On the evening of the 30th August 1888 the skies over London were tortured. Lightning accompanied heavy rains that had been a feature of one of the coldest and wettest summers on record and the horizon was etched black on red as two huge dock fires burnt along the Thames.
In the darkened slums of the East End, Polly Nichols had been turned out of her doss house because she had no money to pay with. As she would later drunkenly tell another prostitute, she had already earnt the money 3 times over that day and spent it on drink instead. Defiantly chipper, she had declared that she would soon earn the money and set out onto the streets to seek a client.
By 3:40am on the 31st, she was dead.
Around that time, Charles Cross was heading to work as a carman for Pickfords on the City Road and hurrying down Buck's Row - a cobbled thoroughfare surrounded on both sides by warehouses, stables and narrow houses.
Calling another passer-by, he soon ascertained that the woman was dead by the coolness of her skin to the touch. Paul Cross - the passer-by - thought that he could discern her breathing and the pair set off to find a policeman. In the dark, they were unaware of the extent of the atrocities that had been committed on her body.
By 3:50am, a policeman (constable John Thain) and a doctor Llewellyn who lived nearby were on the scene. What they found was later reported in the inquest testimony by The Times.
"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."
While the autopsy reports are lost to us today, from reports at the time and interviews with the doctor immediately following the discovery of the body, it is likely that the description as published in the press that day was actually an attempt to hide the extend of the injuries from the public. The Pall Mall Gazette interviewed the doctor and carried this description of the mutilations:
"There is a gash under the left ear reaching nearly to the centre of the throat, and another cut, apparently starting from the right ear. The neck is severed back to the vertebra, which is also slightly injured. The abdominal wounds are extraordinary for their length and the severity with which they have been inflicted."
In the weeks and months leading up to her death, Mary Ann had lived a sad, peripatetic existence, flitting between workhouses and common lodging houses and supporting herself increasingly through prostitution. Chances had come her way - including a stint as a servant in a respectable house - but she had squandered them due to petty thievery and her drunken habits.
In 1888, aged 42, she owned the clothes on her back and a small inventory of possessions that speaks volumes as to the poverty of her existence:
- A comb
- A white pocket handkerchief
- A broken piece of mirror