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The Murder of Polly Nichols

We interrupt this academic blog for a tale of murder, murder most foul.

On 31 August in 1888 Mr. Charles Cross was walking to work through Buck’s Row, a dingy and poorly-lit alleyway in the heart of London’s East End. It was around 3:40 in the morning when he spied what looked like a bundle of rags on the opposite sidewalk. On closer inspection, however, he discovered it was the remains of a woman who had been cruelly slashed at the throat.

The poor woman had been dead only a few moments from a knife wound to her neck that was so deep she was nearly decapitated. Her skirt had been raised and her abdomen had been torn asunder.

Most of the people in this squalid part of the Whitechapel knew her only as "Polly," a local drunk and a woman of ill-repute. The police would eventually identify her as Mary Ann Nichols of 18 Thrawl Street, Spitalfields, London.

History would come to know her as the first victim of the Fiend of Whitechapel, Jack the Ripper!

This grisly murder was the beginning of a crime spree that has fascinated criminologists and mystery-lovers for over a century. Dozens of crime films—including a silent film by Alfred Hitchcock—tell different versions of the Ripper’s bloody work. Hundreds of books and journals have offered various theories as to the Ripper’s identity, with suspects ranging from British painter Walker Sickert, Lewis Carroll, and His Majesty Prince Albert Victor.

Despite all the theories, movies, and speculation of the past 118 years, the murder of Polly Nichols remains unsolved to this day.

Here is the entry on Jack the Ripper from The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography:

Jack the Ripper (fl. 1888), serial killer, was known as ‘the Whitechapel murderer’ or ‘Leather Apron’ until on 27 September 1888 the Central News Agency received a red-inked, defiant, semi-literate letter signed Jack the Ripper. This letter was probably a hoax concocted by news agency staff. It is suitable that he is known by a name devised in a journalistic stunt, for he was the first criminal to become a figure of international mythology through the medium of global communications. The indivisibility of his crimes from reportage of them is shown in a few words of a cabinet minister, Lord Cranbrook, who on 2 October noted: ‘More murders at Whitechapel, strange and horrible. The newspapers reek with blood’ (Johnson, 716).

The Ripper was almost certainly male, probably right-handed, unmarried, and in work, and possessed either some anatomical training or sufficient education to study surgical textbooks; he was perhaps a foreigner. Although all his victims (possibly barring one) were destitute and drunken prostitutes, he did not rape or penetrate them; nevertheless, there was a sexual element to his homicidal excitement. He was daring, energetic, hate-ridden, cruel, and perhaps obsessed with wombs. Evidence as to his age and appearance from those who claimed to have seen him is inconclusive and contradictory. Nothing is certain of his life except for a few violent hours during the summer and autumn of 1888.

The First Killings

There was much routine violence against women in Whitechapel. Early on the morning of Tuesday 3 April 1888, following Easter bank holiday Monday, Emma Elizabeth Smith, aged forty-five, was attacked in Osborn Street. A blunt instrument, possibly a stick, was thrust into her. She died in the London Hospital next day. Her death is sometimes reckoned as the first in the series of crimes perpetrated by the Whitechapel murderer, but was probably an unrelated street robbery and rape by several ruffians.

Between 1.50 and 3.30 a.m. on Tuesday 7 August 1888 (after a Monday bank holiday) Martha Tabram (b. 1849), alias Turner, who was also known as Emma, was stabbed thirty-nine times on the first-floor landing of the communal stairs of George Yard Buildings, a block of model dwellings off Whitechapel High Street. Her clothes were disarrayed and her lower body exposed. Police investigations focused on an unidentified private in a guards regiment with whom Tabram had reportedly gone to George Yard shortly before midnight on 6 August. Some criminologists insist that Tabram’s killer was an unidentified soldier; others identify this crime as the first of the series attributed to Jack the Ripper.

There is no controversy that at about 3 a.m. on Friday 31 August 1888 the Whitechapel murderer killed Mary Ann (Polly) Nichols (b. 1845) in the entrance to a stable yard in a narrow cobbled alley called Buck’s Row, off Whitechapel Road. Like Tabram her skirts were raised almost to her stomach. Her abdomen was savagely ripped open and her throat cut; her private parts were twice stabbed. She had, however, probably been throttled before the stabbing and mutilation. After her murder, suspicions focused on Jack Pizer (c.1850–1897), a Jewish slipper maker who for some time had been bullying prostitutes and was known as Leather Apron; he was eventually detained and eliminated from the enquiry.

