blood at the crime scene, “about enough to fill two large wine glasses, or half a pint at the most”. His comment led to the supposition that Nichols was not killed where her body was found. Death would have been instantaneous, and the abdominal injuries, which would have taken less than five minutes to perform, were made by the murderer after she was dead. When the body was lifted a “mass of congealed blood”, in PC Thain’s words, lay beneath.

The inquest

As the murder had occurred in the territory of the Bethnal Green Division of the Metropolitan Police, it was initially investigated by the local detectives, inspectors John Spratling and Joseph Helson, who had little success. Elements of the press linked the attack on Nichols to two previous murders, those of Emma Smith and Martha Tabram, and suggested the killing might have been perpetrated by a gang, as in the case of Smith. The star newspaper instead suggested a single killer was the culprit and other newspapers took up their storyline. These suspicions caused Scotland Yard to get involved, including detective Frank Abberline.

Although Nichols carried no identification, a Lambeth workhouse laundry mark on her petticoats was sufficient to give police enough information to eventually identify her. Later, Nelly Holland and William Nichols confirmed an identification provided by a former workhouse resident.

The murderer caught?

Rumours that a local character called “Leather Apron” could have been responsible for the murder were investigated by the police, even though they noted “there is no evidence against him”. Imaginative descriptions of “Leather Apron”, using crude Jewish stereotypes, appeared in the press, but rival journalists dismissed these as “a mythical outgrowth of the reporter’s fancy”. John Pizer, a Polish Jew who made footwear from leather, was known by the name “Leather Apron” and was arrested despite a lack of evidence. A Scotland yard detective named William Thicke had received a tip in relation to this, and rather than investigate further, ordered his immediate arrest. He was soon released after the confirmation of his alibis. Pizer successfully obtained monetary compensation from at least one newspaper that had named him as the murderer sometime after.

After several adjournments, to allow the police to gather further evidence, the inquest concluded on 24 September. On the available evidence, Coroner Baxter found that Nichols was murdered at just after 3 a.m. where she was found. In his summing up, he dismissed the possibility that her murder was connected with those of Smith and Tabram since the lethal weapons were different in those cases, and neither of the earlier cases involved a slash to the throat. However, by the time the inquest into Nichols’ death had concluded, another woman had been murdered, and Baxter noted “The similarity of the injuries in the two cases is considerable.” The police investigations into the two murders were merged, and so began the infamous legend…..

Studying the mystery-a timeline of events

It is strange enough that a woman was murdered in the dead of night and nobody heard. What makes the first killing of Jack the Ripper so sinister, is that based on a timeline that is shown below, he had silently killed Polly Nichols at the right time, in the right place, and then faded into the shadows unseen.

First, we’ll re-examine the timeline of Nichol’s movement and then superimpose the following “witnesses” or “associated parties”:

1. Patrick Mulshaw, a night porter at the sewage works 220 yards from the scene

2. Slaughter house workers Henry Tomkins, Charles Brittain, and James Mumford, working from Barber’s Knacker’s yard 150 yards from the scene

3. Widow Ms Green, her daughter and two sons, who lived upstairs directly next to the scene of the murder (2 Buck’s Row)

4. Walter Purkiss and his wife, who live directly opposite the scene of the murder

5. PC Thain, PC Neil and PC Mizen, all working the night of the murder.

THUR, AUG 30, 1888
4:45pm Patrick Mulshaw came on duty as the Night Porter at the Sewage Works, Winthrop St (220 yards from Brown’s Stable Yard.

THUR, AUG 30, 1888
8:00-9:00pm Slaughterers, Henry Tomkins, Charles Brittain, and James Mumford, started work at Barber’s Knacker’s Yard, Winthrop St (150 yards from Brown’s Stable Yard).

THUR, AUG 30, 1888
9:00pm Son of Mrs Emma Green went to bed at the family’s residence, 2 Buck’s Row (East of and next to Brown’s Stable Yard).

THUR, AUG 30, 1888
9:45pm Mrs Green’s second son went to bed.

THUR, AUG 30, 1888
11:00pm Mrs Green and her daughter, sharing the same bedroom, went to sleep. (Their bedroom over looked the gateway of Brown’s Stable Yard). Polly was seen walking by herself down Whitechapel Rd near this time.

THUR, AUG 30, 1888
11:00-11:15pm Resident and manager of Essex Wharf, Buck’s Row, Walter Purkiss and his wife went to sleep in their second floor, front bedroom (opposite Brown’s Stable Yard).

FRI, AUG 31, 1888
Midnight Tomkins and Brittain left the slaughter house and walked to the end of the street.

FRI, AUG 31, 1888
12:30am Polly was seen leaving, by herself, the Frying Pan pub (corner of Brick Ln and Thrawl St).

