In true crime cases, it is easy to fixate on the killer; their psychology, their history, their idiosyncrasies, and in this particular case, even their identity. This is understandable, as humans we have an innate desire to understand evil, where it comes from and what causes someone to commit terrible atrocities. However, this is often at the expense of remembering and respecting the victims. While many serial killers’ names and crimes are public knowledge for centuries to come, how many of us can say we know anything about, or even remember the names of the victims?
Jack the ripper is one of Britain’s most infamous serial killers, despite nobody knowing his true identity, methods or even motives. While everything about him is shrouded in obscurity and mystery, he is considered Britain’s first serial killer. However, this article is not about Jack the Ripper, as a common desire for serial killers is notoriety and ‘fame’, and frankly writing anything more about him at this point seems redundant. Instead, my wish is to focus on the victims, presumably innocent people, and certainly people who did not deserve to die. In this I hope to add more humanity to the way they are thought about and viewed, as I would want someone to do for me if I was ever unfortunate enough to be in the same situation.
In this series, I will be focusing on the five canonical victims of Jack the Ripper: Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly.
Mary Ann Nichols was born on the 26th of August 1845 to Caroline Walker and Edward Walker, on a cramped industrial area of London called Fleet Street known for its printing of books, newspapers and magazines, aptly called “The street of ink” by locals. She was nicknamed Polly, and had two brothers, Edward and Frederick. Her family struggled financially, as her father was a blacksmith, which paid little, at around six shillings a day (which is about £18 in today’s money). Despite her family’s modest income, she remained in school until age fifteen, which was highly unusual for her class and gender, as her father was a firm believer in education. Even more unusually for this era, Polly could write as well as read, as easy access to writing materials was one of the few advantages to where she grew up.
Childhood was by no means easy for Polly, and a 1844 report into the area she lived with her family stated that it was “worst conditioned… badly ventilated and filthy.” In addition to this, Fleet Street was known to be very overcrowded, with limited access to clean water. These conditions acted as a perfect habitat for disease, and deadly outbreaks of cholera and typhus were common. Polly soon paid the price of these conditions, as in 1852, when Polly was just seven years old, her mother died of tuberculosis, leaving behind a widower and three children. However, the tragedy did not end there, as Polly’s mother, Caroline unwittingly passed the illness to Frederick, who died just eighteen months after his mother. The loss of her mother meant it was necessary for Polly to grow up quickly, and the role of woman of the house would have been given to her, whether she wanted it or not, at a very young age. By age nine, she would have been expected to cook, clean, and perform all household duties for her father and brother. As well as acting as woman of the house, Polly was also expected to provide emotional support for her grieving father, a task almost certainly not suitable for a child. However, this meant that Polly developed a strong bond and mutual affection towards her father, which she held on to all her life.
At just 18 years old, Polly was married to William Nichols, a friend of her older brother who worked in printing, and less than a year later they welcomed their first child, William Edward Walker. For the third time in Polly’s short life, devastation struck, and her son died in infancy, just eighteen months later. As a result of this, Polly began drinking heavily, a problem that would follow her for her whole life. Polly and William went on to have five more children, but she never quite recovered from the death of William.
Polly’s luck seemingly began to change in 1876, when the Nichol’s were judged to be an ideal match for a charity housing project for the poor and needy. They were offered housing on Stamford street, which was a great improvement from Fleet street, as it was relatively clean, and had more space for her growing family. Stamford street is described as a lively and communal street with an array of people from many different professions. However, this took a turn when Polly and William began to argue regularly. This was likely due to financial difficulties, as well as Polly’s drinking problem, which only got worse after the birth of her fifth son in 1878 as she developed post-natal depression. The situation only worsened when Polly found out that her husband was having an affair with a woman in their building, and in early 1880, Polly Nichols walked out of her family home, leaving behind everything she knew and obliviously starting a disastrous spiral of events.
After leaving William, Polly was destitute, and with no other choice, she was forced into a workhouse. The concept of a workhouse is difficult for us to grasp today, as such cruelty towards society’s most vulnerable is almost unthinkable, but the 19th century held a very different, callous view of the poor. Workhouses were government designed and run facilities designed to humiliate and hurt the poor and desperate, by making them perform back breaking labour and suffer physical and mental abuse for the bare minimum needed to survive. On arrival, inmates were stripped of all material belongings, even those of sentimental value, and their diet consisted of watered porridge, small portions of bread and cheese, potatoes and occasionally, gruel. Due to overcrowding, illness was rife, and it was common for staff to be brutally violent towards inmates. As well as the appalling physical conditions, the social stigma of the workhouse was so great that many chose to beg, sleep rough or enter into prostitution instead. A possible motive for Polly’s decision to enter into the workhouse was that it was the only way for a working-class woman like Polly to obtain a separation from her husband, as she had to demonstrate her desperation and destitution. However, Polly would have learnt this after she left. For many women, this ordeal was the most humiliating experience of their lives and carried a permanent stigma. Even in the instance that Polly could afford the hefty divorce fees, in 1880, a wife could not cite adultery as basis for a divorce, and she would have to prove her husband was guilty of rape, incest or cruelty in order to even have a chance of being granted a divorce. In contrast, a man could divorce his wife on the grounds of adultery, without providing any evidence whatsoever.
