Investigating the Whitechapel Murders #1

Investigating the Whitechapel Murders #1

This autumn marks 130 years since the infamous Whitechapel Murders in 1888. Over a century later, there is an enduring fascination with these brutal killings of vulnerable women on the streets of London’s East End. My interest lies in the policing at the time and, in a series of new blog posts, I’ll be exploring each of the ‘canonical five’ cases to find out how the Victorian detectives faced the challenge of tracking the killer known as ‘Jack the Ripper’.

In the early hours of Friday 31 August 1888, at just before 3.45 a.m., two carmen came across ‘a huddled mass’ in Buck’s Row, Whitechapel, over the road from Essex Wharf. In the darkness of poor street lighting and without a lamp, they discovered that it was a woman, who appeared to be dead. One of the men pulled down the skirts to cover her lower body, before alerting the police. The first officer on the scene was PC John Neil of J Division, Bethnal Green (she was found close to the boundary with H Division, Whitechapel). With the aid of his lantern, he could see that the woman’s throat had been slashed so violently that her head had almost been severed from her neck. Her eyes were wide open and her bonnet was lying by her right side. Although her upper arm was still warm, it was clear that she was dead. Constable Neil raised the alarm and was soon joined by more officers and a doctor, who gave instructions for her to be moved to the Whitechapel workhouse mortuary. 


Buck’s Row, now Durward Street (Wikicommons)


As was customary at the mortuary, two inmates stripped and washed the woman ready for examination. Dr Llewelyn, in the presence of the police, examined the victim, who had sustained deep cuts to her throat, abdomen and genitals. She had also been disembowelled. The doctor surmised that the killer was left-handed (he later cast doubt on this speculation), and used ‘a strong bladed knife’.


The police noted the woman’s general appearance in order to identify her. She was about 45 years old, (she was actually 43), about five feet two or three, with dark hair turning grey, brown eyes and a dark complexion. The woman was wearing a buttoned overcoat, a coarsely-woven dress, brown stays and blue ribbed woollen stockings. Her bonnet was made of straw and she had a piece of mirror, a comb and a white handkerchief in her pocket. The only clue to her identity was a label on her dress bearing the marks of Lambeth workhouse. Her photograph was taken to aid identification. 




In the meantime, other police officers were examining the crime scene at Buck’s Row, even though the blood had been washed away after the victim was moved. They searched the stations and premises of the East London and District railway, as well as embankments, wharves and buildings in the vicinity, but there was no trace of a murder weapon, and ‘not an atom of evidence’ was found. PC John Neil returned to the spot to check for wheel marks but could find none. The police had also begun making enquiries in the neighbourhood to find out if anyone had heard anything at the time the woman was killed, or whether they had seen anyone suspicious lurking in the area. They questioned local residents, night-watchmen, prostitutes, and slaughter men working nearby, but ‘they were unable to help the police in the slightest degree’. The police visited common lodging houses, coffee houses and brothels. No one had heard or seen anything.


Before long, a witness came forward to identify the victim. Ellen Holland had lodged with the woman some months previously and she named her as Mary Ann Nichols (née Walker), also known as ‘Polly’. Mary Ann was married to William Nichols, a printer’s machinist employed in Whitechapel. They had five children. The couple had separated, allegedly due to Mary Ann’s drinking, nine years earlier. William had discontinued her allowance in 1882, when he discovered she was a sex worker. After spending time in several workhouses, Mary Ann left Lambeth workhouse in May to take up a domestic position, from which she absconded after stealing some clothing. After that, she was back on the streets, moving between lodging houses. When he came to the mortuary to make a formal identification, her husband hadn’t seen her for three years. Ellen Holland, however, had seen Mary Ann on the night of her murder.

Mary Ann was first spotted that evening at 11 p.m., walking along the Whitechapel Road. An hour and a half later, she left the Frying Pan public house in Brick Lane, Spitalfields and was back in her lodgings in Thrawl Street, by 1.20 a.m. She then left the lodging house again to get four pence for her bed. Ellen Holland saw Mary Ann at 2.30 a.m., ‘in a state of drunkenness’, at the corner of Osborne Street and Whitechapel Road, walking alone in the direction of Buck’s Row. It was the last time Mary Ann Nichols was seen alive.




No one had seen the person who attacked Mary Ann, but a prime suspect was soon identified. Local enquiries led the police to John Pizer, a ‘doubtful character’ known for abusing sex workers. However, once they started looking for him, he disappeared. Nicknamed, ‘Leather Apron’ (he usually wore one), the local residents of Whitechapel, who were terrified by this killing, clamoured for his blood. Pizer’s whereabouts were eventually discovered, ten days later, by a police detective who took him into custody, but his alibi checked out and Pizer was released.

By the end of the first week since Mary Ann Nichols’ murder, the police were no nearer catching the perpetrator: ‘The absence of the motives which led to violence and of any scrap of evidence, left the police without the slightest shadow of a trace.’  Before they had time to consider their next move, the killer struck again and ‘yet another victim died just as silently and mysteriously’.

To be continued…




Evans, S. P. & Skinner, K. (2000) The Ultimate Jack the Ripper Sourcebook: An Illustrated Encyclopedia. London: Robinson.

Bell, N. R. A. (2014) Capturing Jack the Ripper: In the Boots of a Bobby in Victorian London. Stroud: Amberley.

Begg P. & Bennett J. (2013) The Complete Essential Jack the Ripper. London: Penguin

Dew, W. (1938) I Caught Crippen: Memoirs of Ex-Chief Inspector Walter Dew, C.I.D. of Scotland Yard. London: Blackie


Featured image: © Acabashi (Wikicommons)


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