Mary Ann Nichols

Mary Ann Nichols“…there is a woman lying on the pavement…
… I believe she is dead!”

Charles Cross, Cart Driver
Date: 31st August, 1888 – 3:40 AM
Victim: Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols
Location: Buck’s Row, Whitechapel

126 years ago today . In the pre-dawn darkness of 31st August 1888, a cart driver was making his way to work along Buck’s Row, a narrow cobbled street dominated by a board school building that still exists today (although the road is now called Durward Street). The cart driver, Charles Cross by name, noticed something lying in a gateway across the road and stopped to investigate. At first glance, he thought that it might be a piece of tarpaulin which he might be able to use or sell. He crossed over the road and discovered that the “tarpaulin” was in fact the body of a woman lying on her back.


Charles Cross stopped to examine the body, and was soon joined by another man who was passing by. Robert Paul, also a cart driver, examined the body along with Cross. They tried their best to determine whether she was drunk, injured or dead. 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, nor could they ascertain whether she was still alive. Finding themselves late to work, Paul and Cross 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.


Had they waited a few moments longer, they would have met PC John Neil as he came around the corner of Buck’s Row. Neil was on his usual beat, and had passed by the same spot some 30 minutes before. At that time, there was nothing suspicious in the area. When he saw the body lying in the gateway, he too stopped to investigate. Unlike Charles Cross and Robert Paul, however, PC John Neil had a bulls-eye lantern. 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.

Neil immediately signaled for another officer, and the two summoned Dr Llewellyn, a local police physician. Dr Llewellyn arrived on the scene around 4 AM and quickly declared the woman dead. He examined the body, and found that her hands and arms were colds but her trunk and legs were warm, leading him to believe that the victim had been dead no more than half an hour. He ordered the body taken to the mortuary. In a time before modern forensic techniques, the scene was quickly “processed” – which means it was washed clean of blood so as to avoid attracting unwelcome attention and unrest.


The body was taken to Old Montague Street mortuary, just off Brick Lane. The building was tiny, little more than a shed, and once there, 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 disemboweled.

Dr Llewellyn was called back to make a more thorough examination of the body. He noted a number of bruises on the victims face and neck, probably caused by the murderer’s gripping fingers and two fearsome cuts across the throat, one four inches and the other 8 inches long. The abdomen had been ripped in a deep jagged wound that ran downwards from left to right. He also noted several lacerations across the abdomen and three cuts or four cuts running downwards on the right side.


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 postmortem by the same knife – the only weapon used by the attacker.


Identification of the deceased came when her petticoat was found to carry the markings of Lambeth Workhouse. When inquiries were made, the victim was quickly identified as Mary Ann Nichols, nicknamed Polly, a 43-year-old prostitute. She had been married by 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 Polly’s 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.

The inquest into Polly Nichol’s death opened at the Working Lads Institute at 279 Whitechapel Road. Several witnesses were questioned by the coroner, Wayne Baxter, and with their testimony, the final hours of her life became clear. On the night of her death, Polly Nichols was seen leaving the Frying Pan pub (today the Sheraz Indian restaurant) on Brick Lane in the early hours of 31st August. She had made her lodging money several times during that day, but on each occasion she had spent it on gin. Drunk and broke, Polly returned to her lodging house in nearby Thrawl Street, but the lodge keeper turned her away. Like most doss houses, Polly’s lodging house operated on a “no pay, no stay” basis. 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 to the deputy 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. That client was Jack the Ripper.


Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols was buried on Thursday, 6 September, 1888 at City of London Cemetery (Little Ilford) at Manor Park Cemetery, Sebert Road, Forest Gate, London, E12, (public) grave 210752.

The funeral expenses were paid for by Edward Walker (Polly’s father), William Nichols (Polly’s ex-husband), and Edward John Nichols (Polly’s son).

In late 1996, the cemetery authorities decided to mark Polly’s grave with a plaque.