Upon leaving the workhouse in late 1882, Polly went to live with her brother’s family and her father in an already overcrowded, small house on Guildford street. Here, she struggled to find a job, and the few opportunities available to women gave minimal pay for seventy to eighty hours work per week (roughly 11 hours a day). Polly’s situation was only made more difficult by the fact she was a separated woman, viewed by society as a failure , and in her circumstances sexual immorality was assumed. In addition to this, Polly was not legally permitted to enter into a relationship with another man, so any ideas of getting remarried in order to be supported were void. Unsurprisingly, Polly’s alcoholism intensified, and which caused arguments within the household, and in 1884 Polly once again became hopeless.
After leaving her brother’s house, Polly entered into a loveless relationship with widower Thomas Drew, who offered her room and board in exchange for her acting as a mother figure to his children. This was a brief settlement, as after the terrible death of her brother from third degree burns in 1886, her relationship with Drew began to fall apart, and her brother’s sudden death drove her further towards the bottle. When Thomas and Polly separated in November of 1886, Polly was once again destitute and forced back into the workhouse. She left the workhouse shortly after she entered, and for a period of time after this, Polly becomes untraceable, until she is arrested in October of 1887 under the vagrancy act.
Rough sleeping was a horrific experience for any individual in Victorian times, but women who faced this situation were especially at risk. Sexual assault was disturbingly common, and many women chose to ‘couple up’ with male vagrants in order to protect themselves, and in return the men expected sexual favours. On the 25th of October, Polly was ordered by a judge to commit herself to the nearest workhouse, where she remained until December of that year, until she could no longer bear the miserable existence of the workhouse and left.
Things once again seemed to be turning around for Polly in May 1888, when she was offered a job as a servant in the strict Baptist household of the Cowdrys, where she was provided with the necessities and paid a humble amount. In this household, Polly even wrote to her father, whom she had not spoken to for two years at this point, expressing that she was doing well and was enjoying her new life. However, as always in Polly’s life, things took an unfortunate turn when she absconded in July that year with items worth £3 and 10 shillings, for unknown reasons.
After leaving the Cowdrys, she pawns her belongings and once again becomes untraceable, until she appears again in August, at Wilmott’s lodging house in Whitechapel. It was here that Polly made one of her only apparent friends, Ellen Holland. They would spend a lot of time together in the lodging house, and occasionally split the cost in order to get a double bed. However, in early September, her funds ran out, and she was cast onto the street, where she suffered her brutal death at the hands of Jack the Ripper. She was found by a man named Charles Cross in the early hours of August 1st 1888, and it was discovered that she had been disembowelled and her throat was cut viciously from ear to ear in one swift motion.
When Polly was murdered, the press rushed to sensationalise her already horrific death, branding her a prostitute, despite the fact there was no evidence to support that Polly ever engaged in such behaviour. Police agreed with this assumption, as at the time many considered all female vagrants to be prostitutes, as sexuality was seen as the one thing left they had to offer. Contrary to this belief, Ellen Holland, and Polly’s brother and father testified to say that they had no knowledge or awareness of this, with Ellen repeatedly insisting that Polly was not a prostitute, but instead made her living by doing menial tasks for people that were slightly better off, such as babysitting and cleaning, and begging. Not only was this belief grossly unfair, but it is likely to have compromised the investigation into her death, as it changes the possible motives and victim profile entirely and meant that police were markedly less interested in finding her murderer. The false narrative must have also been devastating for her family and garnered her no sympathy or respect from the general public. Perhaps the greatest tragedy is that for the best part of a decade, the slanderous narrative was continued, her children being forced to grow up with that perception of her, and the stigma attached, and that her occupation meant that police were almost indifferent to her atrocious murder, to the fact that she would have spent her last moments in unimaginable pain, alone, scared and confused. We may never find the identity of Jack the Ripper, but I posit that there are five identities more important; Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly.
May they rest in peace.