by Robert Crawford
Out of time, said Big Ben to Mary Ann "Polly" Nichols, You're running out of time. It was 2:30 in the morning and she didn't need the Westminster timekeeper to tell her so: Her swelling, aching feet were already telling her as much and more. The unpainted pickets of the fence that she began leaning against almost imperceptibly vibrated as the famous clock tolled once.
Polly had just been turned out of the doss house at 18 Thrawl Street, Spitalfields, by the proprietor. She hadn't the 4 pence needed for the buggy bed in which she'd slept for the last six weeks.
"If ye 'adn't spent th' last o' yer scratch on fancy 'ats, ye'd 'ave a place t' sleep tonight," he'd said, his breath smelling of squid. "Now be off wi' ya'."
He had been referring to her new black straw and velvet bonnet, bought as a sort of belated birthday present to herself, although it looked more appropriate for funerals.
As Big Ben prepared to toll half past two, Polly secured under her double chin the new black straw and velvet bonnet and optimistically drifted into Whitechapel's hazy streets in search of a john.
Unfortunately, the only available males at this hour were indigent men in need of doss money themselves or market porters fetching their breakfasts. In less than three hours, the sun would come up and the East End would stagger into another day of commerce and haggling. "Always at 6's and 7's with the world," Polly thought to herself as she feebly pushed away from the fence and moved on.
But it was late. Egregiously late, so late that even Polly, one of thousands of London's "daughters of joy," would usually be thinking of a place to rest her heavy bones for the night before once again engaging in her own form of commerce.
Yet, during her next half dozen steps, the respite against the fence wore off. Her feet were beginning to throb with fatigue and pain again, and the doss house on Thrawl St. was already a ways off. Despite the sultry late August weather, Polly wrapped her shawl tighter around her shoulders and breasts, once again securing her precious bonnet.
Her optimism began to fade as fast as her reserves of energy. Without knowing it, she had stumbled onto Buck's Row, off Whitechapel Road. She leaned against another handy fence, which creaked a small protest against the weight. Polly had begun to resign herself to the fact that she was destined to spend another night numbing her rear end on the cold cobblestones and to be woken up by a market porter, or, even worse, another Bobby.
Then the fog produced a male figure. As the stranger advanced through the mist, his tall outline became more defined. Polly was so entranced by his gracefulness, his confidence in bearing, that, if she'd lived past this night, he would've moved in slow motion in retrospect.
From 50 feet, Polly could just make out the wide brimmed hat and ankle-length black trenchcoat and immediately sized the stranger up as a worthy. As she slowly pushed herself from the fence, her right index finger caught a splinter and she muttered "Bugger!" before confronting the stranger, who had obviously seen her. She sauntered to him in what she fancied a seductive manner and said,
"Ev'nin', guv'nor. Wot brings ye out 'ere this time o' night?"
"I couldn't sleep," said the silhouette. A mick. Polly also silently noted that he even smelled nice. He was looking right at her, but she still couldn't make out his eyes.
"Per'aps ya need a four penny knee trembler t' get t' sleep. Wot ya' say? Hmm?"
Polly smiled broadly, even though she was missing five front teeth. At last, the stranger, too, smiled, revealing a perfect row. She noted that she'd never seen such impressive dental work. He obviously didn't have to settle for any of Whitechapel's dirty, miserable butchers. They inched closer to a stable gate.
"What's your name?"
"Polly Nichols." The man merely nodded. "Tho only m' friends call me thet. M' real name's 'Mary Ann,' but I p'fer 'Polly,' m' self."
As the woman said her name, the hat's dark brim abruptly came up. For the first and only time, she saw his eyes by the dull light of a distant gas lamp. They were the lightest blue, like freshly sharpened steel. When Polly's eyes locked onto his intense gaze, her first instinct was to take a step back. She couldn't, however, as she was already backed against the heavy stable gate.
"My mother's name was Ann."
Polly nodded and smiled diplomatically as she tried to extract the splinter from her index finger, having heard it all before. Lord only knew she'd had johns in the past who'd said the same thing, just as some of her more unsavory clients insisted on calling her by their mother's or sister's names. Claiming that his mother's name was Ann was a trifled tired, but she was as determined as ever to pleasure this stranger, who obviously carried more than the 4d. that she desperately needed.
"Oh! fancy thet. Fond o' th' ol' gal, were ye?"
"I hated her. She was a slut like you."
Well! this mick needs to be taught some manners in how to deal with a lady, she thought. Still, she continued to herself, it's getting late and I've got to sweet talk this john so I can get some sleep.
"Sorry t' hear thet, dearie. Now, wot ye want me t' do?"
"I want you," he answered as he caressed her sagging neck, "to make history with me."
