Post by Graveyardbride on Aug 31, 2014 2:38:38 GMT -5
August 31, 1888: Slaughter in Buck’s Row
In the wee hours of Friday, August 31, 1888, Charles Cross made his way through the teeming slums of London’s East End on his way to work. Less than an eight-of-a-mile to the southwest was the Tower of London, however, the location where Cross lived, with its overcrowding and poverty was classic “Dickensian” London. The main thoroughfare, Whitechapel Road, was somewhat presentable, but, the narrow, dark intersecting streets were wrought with suffering, corruption and violence. Commenting on the area in the mid-1880s, Jacob Adler wrote: “The further we penetrated into this Whitechapel, the more our hearts sank. Was this London? Never in Russia, never later in the worst slums of New York, were we to see such poverty as in the London of the 1880s.” Such conditions drove many women to prostitution and by 1888, police estimated there were as many as 62 brothels in the East End along with 1,200 prostitutes “of very low class.”
As Cross turned into Buck’s Row, an unlit byway flanked by warehouses and shabby, two-story cottages that had seen better days, he saw something leaning against a gated stable on the other side of the street. He couldn’t make out what appeared to be a bundle of some sort. “I could not tell in the dark what it was at first,” he recalled. “It looked to me like a tarpaulin sheet, but stepping into the road, I saw it was the body of a woman.” As he approached, he could see the lady’s skirts were pulled up almost to her waist.
The moon was in its final phase, offering little light and Cross could not tell if the woman was passed out drunk – the most likely scenario – or if she had been the victim of an assault. He called out to a passerby: “Come and look over here!” As the two men approached the body, neither saw the blood pooled beneath the female form or the terrible wounds across her neck which had almost decapitated her. Finally, realizing the lady was beyond help, they pulled down her skirts for the sake of modesty and went in search of a policeman.
Within a few minutes, Police Constable John Neil passed by on his regular beat and holding his lantern above his shoulder, could see blood oozing from the woman’s throat, which appeared to be slashed from ear to ear. Her eyes were open wide and staring. Her hands and wrists were cold to the touch, but he could still detect body warmth in her arms, indicating she hadn’t been dead long. He called to another policeman and an ambulance was summoned.
The woman brought to the morgue was wearing blood-soaked workhouse-issued clothing, and a white handkerchief, comb and bit of broken mirror were discovered on her person. She was described as 5'2" tall with brown eyes, a dark complexion, brown hair turning grey, slightly discolored teeth (five of which were missing including three in front, two on top and one on the bottom). Her features were noted as small and delicate and she had high cheekbones and a noticeable scar on the forehead that turned out to be from a childhood injury. She was clean for a woman of the streets and even the doctor remarked on the cleanliness of her thighs.
The postmortem examination performed by Dr. Rees Llewellyn revealed even more grisly details of the slaying. The killer had slit the woman’s throat from left to right, leaving four- and eight-inch gashes so deep they severed both her windpipe and esophagus. “The wounds must have been inflicted with a strong-bladed knife, moderately sharp and used with great violence,” the medical examiner reported. He estimated the victim had been dead about a half-hour by the time Cross discovered her body and that she had been killed where she was found. Although there were bruises on the face and neck, there were no signs of a struggle at the crime scene and nearby residents heard nothing out of the ordinary during the night. Initially, Llewellyn surmised she had been attacked by a left-handed man, but later admitted he wasn’t sure. There was also an indentation and abrasion on one of her fingers, indicating a ring had been forcibly removed.
At the morgue, Inspector Spratling, noting the lady’s clothing was shabby and stained, inventoried her possessions: She was wearing a black straw bonnet trimmed in black velvet, a reddish-brown ulster (long, loose coat of coarse cloth) bearing the pattern of a woman on horseback accompanied by a man, brown linsey frock, white flannel chest cloth, black ribbed wool stockings, two petticoats (one of grey wool and the other of flannel and both stenciled “Lambeth Workhouse”), short brown stays, flannel drawers and men’s elastic (spring) sided boots with steel tips on the heels.
The mutilated corpse was soon identified as that of Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols, a 43-year-old prostitute. Once a semi-respectable married woman and mother of five children, she and her husband were separated and without any means of support, she had been moving from one workhouse or doss house to another in the notorious East End and earning her living on the street.