The next victim was Annie Chapman, alias Annie Siffey (b. 1841). She was murdered (probably at 5.30 a.m.) on Saturday 8 September 1888 in the backyard of 29 Hanbury Street, Spitalfields. This was the only one of the serial killings committed in daylight. An eyewitness who saw the killer picking up his victim described him vaguely as shabby-genteel, foreign-looking, and aged about forty; a neighbour apparently heard him stifling her cries and throttling her to insensibility if not death. Chapman’s throat was severed and her body mutilated. Some of her organs were removed from the scene, and her rings were wrenched off. The perpetrator seemingly had some knowledge of anatomical or pathological examinations; a small amputating knife or thin, sharpened slaughterman’s knife was probably used.

The police response

Police street patrols of Whitechapel and Spitalfields were increased after the Tabram murder and were soon intensified until the district was almost saturated with police at night-time. After Nichols’s murder, when journalists raised the spectre of a homicidal lunatic stalking his victims through Whitechapel, Inspector Frederick Abberline of Scotland Yard, who had an extensive knowledge of the area, was sent there to co-ordinate the divisional detectives investigating the prostitute murders. Generally the police were reasonably efficient, if bewildered. The press sensation following Chapman’s murder, however, raised bitter recriminations against the Metropolitan Police. Some of these attacks were intended to injure politically the home secretary, Henry Matthews, or to retaliate against stern police treatment of Irish nationalists, socialists, and the East End unemployed. The situation was exacerbated by Sir Howard Vincent’s guidelines for the Criminal Investigation Department requiring secretiveness on the part of police officials in unsolved cases. Journalistic resentment of this policy led them to various ploys and dodges which impeded police investigations. There was a popular outcry for a large government reward to be offered for information on the killer, but the Home Office was set against this practice, which it knew could draw false information or induce the framing of innocent parties. The police nevertheless were showered with information from the public about lunatics, misfits, and unpopular neighbours. Chapman’s death raised suspicions of Jewish ritual murder, and crowds assembled in the Whitechapel streets threatening Jews. This resulted in Samuel Montagu, MP for Whitechapel, offering a reward of £100 for the murderer’s capture, and in the formation (largely by Jewish tradesmen) of the Mile End Vigilance Committee. Larger rewards were later offered.

The later murders

Probably between 12.40 and 1 a.m. on Sunday 30 September, in Dutfield’s Yard, flanking the socialist (and mainly Jewish) International Working Men’s Educational Club, at 40 Berner Street, Elizabeth Stride (b. 1843), a Swede, prone to drink but not a habitual prostitute, was murdered. A meeting of 100 members had only recently closed in the club, where members who had not dispersed were singing. Stride’s throat had been cut, but her clothing was undisturbed. Her expression was peaceful and she still clutched in her left hand a packet of aromatic breath sweeteners wrapped in tissue paper. Some Ripperologists discount Stride as one of the serial killings because the corpse was not extensively slashed or mutilated, but it is more likely that the killer was disturbed before completing his work. A passer-by gave evidence suggesting that there were two men involved in this killing. Another witness, who saw a member of the socialist club leaving the yard carrying a small black bag, started the legend of Jack the Ripper carrying a doctor’s bag.

After murdering Stride the killer went three-quarters of a mile eastward (12 minutes’ walk) to Mitre Square, off Aldgate, within the eastern boundary of the City of London. In the south-east corner of this square, near a warehouse yard and some derelict or empty houses (the darkest corner of the square, favoured by prostitutes and their clients), between 1.30 and 1.44 a.m. on that same morning, he murdered Catherine Eddowes (b. 1842), alias Kate Conway or Kelly. She had been discharged from Bishopsgate Street police station (where she was held for drunkenness) only forty-five minutes before her corpse was discovered. She was found lying on her back with her clothes disarranged. Her throat was cut and her stomach opened. Further terrible mutilations were made, and again the murderer took organs away. He showed ruthless efficiency on this occasion, for he had only a quarter of an hour between two police patrols to inveigle his victim into the square, kill and mutilate her, and escape. The police reacted swiftly to the discovery in Mitre Square, but the killer fled eastwards, apparently stopping to leave a piece of Eddowes’s bloody and faecal-stained apron at a stairwell entry at 108–19 Wentworth Model Dwellings, Goulston Street, where he chalked a message:

The Juwes are
The men That
Will not
be Blamed
for nothing.

The chairman of Mile End Vigilance Committee received a parcel (16 October) putatively containing a portion of Eddowes’s kidney together with an unsigned letter headed ‘From Hell’, purportedly from the murderer.