With inhuman suddenness, his fingers tightened like ten hungry little constrictors. In her depleted condition, Polly was already sliding down the wooden gate, crushing the straw bonnet before it slid over her eyes. Her feeble strength was ineffective against the madman's, but she continued to blindly claw away at his hands. The last thing that she felt before blacking out was a powerhouse blow on the point of her chin. In the struggle, the splinter was pushed deeper into the flesh of her finger. Despite her rough and hardy lifestyle, Polly Nichols always did consider pain to be life's rudest nemesis.
As the night enveloped her in its sultry embrace, she prayed to her erstwhile god that this maniac was only going to rape her to save a few pence, or to merely beat her because she was given the wrong first name. Polly saw in her mind's eye for the final time her estranged daughter in Ireland, and feared that this lunatic would one day go home and accost her, making her little girl suffer the same fate that she was even now meeting. Then, night completely possessed her body. The fingers continued tightening.
Breathing heavily, he pushed her skirt up to her waist and quickly went to work. In less than five minutes, he had slit her stomach four times and mutilated her vagina. The gullet, too, was cleanly severed: He had ripped her so deeply Polly was nearly decapitated. The man in the El Greco hat then slid the bloody blade back in its scabbard that produced a whisper as if needlessly commanding for its master, as he leisurely regarded his victim, silence from the already silent street. Her eyes were still wide open and he fancied that some post-mortem consciousness had remained, allowing her to witness the horror of her last moment. His only regret was that he wasn't able to take the head. Footsteps!
As Mary Ann "Polly" Nichols lay on the cold concrete, staring up into the hazy eternity of which she had just now become a part, George Cross, a market porter, was pushing the stable gate blocked by her body. The porter forced it open just as Jack the Ripper's footsteps faded into the fog.
The sun rose over Whitechapel with a near-reluctance, as if it momentarily considered denying the English slum of its necessary light and warmth. Big Ben, who had overseen the murder of the woman as yet untouched by the rays of the dawn, was still a baleful silhouette in the distance, like a paralyzed sentry.
The panicked George Cross had continued running, after seeing the gaping wound in Polly's neck, until he'd virtually collided with a Bobby, Police Constable 97J John Neil, who, if he'd started his patch a minute or two earlier, possibly could've prevented the murder.
1st Class Detective Inspector Fred Abberline, as with Dr. Llewellyn, was pulled out of bed and dispatched to the scene by PC 46J Liam Brannigan. The inspector had long since taken such rude awakenings in his stride, realizing when he was still a lowly patrol constable that killers usually kept rotten hours.
Since the woman was already dead, Abberline had taken enough time to shave and dress properly while the stiff Irish constable waited outside his front door on Mayflower Road. By the time he'd arrived at the scene, Dr. Llewellyn was already examining Nichols' remains.
The disheveled physician pulled the stethoscope from his neck, got up, and looked around, asking,
"Is there a detective about?"
"Right here," responded Abberline, himself about to examine the corpse for the first time. Her skirt was still barely covering her grimy knees. "What did you find, Doctor?"
"Her windpipe and gullet were completely severed down to the spinal cord. I think our naughty boy actually tried to remove the head entirely."
"I see..." said Abberline as he bent down to more closely scrutinize the body. He turned the woman's head ever so slightly to the left.
"Careful, Fred! He may have done a better job than I thought. I can examine her more thoroughly once she's been moved."
Abberline rose and squinted into the hazy sunrise, then around as if searching for a personal item. Having left his kid gloves at home, he dug his hands deeply in his still-empty pants pockets.
"The closest place I can think of is the Lambeth workhouse. There isn't a morgue for a couple of miles. We'll move her there."
He raised his right hand, signalling the flagging attention of the two men behind the coroner's wagon. They dragged out a black shell with a grimy sheet covering the top, slamming it down next to Polly's corpse.
"Hey, there, mates!," said Llewellyn jovially, "Have a care! we won't be getting another one of those until the 20th century, probably. We'll be needing it later on, no doubt."
His two assistants, who'd always reminded Abberline of Burke and Hare, released a lupine chuckle as they plopped the body into the shell, roughly shoving the arms across the chest so the body would fit all the way in. Abberline frowned.
"You may be more right than you think, Doctor."
"What do you mean, Fred?"
"It's nothing that I can put my finger on, mind you, but there just seems something different about this killing. An alien element, I don't know."
"Fred," began Llewellyn with a chuckle of his own, "you're talking like a PC on his first patch. It's not as if you've never seen a cut-up whore before."
Abberline looked sharply at Llewellyn, then more forgivingly at the body at their feet and the diluted blood trickling down the gutter. The constables first at the scene had poured a bucket of water on the ground to remove what little blood poor Polly had spilled. It was as if she was keenly mindful of the unsightly mess she'd make having her throat slashed and took care to shed as little as possible.
