This post revisits the murders that terrorized London’s East End in 1888-91. This chapter examines the first of the so-called “canonical” murders: Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols.
Warning: this post contains graphic descriptions and illustrations of murder and assault that more sensitive readers may find unsettling. Extreme caution is advised.
You called me a fanatic and a pervert … Do you know exactly the nature of my perversion?
Sorme’s heart began to beat fast; he stared steadily at Nunne, hoping to conceal it. He felt his cheeks and neck growing warm.
No. But I can guess.
You don’t have to guess. I’ll tell you. I’m a sadist.
— Colin Wilson, Ritual in the Dark
August 31st, 1888
The early morning air is cool in Whitechapel, London, when Robert Paul closes the door of No. 30 behind him and steps out into Foster Street (now a Sainsbury’s). The time is 3:40 a.m. (all times approximate) and at a brisk pace it will take him about twenty minutes to reach Corbett’s Court (now Corbet Place), where he works as a carman for the Covent Garden market. He likes to be on time, so he hurries along. The labyrinthine streets of London’s East End are dark. He turns the corner into Buck’s Row (now Durward Street) near a street lamp and is “passing up” at 3:45 a.m. when in the shadows he makes out a curious sight: a man standing over the shape of a woman. Or is he kneeling over her? Paul cannot tell for sure. Now the man is standing in the roadway.
Paul is always on his guard walking through this neighbourhood, but now he is especially wary. This area of Whitechapel is dangerous and Buck’s Row is especially notorious for robberies and terrible gangs wandering about. It’s always best to keep your wits about you, walk quickly and don’t linger too long, especially at this hour. He intends to give this odd couple a wide berth. But as he attempts to pass, the man reaches out and touches him on the shoulder.
“Come and look over here,” the man says. “There is a woman lying on the pavement.”
Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols is last seen walking east along Whitechapel Road. She is found murdered a little over an hour later. Click here for a map of all the Whitechapel murder sites of 1888-91.
Despite his apprehension, Paul joins the stranger, who says his name is Charles Andrew Cross (real name Charles Lechmere). Cross will testify that he was also on his way to work that morning – also as a carman – for Pickford’s in Broad Street (now Old Broad Street). He said he came down Buck’s Row from the same direction as Paul had – Brady Street – just moments before, at 3:40 a.m. He had been walking along when he spotted what he at first thought was a tarpaulin sheet lying in a heap on the pavement. When he got closer, he saw it was the body of a woman. It was at this point, he claims, that he heard Paul’s footsteps approaching.
“Come and look over here — there is a woman lying on the pavement.”
The two men now cross over to the woman, who lies prostrate at the gateway to the stable yard. While it’s difficult to make out in the dark – the street lamp 130 metres to the east offers meagre light – Paul is able to make out that the woman is on her back and that her clothes are disarranged; her skirts are pulled up to her waist and her black bonnet rests half a metre from her head. To Paul it appears as though she’s been raped. He kneels down and feels her face. He takes ahold of her wrists and hands. She’s ice-cold. Paul fears she may be dead. He places his hand on her chest. A moment passes.
“I think she is breathing,” he finally decides. “But it is very little if she is.”
Cross is not so sure. “I believe she is dead,” he says. “Shall we prod her up?”
“I will not touch her,” Paul replies. “And I cannot tarry.”
On this point, both men agree; both are “behind time” and Paul feels obliged to be punctual for work. They take a moment to pull the woman’s skirt down to afford her some decency, then set off together on their westerly route. Their footsteps echo in the cool morning air. A few minutes’ walk finds them at the junction where Hanbury Street, Old Montague Street and Baker’s Row (now Vallance Road) meet. They spot Police Constable Jonas Mizen of H-Division (Whitechapel) on “knocking-up duty” and flag him down. Cross tells Mizen that he’s wanted in Buck’s Row, that there’s a woman lying there.
“I think she is breathing, but it is very little if she is.”
“She looks to me to be either dead or drunk,” says Cross. “But for my part I think she is dead.”
