Mary Ann Nichols: The First Victim of Jack the Ripper

Jack the Ripper is perhaps the most prolific and notorious serial killer in history, as he was never captured. He taunted the police of Whitechapel in East London in 1888. Over a nine week period, an unknown villain murdered five sex workers in the Whitechapel area with the protection of midnight darkness in the alleys and hidden spaces of the most desperate area of London. There were precisely 11 murders between 1888 and 1891 that were dubbed, “The Whitechapel Murders,” yet five of those were attributed to the self-titled, ‘Jack the Ripper.’ These victims are called, the Canonical Five.

This is the first of a five part series where we will look at each of the Canonical Five. Due to the obscure and mysterious nature of Jack the Ripper, these women appear to have been reduced to merely sex workers, and not working women with lives and pasts of their own. Perhaps this is due to the passing of time, or possibly the stigma attached to sex work. The first in this historical series of murders was a 42-year-old woman named Mary Ann Nichols. Due to the time since the murders, not much is known of the victims, beyond what can be documented (marriages, crimes, deaths, etc).

Before The Murder

She was born Mary Ann “Polly” Walker on August 26, 1845 in Dawes Court, Shoe Lane, off Fleet Street. Her parents were Edward and Caroline Walker. Mary Ann married William Nichols on  January 16, 1864. The couple had five children Edward John, Percy George, Alice Esther, Eliza Sarah, and Henry Alfred between 1866 and 1879. During their marriage, Mary Ann and William separated many times, the final time in 1881. Mary Ann began living on her own, and turned to sex work to meet her ends. After separation, William was required to pay her an allowance payment to support her of 5 shillings. Once he found out she begun sex work, however, he stopped the payments. When authorities attempted to collect the payments, he was able to prove she had deserted him with their children, and was working as a sex worker. The payments then ended. There were rumours from Mary Ann’s father that her husband having an affair had forced her to leave, but William denied that the affair occurred while she was in the home. At the time of her death, she had not been seen by her husband in over three years.

In the Whitechapel area existed several workhouses. These houses offered rooms, often shared with several others packed together, in exchange for hard labor. Many struggling men and women were so desperate for a roof over their heads and food, however meager and foul it may be, that they agreed to this exchange. There was an aura of desperation and defeat in this area. Many sex workers worked at night in order to afford to pay for that nights’ room. With no leniency in the workhouse policy, if one could not pay that night’s board, they were shunned to the dark streets of Whitechapel.

Mary Ann stayed in several workhouses after leaving her husband, and promptly increased her dependency on alcohol, which had been another issue in her troubled marriage. Between 1882 and her death in 1888, she lived in no less than five workhouses, on the streets, and briefly with her father, but left due to her endless drinking. She was also thought to have lived with a blacksmith named Thomas Dew from 1883 to 1887. She spent most of her time at the Lambeth Workhouse at different times. She meets another woman named Mary Ann Monk, who would later be the one to identify her body (which would be confirmed by William Nichols).

Dorset Street, 19th century

In May 1888, she leaves the Lambeth Workhouse to begin work as a domestic servant in the home of Samuel and Sarah Cowdry. While here, Mary Ann writes to her father,

“I just right to say you will be glad to know that I am settled in my new place, and going all right up to now. My people went out yesterday and have not returned, so I am left in charge. It is a grand place inside, with trees and gardens back and front. All has been newly done up. They are teetotalers and religious so I ought to get on. They are very nice people, and I have not too much to do. I hope you are all right and the boy has work. So good bye for the present.

from yours truly,

Answer soon, please, and let me know how you are.”

Her father replies to this letter, but he does not receive a response.

After just two months, Mary Ann leaves this job, allegedly stealing clothing from the owners.

Her final place of living is known as the White House lodging house at 56 Flower and Dean street. This place is known as a “doss house,” or a cheap lodging house for the homeless which is frequented by sex workers. This is because men and women were not separated, and allowed to share a bed. She also stayed at Wilmott’s Lodging House at 18 Thrawl Street, Spidalfields.

Alley of Whitechapel

At the time, a sex worker’s services could be acquired for 3 pence most often, which was the same price as a large glass of gin. With Mary Ann’s drinking problem, and love of gin, she often traded having a drink over a place to sleep.

