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Weird Island: Weird Places, People and Animals in Britain

Mary Ann 'Polly' Nichols
31st August 1888

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Mary Ann 'Polly' Nichols

Mary Ann 'Polly' Nichols

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
She kept in sporadic touch with her family through the occasional letter home, but at the time of her death she cut a small, lonely figure, struggling with drink and prostitution.

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Mary Ann 'Polly' Nichols: location

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Mary Ann 'Polly' Nichols: timeline of events

Timeline

  • 26th August 1845
    Born Mary Ann Walker
  • 16th January 1864
    Marries William Nichols
  • 1881
    Separated from William Nichols
    The last time the two would separate - their marriage having been characterised by several prior separations
  • 1882
    Turns to prostitution
    When William Nichols discovers her trade, he ceases payments to her
  • 30th August 1888 - 01:20
    Arrives at 18 Thrawl Street
    With no doss money, she is refused by the deputy. Laughingly, she told him she'd soon earn her doss money and pointed out a "jolly bonnet" she had acquired.
  • 30th August 1888 - 11:30
    Seen walking alone in Whitechapel Road
  • 31st August 1888
    Leaves the Frying Pan pub
    The Frying Pan was situated on the corner of Thrawl Street and Brick Lane.
  • 31st August 1888 - 01:20
    Kicked out of doss house
    Unable to produce money for a room for the night, Polly is kicked out of her doss house at 18 Thrawl Street. In light spirits, she tells the deputy "Never Mind - I'll soon get my doss money. See what a jolly bonnet I've got now."
  • 31st August 1888 - 02:30
    Seen by her friend Emily Holland
    Hollands tells the police later that Polly was very drunk and joking about having spent her doss money three times that day and spent it on alcohol.
  • 31st August 1888 - 03:40
    Body discovered in Buck's Row
    Carman Charles Cross is on his way to work at Pickfords in City when he notices someone laying in the street. He calls over fellow pedestrian Robert Paul, saying: "Come and look over here, there's a woman." Cross believes she is dead but the arms above the elbow and legs are still discernibly warm. Paul believes he feels a faint heartbeat. "I think she's breathing, but it is little if she is." In the dark, they cannot see the injuries Nichols has sustained and both agree to leave her and alert the next constable they meet.

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