On This Day

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A wanted poster released after the
murder of Annie Chapman, Jack the
Ripper’s second victim.

On This Day: Jack the Ripper Kills First Victim

August 31, 2011 05:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Aug. 31, 1888, Mary Ann Nichols was murdered by the notorious serial killer in London. Jack the Ripper was never caught or identified.

The First Victim

Mary Ann Nichols, known as “Polly,” was murdered early on the morning of Aug. 31, 1888, on a narrow London street called Buck’s Row, becoming the first known victim of serial killer Jack the Ripper. Nichols, believed to be 42 at the time of her death, was a prostitute, like all of the murderer’s victims.

Her body was discovered at about 3:40 a.m. by Charles Cross, a cart driver, who was on his way to work. Dr. Rees Ralph Llewellyn then observed the body and determined the cause of death. His findings were written up in the inquest testimony reported in The Times of London.

The description, provided by Casebook, a Web site dedicated to Jack the Ripper, catalogues the injuries found on Nichols’ body, including that the “large vessels of the neck on both sides were severed” and “a circular incision, which terminated at a point about 3 in. below the right jaw.”

Another Jack the Ripper Web site, The Whitechapel Ripper, provides a more graphic description of the body as described in the inquest: “the abdomen had been cut open from centre of bottom of ribs along right side, under pelvis to left of the stomach.” 

Nichols’  murder left no evidence in the way of witnesses, murder weapon or any other details leading to her killer’s identity.

Nichols was buried on Sept. 6, 1888, in the City of London Cemetery. In 1996, cemetery authorities decided to mark her grave with a plaque that identifies her as a victim of Jack the Ripper.

Who Was Jack the Ripper?

Jack the Ripper was never caught, and his identity remains a mystery to this day. Though his crime spree would “barely make the headlines” in today’s standards of crime, writes the TruTV Crime Library, his story represents the ultimate “whodunit,” a case that no one has solved for over 100 years.

Following Nichols’ murder, he went on to murder four more prostitutes  in the East End neighborhood of Whitechapel in London (though some sources claim he killed as many as six more). He was known for leaving horribly mutilated victims behind after his killings; Casebook writes that he would seize the women by their throats and strangle them until unconscious, if not dead. He would then cut their throats once they were on the ground, and mutilate their bodies in other ways.

Some surgeons believe he must have had anatomical knowledge. In one murder, he removed a kidney without damaging any other organs, in another, he removed the sexual organs with one stroke of his knife.

Despite speculation from amateurs and professionals alike, Jack the Ripper has never been identified. According to the Tru Crime Library, he was most likely a single white male who lived in the Whitechapel area and was probably in the same socioeconomic class as his victims. He may have spent time drinking in the same pubs as them and could have become acquainted with them before their murders.

In February 2008, however, author Charles van Onselen released a book, “The Fox and the Flies: The Secret Life of a Grotesque Master,” which argues that the Ripper was a Polish émigré named Joseph Lis.

Van Onselen first heard of Lis, who was born in Poland in 1868, through an old newspaper article found in the Johannesburg Public Library, and spent the next 30 years compiling the book. Lis was a known rapist who was executed sometime around 1918.

Biography: Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols and Jack’s other victims

According to Casebook, Nichols was born Mary Ann Walker on Aug. 26, 1845. She was described by acquaintance Emily Holland as “a very clean woman who always seemed to keep to herself,” but she was also a known alcoholic.

She married William Nichols on Jan. 16, 1864, at the age of 22, and the couple had five children together. The two had a rocky marriage and separated several times, due to the fact that Nichols was living as a prostitute, as well as drinking heavily, although she claimed the troubles arose because her husband was having an affair.

Despite her faults, accounts suggest that Nichols was well liked by those who knew her. “She was a sad, destitute woman, but one that most people liked and pitied,” writes the TruTV Crime Library. 

At her inquest, her father reportedly said, “I don’t think she had any enemies, she was too good for that.”

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