From the night of the double murder the police investigation became even more conditioned by public unrest and reactive to the press. The police were demoralized by false leads and failure. Relations became strained between Matthews and the commissioner of Metropolitan Police, Sir Charles Warren, who reported to the Home Office on 17 October, ‘I look upon this series of murders as unique in the history of our country’ (Evans and Gainey, 112); Warren resigned a few weeks later. The press agitation reached its shrillest pitch during October 1888, when there were no Whitechapel prostitute murders: the pseudonym Jack the Ripper of the probably inauthentic letter publicized by the Central News Agency achieved worldwide notoriety in the early days of that month. This name represented a state of mind rather than an individual: that mentality being a paroxysm of horror, fear, and fascinated disgust.

In the aftermath of the Chapman murder a German hairdresser named Charles Ludwig was apprehended (18 September), and the evidence against him seemed powerful until the double murder was committed while Ludwig was in police custody. Other suspects at this time included Jacob Isenschmid, an insane Swiss pork butcher; Oswald Puckridge (1838–1900), a trained apothecary who had recently been released from Hoxton House Lunatic Asylum and had threatened to rip people up with a long knife; and three medical students, including John Sanders (1862–1901), who had attended London Hospital but had become insane. It was speculated whether the killer was a member of a barbaric sect, a mad freemason, a black magician, a dipsomaniac, a notoriety craver, a jewel thief, a midwife or abortionist, an individual or individuals intent on inciting antisemitism (many details of the Stride–Eddowes murders can be construed as intended to incriminate Jews), or (according to the mountebank Forbes Winslow) a religious monomaniac. Sir George Savage (who suspected ‘post-mortem room and anatomy room porters’) hypothesized that ‘imitative action may have come into play’, and that the murders were maniacal acts of emulation by more than one killer, including someone bent on ‘world regeneration’ (Savage, 463). A looser speculation is that the killer was a social reformer such as Thomas Barnardo (who met Stride on 26 September) hoping to shock the national conscience about slum conditions. Certainly Whitechapel became the cynosure of 1888. Typically, Lord Sydney Godolphin Osborne characterized its inhabitants as living in ‘godless brutality, a species of human sewage, the very drainage of the vilest productions of human vice’ and called for a concentrated philanthropic effort (The Times, 18 Sept 1888, 11f.).

On Friday 9 November 1888 (perhaps between 1 and 4 a.m.) the Whitechapel murderer killed Mary Jane Kelly (b. 1862) in her room at a common lodging house, Miller’s Court, off Dorset Street, Spitalfields. Her body was found almost naked on her bed with its throat cut. As her murderer was secure in her room, without fear of interruption, he had time to cut her to pieces in the light from her fireplace. The mutilations were horrific, apparently undertaken in an atrocious frenzy.

Kelly is usually treated as the last victim of the Whitechapel murderer. His death, incarceration in an asylum, or emigration may have terminated these crimes. (The deaths of Alice McKenzie, whose throat was cut between 12.25 and 12.50 a.m. in Castle Alley, off Whitechapel High Street, on 16 July 1889, and of Frances Cole, whose throat was cut under a railway arch in Swallow Gardens at 2.15 a.m. on 13 February 1891, have been tentatively attributed to the Whitechapel murderer.)

The Ripper as a continuing public phenomenon

Over 130 suspects are listed in The Jack the Ripper A to Z (1991). Sir Melville Macnaghten of the Criminal Investigation Department believed in the guilt of Montague Druitt (1857–1888), a barrister and schoolmaster who drowned himself in the Thames after the Kelly killing. Another police official, Sir Robert Anderson, suspected Aaron Kosminski (c.1864–1919), a Polish Jew working in Whitechapel as a hairdresser, who was confined in Colney Hatch Asylum in 1891. Inspector Frederick Abberline of Scotland Yard, who was the most impressive detective involved in the investigation, suspected Severin Klosowski (1865–1903), a Pole who had studied surgery and emigrated to England in 1887. Klosowski (originally working as a hairdresser in Whitechapel) was a Roman Catholic who masqueraded as a Jew; under the name of George Chapman he was executed for poisoning his three common-law wives between 1897 and 1902. Chief Inspector John Littlechild specified an unbalanced woman-hating American quack, Francis Tumblety (c.1833–1903), who absconded abroad while on police bail after Kelly’s death. Tumblety and perhaps Klosowski are the most plausible suspects. The guilt of an unidentified Jewish ritual slaughterman is also tenable. Sillier accusations include the eldest son of the prince of Wales, Albert Victor, duke of Clarence and Avondale; his tutor, James Kenneth Stephen (1859–1892); Sir William Gull; Walter Sickert; and Dr Thomas Neill Cream (1850–1892), an abortionist hanged for poisoning Lambeth prostitutes. Several Ripperologists accuse a fish porter called Joseph Barnett (1860–1927), who was in love with Kelly and was supposedly trying to frighten her off the streets.