"Her whoring days are over, poor damned creature."
"Well," said the doctor, stuffing the stethoscope into his black bag, "I'll examine the corpse later on this morning." A yawn. "In the meantime, I'm going to try to catch up on the sleep I lost by being called here."
As he walked off, Abberline resumed his scowl at the physician.
"Sorry about that! Next time, I'll make sure the killer keeps to more civilized hours."
Llewellyn raised his hand as he got into the carriage and laughed.
"That would be jolly good, for a change!"
Abberline shook his groggy head, and considered the pinkish water trapped in the wide cracks between the cobblestones.
"Good thing she ain't stiff, yet," observed Margaret Surrey, "othawise it'd be th' devil t' get these wretched rags off 'er."
The other, younger woman assisting her in the Lambeth workhouse, Liza Woodbine, periodically looked away as each part of Polly's corpse was denuded.
"'Ey, wot's wi' you, missy? Ain'cha nevah seen a corse before?"
"N-no, I 'aven't," said Liza as she gingerly tugged at a hole-y knee stocking. Margie, as she was known by all, smoothly pulled off the other before going to work on the undergarments. "Cain't say as I look forward t' washin' her, either." Then, she froze, as if seeing the corpse's face for the first time.
"Wot's wi' you, now?", the older woman asked.
"Lookit 'er. Ain't thet Polly?!"
Marge re-examined the serene face, concentrating on the puckered upper lip. She replied with a disconcerting insouciance,
"So, ye're right." She resumed removing the drenched undergarments, surprised at their wetness. The skirt, too, was soaked. "Wot th' 'ell didja do, ol' gal, piss yerself, too...? Oh my God..."
"Wot izzit, now?"
"Better get Old Bill in 'ere right quick." The younger woman looked down at the exposed torso of the corpse and stifled a scream. "Go on!, don' be 'aving annudder one o' yer bloody fits, call th' coppers. She'll be smellin' ripe any hour, now."
The young woman ran out of the room with a mixture of relief and alacrity. Margie looked back down on Polly's strangely flattened face and asked her as if expecting a answer,
"Wot in God's name did 'e do t'ya, ol' girl?"
A police inspector casually entered the room with Liza in tow. He didn't seem to be infected with the young epileptic's sense of urgency.
"Alright," he sighed, "wot's all th' ruckus about?"
Marge nodded her head to Polly and said with a near-air of triumph,
"Look see fer yerself."
The inspector put his pince-nez spectacles on before he bent over Nichol's corpse, then recoiled almost immediately.
"Oh, Christ. I'll get Dr. Llewellyn."
He exited the room in a bigger hurry than he'd entered.
In just over a quarter hour, Dr. Llewellyn was re-examining the body with renewed interest. It had suddenly become, to him, something more fascinating than an ordinary whore-getting-a-second-smile case.
"Somebody take notes," he said brusquely, as if ordering the corpse below.
Liza scrambled for a piece of paper, finally having to settle for a torn envelope with a number scrawled across the front. Marge found the stub of a pencil in her apron pocket and gave it to the girl. Llewellyn looked behind him at Liza with fierce expectation.
"Victim is white female, 40 to 45 years of age, with bruises on lower edge of right side of jaw. Are you with me, so far?"
"...to 45 years of age," she slowly whispered. Then, louder, "Which side o' th' jaw?"
"God save me from you wretched illiterates. I'm not even giving you the medical terms. The right side." He looked back down, unmindful of the dirty look given him by Margaret, who was keenly sensitive to any caste bigotry aimed at her or any in her class. Llewellyn continued. "Lacerations to the abdominal, pelvic, and vaginal portions of the body."
Liza looked up at the word "vaginal." She hadn't seen that, yet.
"'Ow d'ya spell abdom...? Abdon...?"
"Never mind, just spell it phonetically. I'll read it back later." Then, more to himself, with less impatience, "I won't be likely to forget these mutilations, anyway. Omentum on ab-do-men cut, perhaps half an inch deep. Two small incisions on vagina... Christ, man, what were you thinking?"
"Come agin, Doctor?"
The impatience again.
"Never you mind, just keep taking notes. And you..." pointing to the older woman, "tell the detective outside to fetch Inspector Abberline. I've a feeling he'll be wanting to have a look at this. And don't tell any of the constables."
Marge Surrey looked at the doctor derisively, then pushed herself off the wall near Polly's head, continuing to glare at him until she exited the darkly lit room.
When Abberline got the message at his temporary office at the Leman St. station to go to the Lambeth workhouse, he didn't seem at all surprised or puzzled as much as grim.
Further installments of this story can be found here.