Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Jack the Ripper

The First Lady

When Charles Cross walked through Whitechapel's Buck's Row just before four in the morning Friday, August 31, 1888, it was dark and seemingly deserted. It was chilly and damp, not unusual for London even in the summer, especially before dawn. He saw something that looked like a tarpaulin lying on the ground before the entrance to a stable yard.

As he walked closer, he saw it was a woman lying on her back, her skirts lifted almost to her waist. He saw another man walking the same way. "Come and look over here," he asked the man, assuming that the woman was either drunk or the victim of an assault. As they tried to help her in the darkened street, neither of the two men saw the awful wounds that had nearly decapitated her. They fixed her skirt for modesty's sake and went to look for a policeman.

Constable finds the body
Constable finds the body

A few minutes later, Police Constable John Neil happened by the body while he was walking his beat. From the light of his lantern, he could see that blood was oozing from her throat, which had been slashed from ear to ear. Her eyes were wide open and staring. Even though her hands and wrists were cold, Neil felt warmth in her arms. He called to another policeman, who summoned a doctor and an ambulance.

PC John Neil
PC John Neil

Neil awakened some of the residences in the respectable neighborhood to find out if they had heard anything suspicious, but to no avail. Soon, Dr. Rees Llewellyn arrived on the scene and examined the woman. The wounds to her throat had been fatal, he told them. Since parts of her body were still warm, the doctor felt that she had been dead no longer than a half-hour, dying perhaps minutes after Neil had completed his earlier walk around that area.

Her neck had been slashed twice, the cuts severing her windpipe and esophagus. She had been killed where she was found, even though there was very little blood on the ground. Most of the lost blood had soaked into her clothing. The body was taken to the mortuary on Old Montague Street, which was part of the workhouse there. While the body was being stripped, Inspector Spratling discovered that her abdomen had been wounded and mutilated. He called Dr. Llewellyn back for a more detailed examination.

Dr Llewellyn
Dr Llewellyn

The doctor determined that the woman had been bruised on the lower left jaw. The abdomen exhibited a long, deep jagged knife wound, along with several other cuts from the same instruments, running downward. The doctor guessed that a left-handed person could have inflicted these wounds very quickly with a long-bladed knife. Later, the doctor was not so sure about the killer being left-handed.

There have been several theories about how the wounds were inflicted. Philip Sugden makes a persuasive case:

If (the victim's) throat were cut while she was erect and alive, a strong jet of blood would have spurted from the wound and probably deluged the front of her clothing. But in fact there was no blood at all on her breast or the corresponding part of her clothes. Some of the flow from the throat formed a small pool on the pavement beneath (her) neck and the rest was absorbed by the backs of the dress bodice and ulster. The blood from the abdominal wound largely collected in the loose tissues. Such a pattern proves that (her) injuries were inflicted when she was lying on her back and suggests that she may have already been dead.

Identification would not be easy. All she had on her was a comb, a broken mirror and a handkerchief. The Lambeth Workhouse mark was on her petticoats. There were no identifying marks on her other inexpensive and well-worn clothes. She had a black straw hat with black velvet trim.

The woman was approximately five feet two inches tall with brown graying hair, brown eyes and several missing front teeth.

Polly Nichols
"Polly" Nichols

But later, as news of the murder spread around Whitechapel, the police learned of a woman named "Polly," who lived in a lodging house at 18 Thrawl Street. Eventually, a woman from the Lambeth Workhouse identified the victim as Mary Ann Nichols, age 42. The next day her father and her husband identified her body.

Polly had been the daughter of a locksmith and had married William Nichols, a printer's machinist. They had five children. Her drinking had caused their marriage to break up. For the most part, Polly had been living off her meager earnings as a prostitute. She still had a very serious drinking problem. Every once in awhile, she would try to get her life back together, but it never worked out. She was a sad, destitute woman, but one that most people liked and pitied.

Martha Tabram
Martha Tabram

The inspector in charge of the investigation was a police veteran named Frederick George Abberline, who had been on the force 25 years, most of which had been spent in the Whitechapel area.

The murderer of Polly Nichols left nothing behind in the way of witnesses, weapon or any other type of clue. None of the residents nearby heard any kind of disturbance, nor did any of the workmen in the area notice anything unusual. Even though Polly had been found very shortly after her death, no vehicle or person was seen escaping the scene of the crime. At one point, suspicion focused upon three horse slaughterers who worked nearby, but it was proven that they were working while the murder occurred.

At the time of Polly Nichols' death, the inhabitants of London's Whitechapel area had already heard about a number of attacks on women in that neighborhood. Whether or not one or more of these attacks was perpetrated by the man who later became known as Jack the Ripper is controversial. However, in the minds of the people of Whitechapel, most of these crimes were linked indisputably.

On Monday, August 6, 1888, several weeks before Polly Nichols' murder, Martha Tabram, a 39-year-old prostitute, was found murdered in George Yard. The time of death was estimated to be 2:30 a.m. She had been stabbed 39 times on "body, neck and private parts with a knife or dagger," according to Dr. Timothy Killeen's post-mortem examination report. There was no indication that the throat had been slashed or the abdomen extensively mutilated. With the exception of one wound that had been delivered with a strong knife with a long blade, such as a dagger or bayonet, many other wounds had been inflicted with a penknife.

George Yard buildings
George Yard buildings

According to another prostitute, Mary Ann Connelly, known as Pearly Poll, she and Martha had been together in the company of two soldiers until a few hours before Martha was killed. The police took Poll to check out the soldiers at the Tower garrison, but the soldiers she identified were cleared of the crime. A constable who had been on duty in the vicinity of George Yard also saw a soldier in that area around the time of Martha's death, but this soldier was never properly identified.

Some months earlier, Emma Smith, a 45-year-old prostitute, was attacked on April 2, 1888, at seven o'clock in the evening, within 100 yards of where Martha Tabram was found. Her head and face were badly injured and a blunt instrument had been rammed into her vagina. She told the woman at her lodging house that several men robbed and assaulted her.

St. Mary's Church in Whitechapel, near where Emma Smith was assaulted
St. Mary's Church in Whitechapel,
near where Emma Smith was assaulted

While these incidences of violence so close together in Whitechapel were linked so firmly in the minds of their neighbors, the crimes themselves were very different. Tabram was probably murdered by one individual, while several men assaulted Smith. Robbery was clearly the motive of the Smith assault, but not the murder of Tabram. The nature of the wounds inflicted was quite different. Thus, it is not likely that the same assailant was responsible for both crimes. Only the Tabram murder bears any similarity to the work of the man eventually known as Jack the Ripper.

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