Following examination, the body was transported to the mortuary on Old Montague Street, which was part of the workhouse. When the corpse was stripped, Inspector Spratling discovered there were wounds on the woman’s stomach and summoned Dr. Llewellyn for a more detailed examination. Llewellyn noted the abdomen exhibited a long, deep jagged knife wound, along with several other cuts by the same instrument, running downward.
After the slaying, The Star reported: “The brutality of the murder is beyond conception and beyond description.” The savagery of the crime both shocked and titillated Victorian London and within a few weeks, people wanted to know more about Mary Ann Nichols.
Polly Nichols was born Mary Ann Walker August 26, 1845, to Edward and Caroline Walker. Edward, formerly a locksmith, was working as a blacksmith at the time of his daughter’s murder. His address was listed as 16 Maidswood Road, Camberwell. At the inquest, the grey-haired and bearded Walker commented on what he perceived to be his daughter’s youthful appearance, saying: “She was nearly 44 years of age, but it must be owned that she looked ten years younger.”
On January 16, 1864, when she was 18, Polly married William Nichols, who was employed by Messrs. Perkins, Bacon & Company on Whitefriars Road. The two had five children: Edward John, born 1866; Percy George, 1868; Alice Esther, 1870; Eliza Sarah, 1877, and Henry Alfred, 1879. The oldest child was 21 in 1888 and living in the home of his grandfather, Edward Walker, at the time of his mother’s death. He had left home in 1880 according to William. The other children continued to live with their father.
After their marriage, William and Polly briefly lodged at a place on Bouverie Street, then moved in with her father at 131 Trafalgar Street, where they remained for approximately 10 years. They spent another six years on Blackfriars Road, where they paid rent of 5 shillings, 6 pence per week. If the Blackfriars Road address was their last, this would mean they lived there from 1875 until 1881.
During their 24 years of marriage, Polly and her husband separated numerous times, but they never reconciled after their separation in 1881. William was ordered to pay his estranged wife an allowance, however, the following year, when he found out she was selling her favors, he discontinued support payments. Parish authorities attempted to collect the court-ordered support, but William countered by claiming Polly had deserted him, leaving him with five children. The two were hailed into court, where William was able to establish his wife was living as a common prostitute. At the time of her death, William said he had not seen Mrs. Nichols in three years.
Polly’s father spread the story that the separation of his daughter and her husband came about as a result of William’s affair with a nurse who cared for Polly during her 1879 confinement. William did not deny he had an affair, but insisted: “The woman [Polly] left me four or five times, if not six,” and claimed the affair happened after his wife deserted him. There was obvious disharmony in the family evidenced by the fact the eldest son would have nothing to do with his father at his mother’s funeral.
Following her final separation from her husband and the cutting off of her allowance in 1882, Polly moved from one workhouse to another. In March 1883, she returned to her father’s home in Camberwell, where she stayed two months before returning to the Lambeth Workhouse. In court, Edward Walker described his wayward daughter as “a dissolute character and drunkard” and said he knew she “would come to a bad end.” He freely admitted Polly was not a sober person, but insisted she was not in the habit of staying out at night. Her drinking, he admitted, caused friction, but claimed she left his home of her own accord following an argument.
In June 1883, it is believed Polly was living with a man named Thomas Dew, a blacksmith, who had a shop in Walworth. In June 1886, she attended the funeral of her brother who had burned to death when a paraffin lamp exploded and family members noted she was respectably dressed.
In October 1887, she spent one day at the St. Giles Workhouse on Endell Street, then moved to the Strand Workhouse in Edmonton, where she remained a little more than a month. On December 2, 1887, she was caught “sleeping rough” (i.e., in the open) in Trafalgar Square and because she was destitute with no means of sustenance, Polly was sent to the Lambeth Workhouse. From January until April 1888, she was listed as a resident of the Mitcham Workhouse in Holborn, during which time, she was treated at the Holborn Infirmary. By April 1888, she was back at the Lambeth Workhouse, where she met Mary Ann Monk, described as a young woman with a “haughty air and flushed face.” It was Monk who identified Polly’s body.
