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 - a cart driver in the East End, had discovered the body and had been standing alongside it when he was joined by Paul, another cart driver. 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.
Soon after, Dr Rees Llewellyn arrived at the scene of the crime. He made a cursory examination of the body, confirming that the woman was dead. He also mentioned that she had died only half an hour before being discovered and he believed that she had been killed on the spot.
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.
Mary Ann Nichols’ body was taken to the Whitechapel Workhouse Mortuary where a more detailed examination was carried out the next morning by Dr Llewellyn. The Dr’s post-mortem revealed several injuries including two deep cuts to the throat, both of which had penetrated down to the spine. The first cut was approximately 4inches (10cm) long and the second was approximately twice the size, 8inches (20cm) in length and stretched from ear to ear, deep enough to sever the large artery.
The cuts were framed by two small bruises to both sides of the jaw that were not unlike the impressions left by recent pressure of a thumb and finger, suggesting that the killer had held the women’s throat prior to slitting it twice.
There were also a number of abdominal injuries thought to have been made with the same instrument – a strong bladed knife. One deep hacking gash had jaggedly torn the left side of the lower part of the abdomen and as far up as the sternum (or breastbone), leaving the intestines exposed. Similar cuts were found on the right side of the torso including further slashes across the abdomen, but no internal organs had been removed from the body by the murderer.
Initially, based on the visible injuries and mutilations, Dr Llewellyn believed that the killer was left-handed and had attacked the victim from the front. The Dr would later express doubts about his original assumptions as the throat wounds would also have been consistent with a right-handed killer attacking the victim from behind.
After the post-mortem, Dr Llewellyn concluded that the murderer must have had “some rough anatomical knowledge” and that the wounds would have been the work of a single killer, taking only a mere four or five minutes to inflict.
Identifying the Body
Further investigation then took place to uncover the identity of the unfortunate victim, which at first was not clear. In her meagre possessions, the women carried a comb, a pocket-handkerchief, a broken mirror and a little black straw bonnet that was found next to her body after the murder occurred. Eventually, she was recognised as a woman that had been living at 18 Thrawl Street by Ellen Holland, an occupant of the same lodging house that had known Mary Ann as simply “Polly”.
The victim's petticoats showed a laundry mark of Lambeth Workhouse, and an inmate of the workhouse called Mary Ann Monk identified the clothing as belonging to Mary Ann Nichols. The victim's estranged husband, William Nichols, was called in to subsequently identify the body, saying;
“Seeing you as you are now, I forgive you for what you have done to me."
The Police Investigation
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.
Whitechapel Working Lads' Institute (next to the present Whitechapel Underground station) was the scene of the inquest of Mary Ann Nichols, opening on 1st September 1888. The coroner for the South-Eastern Division of Middlesex, a flamboyant character by the name of Wynne Edward Baxter, criticised the police for not seeing the mutilations to Nichols' abdomen before her body was removed for examination.
He also condemned the lack of adequate facilities at the mortuary. Nichols was buried at Ilford Cemetery on 6th September 1888, but her inquest was adjourned a number of times until it finally closed towards the end of September.
With such a high-profile case on their hands, the police wanted to solve the brutal murder quickly. It was also the third recent murder in the area. Although it had taken place on J Division's territory, H Division constable PC Mizen had reported it, so they, too, had a keen interest in the case.
Inspector Abberline was moved from Scotland Yard back to Whitechapel to organise the work of the detectives. The press fuelled interest in a man known as 'Leather Apron’ who extorted money from prostitutes, and many fearful locals believed he was one and the same as the Whitechapel Murderer.
Not long after the investigation began, it would soon ground to a halt and even sooner, more horrifying murders would be discovered, leading detectives into one of the most notorious cases in criminal history…
Who Was Leather Apron?
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 Jewish immigrant 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 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 proved to be an elusive character but would eventually be identified as John Pizer by the police, who then downplayed his role as a suspect.
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” surrounding the case.
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 now notorious tale of Jack the Ripper was only just starting. Whoever the true killer was, just over a week later he would return to claim another victim and the infamous legend of Jack the Ripper was started.
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.