The Aftermath of Mary Nichols’s Murder

In the days that followed the murder of Mary Nichols, early September was ushered in on a front of atrocious weather that saw heavy rain cause extensive flooding in the East End of London.

In Plaistow, West Ham and on the Isle of Dogs, residents were forced to abandon their homes to the flood waters, whilst the fire brigade were kept busy pumping water from the cellars and basements of houses and businesses around Stratford and West Ham.

For the detectives of the Metropolitan Police, forced to carry out their enquiries into the murders of Martha Tabram and Mary Nichols against the lashing rain, their task must have being an onerous one and their investigation had yielded up little in the way of solid information or evidence that might lead them to the perpetrator of the crime.

Buck’s Row, where the murder had taken place, was still proving something of a local attraction and crowds were gathering at the site of the crime to discuss it and to speculate on both the motive and the identity of the person, or persons, responsible.

Looking along Buck's Row to the site where the murder took place.
Durward Street, Formerly Buck’s Row


The newspapers were reporting extensively on the crime itself and on the inquest into the death of Mary Nichols, which had opened at on the 1st September 1888 at The Working Lads Institute on Whitechapel Road, a stone’s throw from Buck’s Row where the murder had taken place.


Mary’s estranged husband, William Nichols, a printer’s machinist from Coburg road, Old Kent road, had been traced and had been shown his wife’s body at the mortuary. At the inquest he stated that they had lived apart for eight years and that he last saw her alive about three years previously and had not heard from her since. He did not, he said, know what she had been doing in the meantime.


Journalists were trying desperately to convey something of the horror and uniqueness of the two most recent crimes to their readers and, at times, their language was tinged with a distinct flavour of melodrama.

On the 1st September, for example, The Morning Advertiser commented that:-

“The outrage is almost unequalled in the annals of crime. It is fiendish in conception and revoltingly cruel in execution. Our civilisation is a wretched mockery while crimes like this are committed in our streets; its boasted resources are miserable ineffectual while monsters like the murderer or murderers of this unhappy woman walk abroad.”

A black and white image showing the site of the murder of Mary Nichols.
The Site of Mary Nichols Murder


Likewise, The Star, in its Saturday 1st September issue, was commenting on both the horror and the mystery of the crimes whilst, at the same time, not passing up the opportunity the murder and the lack of progress being made by the police in apprehending the killer afforded them to have another dig at Metropolitan Police Chief, Sir Charles Warren:-

“The mystery of “The Whitechapel Murders” would make a page of detective romance as ghastly as “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” The hellish violence and malignity of the crime which we described yesterday resemble in almost every particular the two other deeds of darkness which preceded it. Rational motive there appears to be none. The murderer must be a Man Monster, and when Sir Charles has done quarrelling with his detective service he will perhaps help the citizens of East London to catch him…”


Images from the Illustrated Police News showing the murder and the aftermath.
The Illustrated Police News Reporting Mary Nichols Murder

In addition to the reports on the crime and the jibes at the police, facts were also emerging about the victim and her family  that, even today, add a touch of real poignancy to the life and death of Polly Nichols.


On the 2nd September 1888, Lloyd’s Weekly reported that the eldest son of Mary Nichols had been taken to the mortuary and shown his mother’s body the previous day. He was, so the article informed its readers, “much affected by her untimely end.” According to the report the son was “…by trade an engineer, and lives with his grandfather, Mr. Walker, but for some time had not been on speaking terms with his father.”


The article also gave a little of the family history, plus a little background on Mary Nichols herself as well as noting a little about her estranged husband William Nichols, who had also been to see the body at the mortuary:-

“The family history, by those who know them, is stated to have been a sad one. When the separation between the deceased and her husband took place on account of alleged infidelity, Mr. Walker did what he could for her children.

After the separation took place the deceased went to live with a man named Tom Drew, who is a smith living at Walworth. He knew her before she was married, and was her sweetheart before Nichols. About an hour after the son arrived, her husband, Mr. W. Nichols, came to see the body. He is a machinist, working at Perkins and Bacon’s, printers, Fleet-street.

When the meeting between the father and son took place, neither of them spoke to each other, till the deceased’s father said to Mr. Nichols, “Well, here is your son, you see. I have taken care of him, and made a man of him.” The father then spoke to him and said, “Well, I really did not know him; he has so grown and altered.”

Then the husband went in to the mortuary to see if he recognised the deceased. He came out ashy white, and simply said, “Well, there is no mistake about it. It has come to a sad end at last.”

A bystander stated to our representative :- There was no recrimination between any of them. She did not live with Drew long, for she made away with some of his goods for drink; then he abandoned her, and she went to the workhouse for food. She got a situation at Wandsworth, but she purloined things there, till at last she gradually sank till she had to take up her quarters and become the associate of the evil characters that infest the place where she was found…”


By the 4th September 1888 the police had still not managed to achieve a breakthrough in the case, albeit The Star was begging to give precedence to the notorious and elusive “Leather Apron” as the primary suspect in the case, although he, apparently, hadn’t been seen in the neighbourhood for several nights. they were evidently keeping a close eye on the common lodging-houses of the district. “The common lodging-houses in the neighbourhood are being carefully guarded night and day,” the newspapers informed its readers, “and every place where the suspected criminal may be lurking is watched with equal closeness.”


But, the stark truth was that, despite the fact that a large number of officers were engaged upon the case, police inquiries were making little progress and, according to The Daily News, they had little choice but to “…confess themselves baffled, their numerous inquiries having yielded no positive clue to the perpetrator of the crime….”

A view of the brick building that still looms over the site of the murder of Mary Nichols.
The Mary NIchols Murder Site


The Times commenting on the “…maniacal frenzy with which the victims were slaughtered…” opined that it was beginning to become apparent that the murders were “committed by a madman” whom “a lust for blood places too far outside the pale of human feelings to be governed by commonly recognized motives.” Whilst not wanting to “accentuate alarm,” the paper went to do just that by warning its readers that the murderer was likely to strike again. “It may be pointed out that…the ordinary motives of prudence which deter murderers from a speedy repetition of their crime cannot be reckoned upon in aid of the safety of wretched women in Whitechapel.”


Of course, with hindsight, we know that The Times was correct in its prediction as, within a matter of days, another atrocity would take place in Whitechapel and the unease and trepidation that was evident in the area during the first week in September would give way to outright panic and terror.

For the people of the East End the autumn of terror was well and truly underway.