The name ‘Jack the Ripper‘ has become the most infamous in the annals of murder. Yet, the amazing fact is that his identity remains unproven today. In the years 1888-1891 the name was regarded with terror by the residents of London’s East End, and was known the world over. So shrouded in myth and mystery is this story that the facts are hard to identify at this remove in time. And it was the officers of Scotland Yard to whom the task of apprehending the fearsome killer was entrusted.
They may have failed, but they failed honourably, having made every effort and inquiry in their power to free London of the unknown terror.
Over the years the mystery has deepened to the degree that the truth is almost totally obscured. Innumerable press stories, pamphlets, books, plays, films, and even musicals have dramatised and distorted the facts to such a degree that the fiction is publicly accepted more than the reality.
124 years ago early this morning Jack the Ripper claimed his first victim. Ripperologist JON REES looks at the horrific murder of Mary Ann Nicholls that began what we now know as the Whitechapel Murders.
August 31st, 1888 approximately 3.40am:
Two cart drivers named Charles Cross and Robert Paul on their way to work pass through Bucks Row and come across what they think is a tarpaulin. On closer examination they realise it is a woman with her skirts raised. Thinking she is alive and drunk, they lower her skirts and plan to inform the first policemen they come across, doing so by informing PC Jonas Mizen. In the meantime PC John Neil has come across the woman during his beat, and when Mizen arrives Neil has summoned PC Thain to assist. The three police constables discover what the cartmen missed in the sparsely lit street. The womans throat had been cut and she was dead.
Mary Ann Nichols (known as Polly) was a 43 year old casual prostitute (like many of the poor women of the East End at the time). She was an alcoholic and following her divorce at the start of the 1880s she spent most of her time in workhouses or lodging houses, living off charitable handouts or through her meagre earnings as a prostitute. On the night of her death she had been turned out of her lodging house on Thrawl Street as she did not have the money needed for her doss (she later told a friend she had earned it four times that night but each time spent it on drink). She believed she would have no problem earning the money though as she had a “jolly bonnet” which she thought made her look appealing to potential customers.
Dr Llewelyn arrived on the scene at 4am and determined Polly had been dead for about an hour and the cause of death to be the result of two cuts to the throat. When Polly’s body was removed to the mortuary it was discovered that severe abdominal mutilations had also taken place.
“Five of the 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 1in. below the jaw, there was an incision about 4in. in length, and ran from a point immediately below the ear. On the same side, but an inch below, and commencing about 1in. in front of it, was a circular incision, which terminated at a point about 3in. 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 8in. 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 from left to right and might have been done by a left-handed person. All the injuries had been caused by the same instrument.” – The Times report on the inquest, 3rd September 1888.
The police had no suspects for Polly’s murder and rumours of a fiendish villain named Leather Apron began to fill the East End. Though he did not yet have his name, Jack the Ripper had struck and the Whitechapel murders had begun.