The Ripper was the first sexual serial killer commanding international notoriety: he inaugurated the modern consciousness of such crimes. Since 1888 the phenomenon has proliferated: in England the atrocities of an unidentified serial killer of prostitutes in Notting Hill and Shepherd’s Bush (1964–5), and of Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper (1976–80), are comparable to the Whitechapel murders. Though the Victorian public had always revelled in the sanguinary details of murder, and popular journalism had always striven to shock, Jack’s nightmarish mutilations were recognized in 1888 as new and strange. In an epoch when a glimpse of a woman’s ankle could seem indecent, the violence of his mutilations was blasphemous. His attacks were reported in an explicit, pitiless detail that would be rendered impossible a generation later by voluntary journalistic self-censorship. The detectives’ policy of not confiding their progress to journalists resulted in reporting that was often wild, irresponsible, and mendacious; accurate reports were contradicted with seeming authority by jealous or mischievous journalistic rivals. At their breakfast tables the British were confronted with the mechanisms of the vilest sexual homicide. After the Eddowes murder a ‘sweet-natured and kindly-souled’ middle-class girl who had been forbidden ‘to read Adam Bede’ was invited to east London, and asked enthusiastically, ‘“Shall we pass Mitre Court?”’ (Barnett, 437). Knowledge of the crimes affected everyone, and there was no return to innocence.

Jack the Ripper is partly a literary phenomenon. There was already vigorous political and quasi-scientific debate among the intelligentsia in 1888 about the body, the city, and degeneration theory. The Whitechapel murders occurred two years after the publication of R. L. Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and of Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia sexualis, and two years before the publication of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. The graffiti clue left after the Eddowes murder seems adapted from an incident in Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘A Study in Scarlet’, published a few months earlier in Beeton’s Christmas Annual. Much contemporary doggerel developed about the Ripper. Later, Leonard Matters’s unreliable The Mystery of Jack the Ripper (1930) launched a massive literature of Ripperologists: some of it exploitative, asinine, or tawdry, but other books more fascinating. These crimes inspired one excellent novel, Marie Belloc Lowndes’s The Lodger (1913), admired by Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway, and first filmed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1926 (starring Ivor Novello), with four remakes to 1953. Phyllis Tate turned The Lodger into an opera (1960). A cognate novel is Colin Wilson’s Ritual in the Dark (1960). By 1977 there were twenty films reflecting the Ripper story. The Ripper crimes influenced Wedekind’s plays Erdgeist and Die Büchse der Pandora (and hence Berg’s 1937 opera Lulu), as well as Brecht’s Dreigroschenoper.

Richard Davenport-Hines


P. Sugden, The complete history of Jack the Ripper (1995) · S. Evans and P. Gainey, The lodger (1995) · G. Savage, ‘Homicidal mania’, Fortnightly Review, 50 (1888), 448–63 · S. A. Barnett, ‘East London and crime’, National Review, 12 (1888–9), 433–43 · The diary of Gathorne Hardy, later Lord Cranbrook, 1866–1892: political selections, ed. N. E. Johnson (1981), 716, 718 · L. P. Curtis, Jack the Ripper and the London press (2002) · P. Begg, Jack the Ripper (1988) · D. Rumbelow, The complete Jack the Ripper (1975) · T. Cullen, Autumn of Terror (1965) · P. Begg, K. Skinner, and M. Fido, The Jack the Ripper A to Z (1991) · P. Harrison, Jack the Ripper (1991) · ‘The Whitechapel mystery’, The Spectator (15 Sept 1888), 1253–4 · ‘The Whitechapel horrors’, The Spectator (6 Oct 1888), 1352–3


Recent Comments

  1. *****

    im learnin jack the ripper

  2. sylvia

    this is the most interesting thing that i have heard about polly nichols and it helps alot on my research paper thanx. which iam doing my report over jack the ripper. thanx for the info it really helps alot.

  3. Mike

    My money would be on Tumblety after reviewing all the suspects, wouldn’t you agree?

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