At 3.40am on the morning of the 31st August 1888, a cart driver called Charles Cross discovered the body of a woman with her skirts raised lying in front of the entrance to his stable on Buck’s Row (now called Durward Street) in Whitechapel. He called over another cart driver, Robert Paul and the two men contemplated the woman, uncertain if she was dead or merely unconscious due to too much drink.
After some deliberation, they pulled down her skirt and went off to find a policeman, coming across PC Jonas Mizen, who was joined at the scene by PC John Neil and PC Thain, who examined the body with their lanterns before deciding that the unfortunate mystery woman was undoubtedly dead.
A police surgeon, Dr Rees Llewellyn was called for who examined the body at the scene, while the policemen held aloft their lanterns. He swiftly realised that the woman had had her throat cut and her abdomen mutilated and came to the conclusion that she had been dead for about half an hour so the cart men must have narrowly missed bumping into her murderer.
The Lambeth Workhouse markings on the woman’s blood splattered petticoats gave a clue as to her identity and the woman who was soon to be famous as the first canonical victim of Jack the Ripper was soon named as Mary Ann or Polly Nichols, a 43 year old prostitute, who had led a life of alcoholism, petty theft and misery on the streets after separating from her cheating husband who kept custody of their five children. A shocking existence by anyone’s standards but not an unusual one in Victorian times when poor women without male support often found themselves in such dire straits and a rejected wife would usually lose her children as well as her husband.
It’s horrible to imagine what life must have been like for women cast out by their fathers, brothers and husbands. There were few jobs that were considered suitable for women and what few there were involved either lawlessness or drudgery so many dispossessed women felt like they had little choice but to turn to prostitution to make ends meet.
People (Daily Mail readers!) complain about the benefits system in the UK all the time, whining on about the feckless poor who laze about all day long, refusing to work and squandering everyone else’s taxes on Sky television and illegal dogs. However, I think I would much rather live in a country in which those in need are helped (and a very very few play the system) than one in which people are left dispossessed, homeless and impoverished after the breakdown of their family.
In the case of poor Polly Nichols, this unfortunate woman who had already lost everything and had sunk into a life of homelessness and addiction, was to become famous overnight for becoming the first victim of the serial killer Jack the Ripper. At the time of her death, it was speculated that she had fallen victim to a random killer or one of the notorious gangs who wandered Spitalfields at this time, but by the time her inquest was over, another woman had been killed by the same assailant and the whole of East of London had descended into panic.
‘Oh, you look so tired, Mouth slack and wide. Ill-housed and ill-advised, your face is as mean as your life has been.’ – Jack the Ripper, Morrissey.