The Day of the Murder

On Thursday August 30, 1888 (and into the morning of Friday, August 31), Mary Ann is on the streets of Whitechapel. Walking through the heavy rain, she is cold and wet as she seeks out gentleman in need of company. Thunder rolls and lighting sears the sky, as if setting the scenery the brutal murder to come. Here is a brief timeline of her movements that night.

  • 11:00 PM – Mary Ann is seen walking down Whitechapel road, where she is likely working
  • 12:30 AM – She is seen leaving the Frying Pan Public House (on the corner of Brick Lane and Thrawl Street). Then she returns to the Wilmott’s Lodging House.
  • 1:20 to 1:40 AM – She had been resting in the kitchen of the Lodging House, but with no money for a room, she is kicked out. “Nevermind!” She says, “I’ll soon get my doss money. See what a jolly bonnet I’ve got on now.” Indicating to a new bonnet she wears.
  • 2:30 AM – She comes across Emily Holland, who had been observing the Shadwell Dry Dock fire on the corner of Whitechapel road and Osborn Street. Holland described Mary Ann as “very drunk and staggered against the wall.” Mary Ann says, “I’ve had my doss money three times today and spent it. It won’t be long before I’m back.” The women speak for a few minutes before Mary Ann leaves to find work one final time. She walks east down Whitechapel Road.
  • 3:15 AM – Police Constable John Thain walks down Buck’s Row on his normal path and reports nothing odd. The only light in this area is a single gas lamp, which is at one, far end of the street.
  • 3:40 – 3:45 AM – Mary Ann Nichols’ body is discovered on Buck’s Row by a man named Charles Cross, while on his way to work. He alerts another man named Robert Paul and the two investigate.

There lies the badly mutilated body of Mary Ann Nichols. Other than her hands and face, her body is still warm. Her skirt is pulled up, revealing her lower body. The two men pull down her skirt to maintain her decency. But afraid of being late to work, they move along and decide to alert the first Police Constable they see, who happens to be a man named Jonas Mizen. Police Constable John Neil and John Thain discover the body and Mizen joins them.

Illustration of the discovery of Mary Ann Nichols August 31, 1888

They call for Dr. Rees Ralph Llewellyn, who asserts that she had only been dead “but a few minutes.” Of the homes in the area, and many people sleeping peacefully, no one heard anything while Mary Ann was murdered. At the inquest, Dr. Llewellyn described his observations of the body (as reported by The Times in 1888).

“Five teeth were missing, and there was a slight laceration of the tongue. There was a bruise running along the lower part of the jaw on the right side of the face. That might have been caused by a blow from a fist or pressure from a thumb. There was a circular bruise on the left side of the face which also might have been inflicted by the pressure of the fingers. On the left side of the neck, about 1 in. below the jaw, there was an incision about 4 in. in length, and ran from a point immediately below the ear. On the same side, but an inch below, and commencing about 1 in. in front of it, was a circular incision, which terminated at a point about 3 in. below the right jaw. That incision completely severed all the tissues down to the vertebrae. The large vessels of the neck on both sides were severed. The incision was about 8 in. in length. the cuts must have been caused by a long-bladed knife, moderately sharp, and used with great violence. No blood was found on the breast, either of the body or the clothes. There were no injuries about the body until just about the lower part of the abdomen. Two or three inches from the left side was a wound running in a jagged manner. The wound was a very deep one, and the tissues were cut through. There were several incisions running across the abdomen. There were three or four similar cuts running downwards, on the right side, all of which had been caused by a knife which had been used violently and downwards. the injuries were form left to right and might have been done by a left handed person. All the injuries had been caused by the same instrument.”

A photo of the location the body was found, much as it would have looked in 1888

Mary Ann Nichols was buried on Thursday, September 6, 1888 at the City of London Cemetery. In 1996, her grave was finally marked with a plaque. The brutality of her murder and the public thought towards sex workers, then and now, have led to her (and other victims) being considered “less dead,” meaning they are not thought of as important to society. The lives behind the deaths can start to re-humanize these women. Jack the Ripper was never captured. So understanding the women he killed may help to understand the mind that took their lives, and who he may have been.

Sources and Further Reading:

Casebook: Jack the Ripper – Mary Ann Nichols

Jack the Ripper 1888 – The Life and Death of Mary Nichols

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