The murder of Mary Ann Nichols

30 August 2012

The women of Whitechapel arming themselves against the Ripper. Photo: The Museum of London.

TRIGGER WARNING: This post includes a non gruesome post mortem photo of the victim. It’s not at all horrific and she just looks asleep tbh BUT please don’t proceed if that’s liable to cause distress.

At 3.40am on the morning of the 31st August 1888, a hapless 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 passing cart driver, Robert Paul and the two men hesitantly contemplated the woman, uncertain if she was dead or merely unconscious due to too much drink, which was a fairly common site in the area.

After some deliberation, they pulled down her skirt, which had been lifted past her knees 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 rather than simply drunk.

A police surgeon, Dr Rees Llewellyn was then called for who examined the body at the scene while the policemen held aloft their lanterns. He 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 unfortunate cart men must have narrowly missed bumping into her murderer, who had long since vanished into the gloomy alleyways and courts of Spitalfields.

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 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, like Mary Ann Nichols, 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 canonical 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 extorting money via ‘protection’ rackets, 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.

Mortuary photograph of Mary Ann Nichols. Photo: National Archives.

On this the anniversary of the first canonical Ripper murder in 1888, I find myself thinking about Mary Ann Nichols and the sad and desperate life that brought her to a miserable death on a squalid side street. I think about her drunken claim the evening before her death that she’d earned her ‘doss money’ three times over but managed to drink it all but that she was sure she’d earn it again with the help of her nice new bonnet. Poor old Polly – we’re told that she looked at least ten years younger than her actual age and she clearly took some pride in her looks.

Durward Street. Photos: my own.

Nowadays Bucks Row is known as Durward Street and is a charmless road a short walk away from Brick Lane. Much has changed since Victorian times but the board school that loomed over the spot where Mary Ann’s body was found still remains and in the distance you can see the front portico of the Royal London Hospital peeping between the clustering roof tops just as it would have done as Mary Ann met her end. It’s a miserable spot even today, especially at night, not somewhere you’d want to linger and in 1888 it was even more so.

It’s irresistible also to ponder the similarities between Mary Ann and another famous woman who died on the 31st August over a century later and whose untimely, violent death will also be remembered today. At first glance there’s not much to connect an impoverished east end prostitute with the divorced aristocratic wife of the heir to the throne until you recall to mind the way both women have been fetishised to a huge degree over the years and have been defined, often critically, by the way that they conducted their personal lives as well as the fact that both experienced a fall of grace after marital breakdown. It’s weird really to consider how much Princess Diana and poor Polly Nichols have in common.

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Set against the infamous Jack the Ripper murders of autumn 1888 and based on the author’s own family history, From Whitechapel is a dark and sumptuous tale of bittersweet love, friendship, loss and redemption and is available NOW from Amazon UK and Amazon US.

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