“Alright,” says Mizen.
Their sense of Victorian duty fulfilled, Paul and Cross leave Mizen and continue on their way. They part company soon after.
Around the time Robert Paul and Charles Cross are interrupting Mizen’s task of waking people up for their work shifts, P.C. John Neil of J-Division (Bethnal Green) is turning onto Buck’s Row from Thomas Street. As he strolls down the street’s north side in the direction of Brady Street, only the sound of his footsteps against the cold pavement carries in the air; there isn’t another soul about.
Then he notices the woman lying on the pavement on the other side of the road. Not an uncommon sight in Whitechapel, but still … this seems off. He crosses over while making a cursory study of the scene: the woman lies lengthways along the street with her legs extended. Her head is towards the east. Her left hand appears to reach out in an effort to touch the gateway leading to Brown’s Stable Yard. The gateway itself is closed and almost three metres high. A long row of houses begins east of the gate to the end of the street, while the formidable School Board building stands on the westward corner. The Essex Wharf is on the opposite side of the road.
Neil kneels down to examine the woman by the light of his lamp and sees the blood oozing from a deep gash in her throat. Her eyes are wide open and unresponsive. He feels her arm, which he finds warm from the joint upwards. The woman is indeed dead, but she hadn’t been for long.
He hears footsteps in the direction Brady Street. By the dim light of the street lamp he discerns another constable. He decides not to use his whistle and instead signals with his lamp. The constable rushes over; he is P.C. John Thain, also of J-Division.
“Run at once for Dr. Llewellyn!” Neil tells him. Dr. Rees Ralph Llewellyn maintained a surgery at No. 152 Whitechapel Road, just a scant few minutes from the spot.
Thain dashes off while Neil waits with the body. He looks up and down the street. There are no traps (two-wheeled carriages) about. He shines his lamp around the body, looking for tracks; footprints, the mark of a wheel. Anything. But the ground doesn’t give up its secrets. Moments pass, and Neil hears more footsteps, these ones approaching from the direction of the School Board building. Mizen appears out of the gloom, having knocked up his last client of the hour and ready to assist.
“Run at once for Dr. Llewellyn!”
He glances at the body on the ground, then looks to Neil. “Mizen. 56-H. Did you call for me?” he asks.
Neil is puzzled at the question. “I did not,” he tells Mizen. “But make yourself useful — go fetch an ambulance, and hurry!” Mizen lumbers off.
More minutes pass. Neil decides to try the bell at the wharf to see if anyone had been troubled by a disturbance recently. The manager – Walter Purkiss – answers the summons. No, he hadn’t heard any noises or cries; it had been a very quiet night. Neil returns to his vigil beside the body. It’s 4:10 a.m.
The street begins to stir. Three horse-slaughterers strolling by from the knacker’s yard in neighbouring Winthrop Street stop to gawk at the body.
“Go fetch an ambulance, and hurry!”
“Nothing to look at here,” Neil tells the trio. It does little to move them along.
“Here he is!” a voice calls out. Thain has returned with Dr. Llewellyn. The medical man immediately sets to work examining the body.
Police reinforcement arrives in the person of Police Sergeant Henry Kirby of S-Division (Hampstead), who starts canvassing the area. He knocks on the door of New Cottage, which stands adjacent to the yard. Answering the summons is Emma Green, a widow. But while her upper-floor bedroom window affords an excellent view of the murder site just metres away, she informs Kirby that neither she nor the other residents inside saw or heard anything unusual during the night.
Neither did the aforementioned Walter Purkiss nor his wife, Mary Ann. They usually sleep in the front first-floor room of their dwelling, the window of which offers another superb view of the murder site. Both had experienced a restless sleep and found themselves awake at odd intervals throughout the night, but neither one saw or heard anything unusual. Both agreed it had been an unusually quiet evening.
Nor did Henry Tomkins, James Mumford and Charles Bretton, the three slaughtermen who dawdled from their workplace on Winthrop Street to catch the “show”. Their stories were identical: the three men knew nothing of the affair until P.C. Thain told them of the murder in passing. All had been quiet.
