After the vicious murder of Martha Tabram, Whitechapel buzzed with fear and speculation. Perhaps the women who walked the streets after dark were a bit wary, a bit more alert than they had been before the killings began. But they had to continue working. Most of the “fallen women” of that area slept in doss-houses that operated on a “No pay, no stay” policy. Without the few pennies for their bed, they were forced to walk the streets until dawn. Faced with the hopeless desperation and squalor that surrounded them, many such women turned to drink.
One such was 43-year-old Mary Ann Nichols. She had been married before the age of 18 to a man named William Nichols, a printer by trade. They had five children, but their marriage fell apart due to her drinking. She had spent several years in Lambeth Workhouse and a few months as a servant before ending up in a doss house in Flower and Dean Street.
Mary Ann, also called Polly, was seen leaving the Frying Pan pub (today the Sheraz Indian restaurant) on Brick Lane in the early hours of 31st August, 1888. According to reports, she had made the four pence for her lodging several times during the day, but she had spent the money on gin instead. Drunk and broke, Polly returned to her lodging house, but the lodge keeper turned her away. She told the deputy to keep the bed as she would soon get her doss money. “See what a jolly bonnet I’ve got”, she cried as she sauntered away, confident that her new hat (made of straw and of a better quality than the usual for one such as Polly) would quickly attract a client and the money she so desperately needed. At some point in the following hours, Polly Nichols met a client and led him in to the quiet seclusion of Buck’s Row.
Some time later, a cart driver named Charles Cross was walking along Buck’s Row when he spotted a tarpaulin lying on the ground. He crossed over the road and discovered that the “tarpaulin” was in fact the body of a woman lying on her back.
Cross called another carter who was walking nearby to help him examine the woman, to see whether she was alive. When they touched the woman’s face, they found it warm, but her hands were limp and cold. Her skirts had been raised, so they assumed that she had been raped, but it was so dark that they could not see any further injuries. Finding themselves late to work, the two men pulled down the woman’s skirt to preserve her decency and set off down the street, planning to alert the first policeman they came across.
PC John Neil came around the corner of Buck’s Row soon after. Neil was on his usual beat, and had passed by the same spot some 30 minutes before. Nothing unusual had been present at that time. When he saw the body lying in the gateway, he too stopped to investigate. He shone his light down upon the body, and saw a horrible sight which would soon be made famous in press cartoons. The woman was clearly dead, with her eyes wide open and staring into the darkness. Blood oozed from two deep wounds in her throat, which had been slashed open all the way back to her spine.
PC Neill called for help, and a fellow officer helped him to summon the police physician, who arrived on scene around 4 AM to examine the remains. He determined that she had been dead for no more than 30 minutes and ordered her removed to the mortuary. The crime scene was then “processed” – washed clean of blood to avoid attracting attention.
The body was taken to Old Montague Street mortuary, just off Brick Lane. An examination was conducted by the duty inspector, John Spratling. When he lifted her dress, he discovered something that Dr Llewellyn’s initial examination had missed. The victim’s stomach had been ripped open up to her sternum, and her intestines were protruding through the gaping hole. She had been disembowelled.
Dr Llewellyn was called back to make a more thorough examination of the body. He would later state that the knife appeared to have been held in the left hand by a killer who had struck with strength and power, plunging the knife down in to the body as it lay prone on the ground. He would also speculate that the killer must have possessed anatomical knowledge, knowing all the vital parts to attack. The attack itself would have lasted 5 to 6 minutes, although death would have been instantaneous and most of the injuries would have been inflicted post-mortem by the same knife – the only weapon used by the attacker.
In a time before fingerprinting, DNA testing and other modern forensic techniques, it transpired that the only way to identify the victim was by her petticoat, which bore the mark of the Lambeth Workhouse. Enquiries were made in the area, and it was discovered that the victim was none other than Polly Nichols of the jolly bonnet.
Like Martha Tabram before her, Polly Nichols was a prostitute and a drunk, one of thousands of women who inhabited the lowest dregs of Victorian London. She was certainly not the first of her kind to meet a brutal end. But her death was the spark that the London media fanned into a mighty flame, illuminating the deprivation and degradation which festered at the heart of that great city. A knife-wielding menace stalked the streets of Whitechapel and a rabid press followed his exploits with ever-increasing fervour, whipping all of London in to a frenzy of horror and shame. The Autumn of Terror had begun.