Mary Ann Nichols: The Ripper’s First Victim, and  Tragedy Long Before That

Mary Ann Nichols

Pearly Polly, her friends called her. She’d had five babies in Victorian London, and every single one survived. To be honest, the guide pauses, looking at the women in our group, that makes her a sort of Wonder Woman back then.

He’s got our attention. We all know how dangerous childbirth used to be. But Polly’s story takes a darker turn from there. Trouble is, so was alcohol. It took a good mother and wore her down, till she was just another shadow on these streets.

-Photo of how she died

The guide points to the modernised corner. No sign remains of the grimy alley where Polly died. Her husband threw her out for drinking. Claimed she was an ‘unfortunate’, but it was a lie to cover his own affair. When Polly went to her dad, he took her in at first, even got her work alongside him at a grand house. But the drinking…it followed her. Caught stealing from her own family, her dad couldn’t bear the shame. He shakes his head, Harsh world, wasn’t it? But even a hard man, he wasn’t wrong that Polly had to make her own choices, desperate as they were.

Alcohol’s Grip

The guide sighs, staring down at the pavement. The gin palaces were always open. Forget fancy cocktails, this was gut-rot sold cheap to the desperate, and it finished off what the slums had started on a woman like Polly. A few uncomfortable chuckles break out in our group. We all know alcohol can be a curse, but for women back then – there was rarely help, only judgement.

-Photo of women & pubs

Desperate Choices

Lost her job, lost her dignity, then lost her lodgings. That’s how so many ended up in the doss houses. He doesn’t describe them in detail, but paints a grim picture: “Four pence for a bed, if you can call it that. More likely a rope to lean on for a few hours, then out onto the streets at dawn, trying to scrape enough together for the next night.”

The guide pauses, as if struck by a thought. “Maybe some nights, Polly didn’t even try. Found a doorway, a few rags, hoped the cold wouldn’t kill her. It was a slow death march, and those doss houses…” They were the last stop before the morgue for many a poor soul.

-Photo of doss houses/lodging

“Well-Dressed Man”: Her Last Client

August 31st, 1888. Buck’s Row, not far from here, was where Polly was last seen alive. The guide’s voice drops a bit, adding to the atmosphere. “Witnesses saw her with a man, well-dressed, unlike the usual rough types around here. Maybe he seemed like a bit of luck, a nicer client, enough to pay her way for a few days.”

He shrugs. “We don’t know what they talked about, what lies he might have told. But she went off with him into the night, and that’s the last anyone saw Polly alive, other than the monster who ended her.

-Photo of prostitution in 1888

How She Was Found

Polly didn’t cry out. Or maybe she did, but in these slums, screams fade into the night.  [The guide pauses for a moment of silence]

What we know for sure is…it was swift, brutal.  The coroner’s report describes the first cut as the fatal one.  He wouldn’t have given her time to understand what was happening. But let’s be clear – this wasn’t merely death…

[The guide carefully unfolds an illustration of the crime scene, avoiding overly graphic depictions]

-Photo of Ann murdered

This image appeared in the papers. It’s crude, inaccurate in places, but it captures something…the  savagery.  Her clothes pulled up, the wounds the police couldn’t even fully describe. And here’s the sickening part…

The killer took something, a part of her…as a trophy, maybe. Left her missing a piece of herself. To keep? To boast? We’ll never understand that kind of evil.

A Nameless Tomb: Lost to War, Lost to History

The guide looks around, his voice softer now. Polly wasn’t buried under her own name. Not even a pauper’s grave with ‘Mary Ann Nichols’ carved onto the cheap wood. She was just another ‘unfortunate’, her life vanished, same as if she’d never been those children’s mother, never felt that first rush of hope after they survived.

That’s what sticks with me… His Victorian accent is almost gone, replaced by a modern Londoner’s frustration. “World War Two bombings cleared out this whole area, and with it any marker she might have had. Bombs destroyed her death, same as men had destroyed her life.

He shrugs, trying to regain his guide persona. “But Jack the Ripper, oh, his name echoes down the years.  Is it any wonder some folk reckon his real terror isn’t what he did to those women, but what he made us forget?”

