The Body in Buck’s Row
Today, Mary Ann Nichols is widely considered to be the first of Jack the Ripper's targets – and the first of the canonical Five Ripper victims. However, just after her death in 1888, police and detectives were still largely unaware that they were on the hunt for a serial killer whose chilling crimes would ensure the name ‘Jack the Ripper’ would go down in history.
Who Was Mary Ann Nichols?
42-years-old at the time of her death, Mary Ann Nichols was a casual prostitute who was residing in a lodging house in Thrawl Street. Despite producing five children, her marriage failed in 1880 due to her frequent overindulgence in alcohol.
Just two years later, Mary Ann Nichols had begun working the streets in order to earn a living. Undoubtedly, this is what she had been doing on the night she died – especially since it later transpired that she had been turned away from her dosshouse for failing to provide the sum of fourpence for her bed. Looking back, it was ascertained that she may have spent the money on alcohol as she had been seen leaving the Frying Pan pub on Brick Lane beforehand.
What Happened on 31st August 1888?
PC John Neil was patrolling Buck’s Row, a gloomy street in Whitechapel, for what must have been the umpteenth time on the wet, dreary night of 31st August 1888. As he approached a stable yard next to the Board School, he noticed the body of a woman lying on her back. Upon closer inspection by the light of his lamp, he found that the woman’s throat had been cut. PC Neil noticed another policeman passing at the end of the street, used his lamp to signal for assistance, and was swiftly joined by PC Thain.
However, unbeknownst to PC Neil as he instigated a series of official procedures, were the events that were unfolding in Baker’s Row, only a few hundred yards away. Two men, Charles Cross and Robert Paul, were already telling another officer, PC Mizen, about the body.
Just five minutes previously, Cross had discovered the body, standing alongside it when he was joined by Paul. Unwilling to touch the body and unsure if the woman was dead or alive, the pair went off to hopefully alert a policeman to their grim discovery.
On this murky evening, a chain of events began that would change the East End of London forever and focus the world’s attention on this most troubled part of the capital.
The Police Investigation
Mary Ann Nichols’ body was taken to the Whitechapel Workhouse Mortuary where a more detailed examination was carried out. This careful inspection discovered two deep cuts to the throat, one of which had penetrated down to the spine. There were also a number of abdominal injuries, including one that had jaggedly torn the torso open from the breastbone down to the groin.
Further investigation then took place, finally identifying the unfortunate woman as Mary Ann Nichols.
Despite positively identifying the body, the police investigation into the death of Mary Ann Nichols had very little to go on. There were no witnesses and no evidence left at the scene, despite an exhaustive search by the police. A number of individuals were detained on suspicion, and some peripheral characters offered possibly useful information about Nichols’ last movements, but this proved to be fruitless.
As a result, the investigation soon ground to a halt. Before long, more horrifying murders would be discovered, leading detectives into one of the most notorious cases in criminal history…
Who Was Leather Apron?
Additionally, less than 48 hours after the crime had been reported, the press began to focus on one particular individual as a potential suspect. This person’s vicious habits had been recounted by several local prostitutes, who described tales of him stalking the streets threatening women with a knife, robbing them or even attempting to kidnap them. Due to his habit of wearing a leather apron, he had been nicknamed ‘Leather Apron’.
Leather Apron was believed to be of a “marked Hebrew type” which set him apart as a member of the large immigrant Jewish community that had been growing in the East End over the previous decades. With this development, the next few years would prove to be a highly dangerous time for these immigrant settlers. Racism and resentment towards Jews were already rife, and before long, they were being blamed for undercutting job markets and taking over local neighbourhoods. As such, they would go on to provide the public (and some journalists) with an easy scapegoat for the killings.
Leather Apron, whoever he was, proved to be an elusive character and at this stage, even the police had no clue as to his true identity. With all enquiries and potential leads throwing up dead ends, a spiralling chain of events would soon begin to unfold which would create a firestorm of mayhem that nobody was prepared for…
Was Mary Ann Nichols the First Jack the Ripper Victim?
Coming hot on the heels of the shocking murder of Martha Tabram on 7th August 1888, the suggestion that both deaths were not only connected but could have been caused by the same hand was growing stronger every day.
Although the official police line was to blame the actions of local gangs, some newspapers began to comment that a lone, silent killer was at work, targeting the vulnerable women of the East End. ‘The Star’ newspaper ran the headline, “The third crime of a man who must be a maniac” and spoke of “great local excitement”.
It would not be long before the police started to come around to the possibility that the press might be right. The concept of the serial killer stereotype that we are familiar with today was still very much in its infancy in Victorian London. In fact, Leather Apron/Jack the Ripper may well have been one of the very first recorded serial killers in the world – and he remains one of the most infamous to this day.
However, one thing is for certain. On that fateful night of 31st August 1888, the tale of Jack the Ripper was only just starting to begin.
To learn more about Jack the Ripper's victims and explore the locations where his gruesome activities took place, book your place on the Jack the Ripper Tour and experience the story behind the world's most infamous serial killer.