FRI, AUG 31, 1888
1:00am Tomkins and Brittain returned to work. Purkiss was awake. His wife was pacing their room.

FRI, AUG 31, 1888
1:20am Polly showed up at the kitchen of 18 Thrawl St.

FRI, AUG 31, 1888
(exact time unknown) The house deputy put Polly out. “I’ll soon get my doss money”, she laughed as she departed. “See what a jolly bonnet I’ve got now.” The house deputy said she was tipsy.

FRI, AUG 31, 1888
2:00am Purkiss fell back asleep, but his wife was still pacing.

FRI, AUG 31, 1888
c.2:30am Holland, returning from watching the second fire on the docks at Shadwell Dry Docks, saw Polly at the corner of Osborne St and Whitechapel Rd. Holland mentioned the time as the clock struck 2:30am and tried to persuade Polly to go to 18 Thrawl St. Polly mentioned her new bonnet, that she had her doss money several times that night but drank it away, and that she would rather be where men and women can sleep together.

FRI, AUG 31, 1888
(2:35am) Polly then walked down Whitechapel Rd, toward Buck’s Row.

FRI, AUG 31, 1888
3:00am Mulshaw woke up, having dozed off earlier.

FRI, AUG 31, 1888
3:15am Police Constable John Thain (96J) went up Brady St.
Police Constable John Neil (97J) passed through Buck’s Row.

      Buck’s Row ran East-West from Brady St to Baker’s Row. Parallel to it and meeting it about half-way along its length was Winthrop St. Going East down Buck’s Row from the corner of Buck’s Row and Winthrop St was a board school, Brown’s Stable Yard, and tenements. Across the road from the stable yard were wharves. East of the wharves was Browne & Eagle’s Wool Warehouse, Schnieder’s Cap Factory, and then a low brick wall continued on down to Brady St. At the North-West corner of Buck’s Row and Brady St was a street lamp. The area was frequented by prostitutes. From Osborne St and Whitechapel Rd, the stable yard was about one-half mile.

FRI, AUG 31, 1888
(exact time unknown)  PC Neil passed through Winthrop St and saw Tomkins, Brittain, and Mumford at work. Sergeant Kerby passed down Buck’s Row.

FRI, AUG 31, 1888
(exact time unknown) Charles Andrew Cross left home at Doveton St for work at Broad St.

FRI, AUG 31, 1888
3:40am Cross walked through Buck’s Row and saw a bundle in front of the stable yard gateway. He thought the bundle was an abandoned tarpaulin, only to discover that it was a woman’s body. Robert Paul travelled through Buck’s Row on his way to work at Corbett’s Crt. Cross pointed out the body to him. “Come and look over here. There’s a woman lying on the pavement.”
Polly was lying on her back with her skirts lifted almost to her stomach. Cross felt her hands – cold. “I believe she’s dead.”
Paul felt her hands and face – cold. As he pulled her clothes down, he touched her breast and thought he felt movement. “I think she’s breathing, but very little if she is.” Cross then asked Paul to help him adjust the body, but Paul refused.

FRI, AUG 31, 1888
c.3:43am Cross and Paul left, intending to notify the first constable they came upon.

FRI, AUG 31, 1888
3:45am PC Neil was travelling easterly through Buck’s Row when he independently discovered the body. He noticed Polly’s true condition only after shining his lantern on the body.

      Polly was lying lengthwise with her head turned towards the East; her left hand touched the gate; her bonnet was off her head, lying near her right hand; her skirts were rumpled just above her knees; her throat was severely cut; her eyes were wide open and glassy; blood had oozed from her throat wounds; her arms felt warm from the elbows up; her hands were open. The gateway was 9′-10′ in height and led to some stables; they were closed.

FRI, AUG 31, 1888
c.3:47am PC Neil noticed PC Thain passing North through Brady St and quietly signaled him with his lamp. PC Thain responded likewise and approached the scene. “Here’s a woman has her throat cut,” said PC Neil. “Run at once for Dr Llewellyn.” PC Thain immediately left to fetch Doctor Rees Ralph Llewellyn at his surgery at 152 Whitechapel Rd (300 yards from Buck’s Row). Neil then examined the ground.

FRI, AUG 31, 1888
(exact time unknown) At the corner of Hanbury St and Baker’s Row, Cross and Paul informed Police Constable Jonas Mizen (55H) of the body. “You are wanted in Baker’s Row by a policeman,” said Cross in passing. “A woman is lying there. She looks to me to be either dead or drunk, but for my part I think she is dead.” After further clarification, PC Mizen replied, “All right,” and then left for Buck’s Row.