No one saw or heard anything.
As the police make their inquiries, Dr. Llewellyn finishes his cursory examination of the woman’s remains. He rises to his feet. “She is dead,” he sighs. “I would say not more than half an hour. Those gashes across her throat did the job well enough. Move her to the mortuary at Old Montague. I will make a further examination of her there.” He departs for home.
Neil sees the blood running from the woman’s neck and gathering in a pool next to her on the street. “Alright, then. Where’s Mizen with that ambulance?”
“Here.” Mizen and another H-Division constable trot up with a wheeled stretcher in tow.
“Help me, John.” Neil says to Thain. The constables pick the woman up and carry her to the cart. As they load her on, Thain remarks, “The back of her dress — it’s soaked.” Once the body is on board, he backs away and looks at his hands. They’re covered in blood.
No one saw or heard anything.
Neil touches him on the shoulder. “I’m to stay with the body until we get to the mortuary. Inspector John Spratling has been called for — remain here until he arrives.”
The ambulance and its morbid cargo saunters on its way to Old Montague Street with constables Neil, Kirby and the H-Division man accompanying. The small crowd that has gathered begins to disperse; the “show” is over. Life in the East End carries on. Thain returns to the front of the gateway and makes an inspection of the ground. He observes a mass of congealed blood, perhaps fifteen centimetres in diameter, at the spot where the body had lain. More blood is flowing into a nearby gutter. He picks up the black straw bonnet that had been on the ground beside the woman. It’s trimmed with black velvet.
He sucks in the cool morning air and sighs. To no one in particular he asks, “What happened here?”
But Buck’s Row is silent.
When Inspector John Thomas Spratling of J-Division first heard of the murdered woman in Buck’s Row, he left at once from Hackney Road to the murder site. P.C. Thain was dutifully on hand to meet him and point out where the woman’s body lay at the gateway to the stables. As the men conversed, they watched as James Green – the son of Emma Green of New Cottage – washed the victim’s blood from the pavement with a bucket of water. He could not, however, get all of it out. The evidence of the violence that had occurred on that spot was still to be seen between the cobblestones.
Wasting no time, Spratling then set off for the Old Montague for a look at the body. At 5 a.m. he rolls up to the mortuary to find the body has been left unattended and still lays on the ambulance in the yard outside. The doors to the building are locked. As he awaited the attendant with the keys, he undertook a detailed examination of the body:
“Five-feet, two inches (1.58m); small, delicate features; greying dark-brown hair; grey eyes; 42-years-old; scar on forehead; front teeth were missing; other teeth were stained and crooked; thick eyebrows; heavy cheeks; dark complexion.”
It is now some ten minutes later. The body is laid out on the mortuary slab to be undressed. The two workhouse officials begin their work while Spratling stand nearby, scratching in his notepad. As each article of clothing is removed, Spratling jots down a description:
““Reddish-brown ulster … with large brass buttons … gray wool petticoat, stenciled with … hmm … it says, ‘Lambeth Workhouse, P.R.’ …”
It’s a run-of-the-mill examination, but a terrible truth is about to be revealed. Suddenly, one of the workhouse men gasps. Spratling and the other man turn and gape in astonishment.
The woman’s abdomen has been slashed in a brutal and efficient manner. Her innards lay exposed by a jagged cut that extends from the pubis to the breastbone. Other “playful” cuts have been made, as well, each wound having been made by a violent stab into the victim’s body.
Spratling immediately sends for Dr. Llewellyn. At 5:25 a.m. the doctor rushes into the mortuary. He looks around. “What is the problem here?”
Spratling tells him:
“This woman has been mutilated.”
The doctor turns to him, bewildered. “What’s that? What did you say?”
Spratling points to the body on the table. “This woman,” he replies, “has been gutted.”
Barely an hour after his first (brief) examination, Dr. Llewellyn sets to work once again. It takes him ten minutes to make the following observations:
“Five of the teeth are missing and there is a slight laceration of the tongue.