-Photo of Ann’s grave now

A Door-Key Treasure…

Polly’s last hope was a scrap of cloth… The guide gestures toward the spot where Buck’s Row used to be. “Not silk or lace, mind you, but sturdy material for patching or mending… the sort you might use on an old door key.

Two mates, Cross and Paul, hurrying to their jobs before dawn, saw it in the dim light.  Treasure to them, maybe. Back then, anything you could sell or trade was the difference between a meal and an empty belly.  He pauses, letting the image sink in. Only…it wasn’t a treasure at all, was it?

This transition into the discovery feels more organic, and sets up the reader for the shock to follow.

-Photo of bucks road then and now

The Chance Discovery

The darkness hides a lot of sins in this part of London. The guide’s voice drops, hinting at more than just murder. “That’s why Polly was never found alive. Cross and Paul, they weren’t looking for trouble. Just hoping to get to work before the boss docked their pay. But when Charles Cross saw that bundle lying in the shadows…well, even a hard man gets curious.”

He shrugs, mirroring their desperation. “Maybe it was a bolt of cloth, a sack of grain some drunk dropped. Anything that might be worth a few pennies. Only when he knelt, the ‘bolt of cloth’ moaned…

Silence for a beat. Blood on his fingers…and a sight no one should see, not in the first grey light of morning.

A Troubling Decision

Now, you’d think they’d run straight for the nearest constable, wouldn’t you? The guide sounds almost disappointed, not judgmental. But these weren’t gentry. Losing an hour’s wages… that could mean no food that night. So, they made a deal, the two of them. Get to work, but if they saw a policeman on the way, they’d tell him.

Luckily for Polly, they did find one. Walking his beat, bored as can be. Told him a woman was lying in Buck’s Row, might be drunk, might be worse.  Took him less than five minutes walk to reach the spot… The guide shakes his head. That’s how much urgency there was, for a woman no one valued alive, never mind dead.

The Montague Druitt Mystery

The papers needed a villain, and the police…they needed someone to calm the mob. The guide’s voice has a touch of cynicism now. Montague Druitt fits the bill nicely. Teacher, a bit odd, family history of mental illness… and wouldn’t you know it, his mother ends up committed to an asylum around the time Polly dies.

Druitt drowned himself in the Thames a few months later. Some say guilt drove him to it, others reckon, well, he’d lost his job, lost his mother…life likely felt unbearable already. The guide pauses. We’ll never know for sure if he had anything to do with the Ripper killings. But even if he was entirely innocent, his story shows something wrong at the heart of this whole mess, doesn’t it?

A Brutal Tableau

The policeman’s report is a cold, clinical thing. But between the lines, you can read the horror. Polly was found lying on her back, her legs spread wide. Her clothes, a hodgepodge of layers worn by those who have nowhere to keep belongings, were pulled up around her waist.

We can pause here for a moment..

There were deep gashes across her throat, one so deep it almost severed her spine. Her stomach was ripped open, and… Here, we can use a more euphemistic term to describe the mutilation without dwelling on specifics. “There was evidence of a struggle, but ultimately, it wouldn’t have been a long one.” The killer was fast, and utterly ruthless.

Then came Annie..

The guide looks around at the sombre group, then points towards the east. Not far from here, less than a week later, another woman was found. Annie Chapman, they called her. Her death…even worse than Polly’s, if you can believe it. The monster, it seems, was only getting started.

He pauses, then adds quietly, “Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman…they may have been ‘unfortunates’ to the world, but they were someone’s daughter, someone’s mother.” When we let a woman’s death be forgotten, be swept under the rug, aren’t we saying all women’s lives are that cheap? What sort of city, what sort of world, are we building then?

There you have it…

Buck’s Row was just the beginning. The nightmare had a name now – Jack the Ripper. But where it started, and where it would end… those were questions no one seemed able to answer. As we walk towards the site of Annie Chapman’s murder, keep in mind, we’re moving deeper into the shadows this killer cast over London.

  • Anne Chapman: More Than Jack the Ripper’s Second Victim