FRI, AUG 31, 1888
(exact time unknown) PC Mizen arrived at Brown’s Stable Yard, and PC Neil sent him immediately for an ambulance and reinforcements from the Bethnal Green Police Station and then searched the area for clues.

FRI, AUG 31, 1888
c.4:00am Dr Llewellyn was notified at his surgery. Mulshaw had not seen or heard anything in the past hour. Sgt Kerby arrived back in Buck’s Row and interviewed Mrs Green while PC Neil interviewed Purkiss. Neither them, the keeper of the Board School, nor the watchman at Browne & Eagle’s Wool Ware house and Schnieder’s Cap Factory heard anything unusual.

What becomes clear from our timeline is that the murderer must have had at most about a fifteen minute window to conduct his attack. New evidence is revealing the Ripper may have strangled his victims first (lowering the chance of screams) and then cut the throat when the victim was on the ground. This may explain the small pool of blood at the neck. Even with only fifteen minutes, what is more surprising is that nobody heard or saw the Ripper with his victim. It is widely accepted the Ripper did not strike from the dark, and may have lured his victim’s to their doom with the promise of alcohol, accommodation or money. It is likely he played the part of a client before the murders. Below is a picture of the stables outside which Nichols was found. I have been to Buck’s Row myself, which now looks markedly different. Still get an eerie sense of something though…

The Witnesses

Henry Birch was the proprietor of a milk-stand in the yard of Number 2, Little Turner street, Commercial Road. He claimed to have sold a glass of milk to a “frightened”, suspicious-looking man on the night after the Polly Nichols murder. His story appeared in The Star:

Not later than a quarter-past eleven a man stepped hurriedly into a yard entrance at No. 2, Little Turner-street, Commercial-road. On one side of the yard is a milk stand. The man asked for a glass of milk, and, when served, drank it hurriedly, then, looking about in a frightened manner, asked if he might step back into the yard. The proprietor, Henry Birch, did not object, but presently, his suspicions being aroused, he stepped towards the man and found him drawing on a suit of new overalls over his ordinary clothes. The pants were already on, and he was stooping to take a jacket from a black shiny bag that lay at his feet when Birch stepped up to him. He seemed to be very much upset by the interruption, and for a moment could not speak. Presently he said, “That was a terrible murder last night, was’nt it?” and before Birch could answer he had added, “I think I’ve got a clue,” and, snatching up his bag, he disappeared down the street.

Sarah Colwell was a resident of Honey’s Mews, Brady Street, which lies about 120 yards from Buck’s Row. She told the press that at the time the murder of Mary Ann Nichols was allegedly committed, she heard a woman running along Brady Street shouting “murder, police!”. Mrs. Colwell stated that she could only hear the one set of footsteps, despite being sure that the woman was running away from someone.

Another press account has it that Mrs. Colwell was woken by her children who said that somebody was trying to gain entry to the house. This time, the scream of “Murder! Police!” was heard five or six times, gradually fading away. The shouts seemed to be going in the direction of Buck’s Row.The generally accepted time of this incident is 12.00am, making it unlikely that it was the screams of Mary Ann Nichols

Harriet Lilly was married to brewer’s carman William and lived at 7 Buck’s Row, Whitechapel. She said to the press on the afternoon of 6th September 1888 that:

I slept in front of the house, and could hear everything that occured in the street. On that Thursday night I was somehow very restless. Well, I heard something I mentioned to my husband in the morning. It was a painful moan – two or three faint gasps – and then it passed away. It was quite dark at the time, but a luggage went by as I heard the sounds. There was, too, a sound as of whispers underneath the window. I distincly heard voices, but cannot say what was said – it was too faint. I then woke my husband, and said to him, “I don’t know what possesses me, but I cannot sleep to-night.”

The press

I’ve managed to dig up a few press releases at the times of the murder. The following appeared in The Irish Times on Sept. 1st 1888

You will have from other sources an account of the horrible murder committed last night in Whitechapel, where a woman of 40 was found with her throat cut and the lower part of her body almost hacked to pieces. The aspect of this tragedy noted here is its suggestive resemblance to the atrocity reported about three weeks ago where a woman of like age was found in the open hall of a common lodging house, also with her throat cut and thirty nine slashes and stabs in different parts of her person. The similarity in many points of these two crimes has stirred again suspicion that both poor women were victims of the same miscreant. We hark back to the time a century ago when “the monster” prowled about London attacking women with a knife, and the theory is that some still more sanguinary scoundrel may now be gratifying a like mania. If so, it can only be hoped that he will speedily experience the punishment of his predecessor.

Experience punishment he did not. The Ripper attacks only intensified. Next week we look at the second murder, and a wealth of more mysterious evidence.

Mary Nichols grave





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