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Mary Ann "Polly" Nichols (née Walker; 26 August 1845 – 31 August 1888) was one of the Whitechapel murder victims. Her death has been attributed to the notorious unidentified serial killer Jack the Ripper, who is believed to have killed and mutilated five women in the Whitechapel area of London from late August to early November 1888. The real-life Whitechapel murders were referenced within the The Name of the Star; the first installment of the fictional The Shades of London book series.
Life and backgroundEdit
Mary Ann was born to locksmith Edward Walker and his wife Caroline on 26 August 1845, in Dean Street in London. On 16 January 1864 she married William Nichols, a printer's machinist, and between 1866 and 1879, the couple had five children: Edward John, Percy George, Alice Esther, Eliza Sarah, and Henry Alfred. Their marriage broke up in 1880 or 1881 from disputed causes. Her father accused William of leaving her after he had an affair with the nurse who had attended the birth of their final child, though Nichols claimed to have proof that their marriage had continued for at least three years after the date alleged for the affair. He maintained that his wife had deserted him and was practising prostitution. Police reports say they separated because of her drunken habits.
Legally required to support his estranged wife, William Nichols paid her an allowance of five shillings a week until 1882, when he heard that she was working as a prostitute; he was not required to support her if she was earning money through illicit means. Nichols spent most of her remaining years in workhouses and boarding houses, living off charitable handouts and her meagre earnings as a prostitute. She lived with her father for a year or more but left after a quarrel; her father stated he had heard she had subsequently lived with a blacksmith named Drew in Walworth. In early 1888, the year of her death, she was placed in the Lambeth workhouse after being discovered sleeping rough in Trafalgar Square, and in May left the workhouse to take a job as a domestic servant in Wandsworth. Unhappy in that position—she was an alcoholic and her employer, Mr Cowdry, and his wife, were tee-totallers—she left two months later, stealing clothing worth three pounds ten shillings. At the time of her death she was living in a Whitechapel common lodging house in Spitalfields, where she shared a room with Emily "Nelly" Holland.
As the murder had occurred in the territory of the Bethnal Green Division of the Metropolitan Police, it was initially investigated by the local detectives, inspectors John Spratling and Joseph Helson, who had little success. Elements of the press linked the attack on Nichols to two previous murders, those of Emma Elizabeth Smith and Martha Tabram, and suggested the killing might have been perpetrated by a gang, as in the case of Smith. The Star newspaper instead suggested a single killer was the culprit and other newspapers took up their storyline. Suspicions of a serial killer at large in London led to the secondment of Detective Inspectors Frederick Abberline, Henry Moore and Walter Andrews from the Central Office at Scotland Yard.
Although Nichols carried no identification, a Lambeth workhouse laundry mark on her petticoats was sufficient to give police enough information to eventually identify her. Nelly Holland and William Nichols confirmed an identification provided by a former workhouse resident. While her death certificate states that she was 42 at the time of her murder (an apparent error reflected on her coffin plate and gravestone), birth records indicate she was 43, a fact confirmed at her inquest by her father, who described her as looking "ten years younger" than her age. The coroner at Nichols' inquest, which began on 1 September at the Working Lads' Institute on Whitechapel Road, was Wynne Edwin Baxter. Inquest testimony as reported in The Times stated:
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. Although Llewellyn had speculated that the attacker could have been left-handed, he later expressed doubt over this initial thought, but the belief that the killer was left-handed endured.
Rumours that a local character called "Leather Apron" could have been responsible for the murder were investigated by the police, even though they noted "there is no evidence against him". Imaginative descriptions of "Leather Apron", using crude Jewish stereotypes, appeared in the press, but rival journalists dismissed these as "a mythical outgrowth of the reporter's fancy". John Pizer, a Polish Jew who made footwear from leather, was known by the name "Leather Apron" and was arrested despite a lack of evidence. He was soon released after the confirmation of his alibis. Pizer successfully obtained monetary compensation from at least one newspaper that had named him as the murderer.
After several adjournments, to allow the police to gather further evidence, the inquest concluded on 24 September. On the available evidence, Coroner Baxter found that Nichols was murdered at just after 3 a.m. where she was found. In his summing up, he dismissed the possibility that her murder was connected with those of Smith and Tabram since the lethal weapons were different in those cases, and neither of the earlier cases involved a slash to the throat. However, by the time the inquest into Nichols' death had concluded, another woman, Annie Chapman, had been murdered, and Baxter noted "The similarity of the injuries in the two cases is considerable." The police investigations into the murders of Chapman and Nichols were merged.
The subsequent murders of Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes the week after the inquest had closed, and that of Mary Jane Kelly on 9 November, were also linked by a similar modus operandi, and the murders were blamed by the press and public on a single serial killer, called "Jack the Ripper".
Nichols was buried on 6 September 1888. That afternoon, her body was transported in a polished elm coffin to Mr Henry Smith, Hanbury Street undertaker. The cortege consisted of the hearse and two mourning coaches, which carried William Nichols and Edward John Nichols (her eldest son, who was approximately 22 years old). Nichols was buried at the City of London Cemetery, in a public grave numbered 210752 (on the edge of the current Memorial Garden).
In late 1996, the cemetery authorities decided to mark her grave with a plaque.