Mary “Polly” Nichols was a resident at one of the Common Lodging Houses in Thrawl Street in Whitechapel.
But, in the early hours of the morning on 31st August 1888, she had spent what little money she had drinking in various pubs in the area, including the Frying Pan at the junction of Brick Lane and Thrawl Street and, as a result, she didn’t have the four pence that she needed to pay for her bed for that night.
As far as the deputy lodging house keeper was concerned, if she didn’t have the money she didn’t get a bed and so he, unceremoniously, turned her out into the night.
“I’ll soon get my doss money,” she is said to have told him as she left, “see what a jolly bonnet I’m wearing.”
It would appear that she was intending to prostitute herself on the local streets and she believed that the bonnet would prove irresistible to potential clients.
At around 2.30am in the morning of the 31st August 1888 her good friend, Emily Holland, met Mary at the junction of Whitechapel Road and Osborn Street. She was quite drunk and somewhat unsteady on her feet. According to Mary she had, in fact, made her “doss” money three times over but had, each time, spent it on drink. She was now going to see if she could acquire the required amount a fourth time.
Emily was somewhat concerned at Mary’s obvious drunken state and urged her to come back to the lodging house and sober up in the kitchen. But Mary was adamant that she could make the money and so staggered off into the night, calling back as she did so “It wont be long before I’m back.”
Over the course of the next hour Mary made her way along Whitechapel Road where she met a potential client. As an experienced street walker she would have known the perfect spots to take him to where there would be little chance of them being interrupted.
So, she duly led this stranger to Buck’s Row, a dark thoroughfare set back off the well lit Whitechapel Road.
At 3.40am, on 31st August, local carter Charles Cross was on his way to work along Buck’s Row, when he found her body lying in a gateway.
At first he wasn’t sure what the prone form was and he approached it to take a closer look. As it dawned on him that it was a woman he hard footsteps approaching and, turning, noticed another Carter, Robert Paul, walking towards him.
He beckoned him over and the two men checked to see if they could detect any signs of life.
They couldn’t and, since they were now late for work, they decided that the best thing they could do would be do make her decent by pulling her raised skirts back down over her knees, and then continue on their way in order that they could tell the first policeman they came across what they’d found.
However, no sooner had they left the dark gateway in Buck’s Row than Police Constable Neil, the local beat officer, came along the dark thoroughfare, noticed the form on the ground, and shone his lantern onto it. He saw what Cross and Paul had not noticed, that the woman’s throat had been cut.
Soon, local medic Dr Ralph Llwellyen had been summoned to the scene and, having carried out a cursory examination, he pronounced life extinct and ordered that the body be removed to the nearby mortuary where he would make a more detailed examination later that day.
So, within an hour of the body of Mary Nichols being discovered she was lifted onto a police ambulance (in reality little more than a wooden hand cart) and was trundled away from the scene.
Once the body had been delivered to the mortuary Inspector Spratling arrived to note down a description of the deceased. It was he who lifted her skirts back up and made the shocking discovery that the woman had been disembowelled.
Meanwhile, back in Buck’s Row, the crime scene itself was washed won to remove as much of the blood as was possible. Mary Nichol’s “jolly bonnett” was lifted from the gutter and taken away and, by 6am, there was little physical evidence remaining to suggest that a hideous crime had taken place.
By the end of that day the police had traced Mary’s estranged husband, John Nichols, and had taken him to the mortuary to identify the body. As he stood looking at her, his distress was evident, as he whispered to her “I forgive you, as you are, for what you have been to me.”
What nobody realised in the immediate aftermath of the murder of Mary Nichols was that, in that dark gateway in Buck’s Row Whitechapel, the autumn of terror had begun and Jack the Ripper’s murderous reign was under way.
You can learn the full story of the murders on our nightly tour of the Jack the Ripper sites.