On the right side of the face there was a bruise running along the lower part of the jaw. It might have been caused by a blow with the a fist or pressure by the thumb.
On the left side of the face there was a circular bruise, which also might have been done by the pressure of the fingers. On the left side of the neck, about an inch (2.54cm) below the jaw, there was an incision about four inches (10.16cm) long and running from a point immediately below the ear. An inch (2.54cm) below on the same side and commencing about an inch (2.54cm) in front of it, was a circular incision terminating at a point about three inches below the right jaw. This incision completely severs all the tissues down to the vertebrae.
The large vessels of the neck on both sides were severed. The incision is about eight inches (20.32cm) long. The cuts must have been caused with a long-bladed knife, moderately sharp, and used with great violence. No blood at all was found on the breast, either of the body or clothes.
There were no injuries about the body til just about the lower part of the abdomen. Two or three inches (5.08cm or 7.62cm) from the left side was a wound running in a jagged manner. It was a very deep wound, and the tissues were cut through. There were several incisions running across the abdomen. On the right side there were also three or four similar cuts running downwards. All these had been caused by a knife, which had been used violently and been used downwards.
The injuries were from left-to-right and might have been done by a left-handed person.
All the injuries had been done by the same instrument and possibly by a left-handed man.”
In his estimation, Dr. Llewellyn believes the perpetrator of this vicious attack could have inflicted all the injuries inside of five minutes. Because all the vital parts had been set upon, he felt the authorities should be looking for someone with some knowledge of anatomy.
“This woman has been gutted.”
But something more was apparent: this wasn’t a simple murder. This wasn’t a robbery gone bad. And it wasn’t a gang-killing. The infamous “rip gangs” were known across the East End for the violence they inflicted on anyone crossing their path. But the brutality of what happened to this woman did not fit their methods. True, some months ago a gang of men had committed an outrage on an “Unfortunate” along Brick Lane that ended with them shoving an unknown blunt object inside her. The force of the attack was enough to tear the woman’s perineum and ultimately lead to her painful death.
But this … this was something altogether different.
And this was only the beginning.
The “Lambeth Workhouse, P.R.” stencil marks found on the woman’s petticoats is enough for police to work with. They locate a Lambeth inmate – Mary Ann Monk – later that day who identifies the body as Mary Ann Nichols.
What We Know
Name: Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols
Discovered murdered: Friday, August 31st, 1888 at around 3:45 a.m.
Location of discovery: Buck’s Row, Whitechapel
Cause of Death
“Violent syncope from loss of blood from wounds in neck and abdomen inflicted by some sharp instrument” — death certificate No. 370, registered September 25th, 1888 (DAZ 048850)
- black straw bonnet trimmed with black velvet
- reddish-brown ulster with large brass buttons
- brown linsey frock
- white flannel chest cloth
- black-ribbed wool stockings
- gray wool petticoat, stenciled with “Lambeth Workhouse, P.R.” (Prince’s Road)
- flannel petticoat, stenciled with “Lambeth Workhouse, P.R.” (Prince’s Road)
- brown stays
- flannel drawers
- men’s boots with the uppers cut and steel tips on the heels
- white pocket handkerchief
- broken piece of mirror
- leaving the lodging house kitchen at No. 18 Thrawl Street at around either 1:20 a.m. or 1:40 a.m.
- walking east down Whitechapel Road from Osborn Street at around 2:30 a.m.
Begg, Paul, and John Bennett. The Complete and Essential Jack the Ripper. 2013.
Begg, Paul; Fido, Martin; Skinner, Keith. The Complete Jack the Ripper A-Z: the Ultimate Guide to the Ripper Mystery. 2015.
Moore, Alan, and Eddie Campbell. From Hell. 1994.
Rumbelow, Donald. Jack the Ripper: The Complete Casebook. 1988.
Various newspapers of Victorian London, notably:
The Illustrated Police News
Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper
The Pall Mall Gazette
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