On August 31, 1888, Jack the Ripper murdered his first victim, Mary Ann Nichols — and kicked off what might be the most enduring saga in the history of true crime.
On August 31, 1888, a young woman by the name of Mary Ann Nichols was found dead, her body gruesomely mutilated on the streets of London’s Whitechapel neighborhood.
Police didn’t know it at the time, but Nichols’ murder would be just the first of several similar, grisly killings that would play out over the following two months. In total, five women would be found dead, each of them maimed and disfigured in a vicious manner – all at the hands of a serial killer named Jack the Ripper.
To this day, the Ripper’s true identity is unknown, helping to make him one of the most infamous serial killers of all time. All that is known about him is what historians have been able to glean from his series of macabre murders – which began with Mary Ann Nichols.
Mary Ann Nichols, also known as Polly, lived a short, troubled life. She had been married for 16 years, but that relationship came to a bitter end when she accused her husband of infidelity. He, in turn, accused his wife of being a drunk, and claimed that she had left him on several occasions.
Nichols bounced around often, scraping by on her own and occasionally staying in lodging houses across London when she had the funds. Other times, she would stay at her father’s house, or in the homes of various lovers. In 1881, her husband accused her of leading an “immoral life,” which may have meant he was implying that she was working as a prostitute.
One of her roommates had also remembered her as “very clean” but “melancholy,” noting that she had seen Nichols “the worse for drink once or twice.” By 1888, Nichols had fully succumbed to her alcoholism, regularly working as a prostitute to earn money for a night’s lodging.
Unbeknownst to Nichols, she had become the perfect target for Jack the Ripper.
And so, on her last night alive, she was drinking at the Fying Pan Pub in East London. Eventually, she decided to call it a night and return to her lodging home, only to find she no longer had enough money to get inside. At the time, she could have made about three shillings prostituting herself – and it just so happened, a glass of gin cost the same amount.
Nichols ran into her roommate, Emily Holland, around 1:20 a.m., telling her that she’d be back to their room soon enough, once she’d made enough money back to get in.
But no one ever saw Mary Ann Nichols alive again.
Just over two hours later, a pair of delivery drivers found her slumped over on Buck Row. Police Constable John Neil arrived shortly thereafter – but it took another hour before he noticed that Polly Nichols had been disemboweled.
Jack the Ripper had claimed his first victim.
Listen to part two of History Uncovered’s series on Jack the Ripper here.