Workhouses attempted to secure employment for female inmates and on May 12, 1888, Polly went to work as a domestic servant in the home of Samuel and Sarah Cowdry in Wandsworth. Samuel was the Clerk of Works at the Police Department and both he and his wife were devoutly religious and teetotalers. It was from the Cowdry home that Polly wrote her father, saying:
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 his daughter’s letter, but she did not write again. Two months later, she was discharged for stealing clothing valued at 3 pounds, 10 shillings, from her employers.
She spent the night of August 1, 1888, at Grays Inn Temporary Workhouse, then moved to Wilmott’s Lodging House where she shared a room with four other women, including Emily Holland. The room was described as surprisingly neat and the cost was 4 pennies per night. On August 24, she moved to the White House on Dean Street, a doss house at which men were allowed to share a woman’s bed, i.e., prostitutes were allowed to “conduct business” in the comfort of their beds.
The heavy rains of 1888 resulted in one of the coldest and wettest summers on record and on the night of Thursday, August 30, the rains were frequent and harsh, accompanied by peals of thunder and flashes of lightning. There were also two dock fires in the distance, turning the skies crimson. Around 11 p.m., Polly was observed walking along Whitechapel Road, likely soliciting. Around an hour-and-half later, she was seen leaving the Frying Pan Public House at the Corner of Brick Lane and Thrawl Street. She returned to her lodging house at 18 Thrawl where she was ordered to leave the kitchen because she could not produce her doss money. As she departed, she instructed the deputy to save a bed for her. “Never mind! I’ll soon get my doss money,” she declared. “See what a jolly bonnet I’ve got now,” she exclaimed, pointing to a little black bonnet no one had seen her wearing before.
Around 2:30, Polly met Emily Holland, who was returning from watching the Shadwell Dry Dock fire. Holland later described Polly as “very drunk,” noting she “staggered against the wall.” According to Holland, Polly told her: “I’ve had my doss money three times today and spent it. It won’t be long before I’m back.” The two women spoke for seven or eight minutes as Holland attempted to convince Polly to accompany her to a nearby boarding house. Holland was certain of the time because as they talked, she heard the church clock strike 2:30. The last time Holland saw Polly, she was walking east on Whitechapel Road, disappearing into the darkness. So far as is known, the next person Polly Nichols encountered was Jack the Ripper.
Although the murder of Mary Ann Nichols is considered by most historians to be the first Ripper murder, there were two earlier killings of Whitechapel prostitutes in 1888. On April 3, Emma Elizabeth Smith was attacked and raped on Osburn Street and during the assault, a blunt object was shoved into her vagina, causing such extensive damage that she died the following day. Prior to her death, she indicated three men, one of whom was a teenager, were responsible for the attack. Smith’s rape and murder is generally attributed to gang violence.
On August 7, 1888, just three weeks before the slaughter of Polly Nichols, Martha Tabram, another East End prostitute, was attacked and stabbed 39 times. Her body was discovered around 3:30 a.m. on a landing above a flight of stairs. Some attribute Tabram’s murder to Jack the Ripper, but others, citing the fact Tabram was stabbed multiple times, not slashed, insist another killer was responsible.
The shock over the violent attack on Mary Ann Nichols was short-lived and normally such a murder would have been forgotten in a few weeks. After all, she was a prostitute, one of the dregs of society, someone who was, in effect, asking for it. Her corpse remained at the mortuary for six days until she was dressed and placed in a wooden coffin. On September 6, 1888, as she was laid to rest in the City of London Cemetery in Ilford, no one suspected the woman they were burying would still be remembered and discussed more than a century later as the first victim of Jack the Ripper.
Sources: The Complete Jack the Ripper by Donald Rumbelow; The Complete History of Jack the Ripper by Philip Sugden, Casebook: Jack the Ripper; History in the Headlines; The Whitechapel Murders, CrimeLibrary; BBC News; and Jack the Ripper - 1888.
“September 8, 1888: Murder in the Backyard”: whatliesbeyond.boards.net/thread/2388/september-8-1888-murder-backyard
“September 30, 1888: Two in One Night” (Part 1): whatliesbeyond.boards.net/thread/2518/september-30-1888-night-1
“September 30, 1888: Two in One Night” (Part 2): whatliesbeyond.boards.net/thread/2575/september-30-1888-night-2
“November 9, 1888: Murder and Mutilation in Miller’s Court”: whatliesbeyond.boards.net/thread/2808/november-murder-mutilation-millers-court