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Jack the Ripper

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About The Book

Get a behind-the-scenes glimpse of what it takes to be considered one of the worst figures in history, with this second book in a brand-new nonfiction series that focuses on the most nefarious historical figures.

In 1888, London was terrorized by a mysterious man with a knife. Between the end of August and beginning of November, this man committed five known murders—possibly more. Then, just as suddenly as they started, the killings stopped.

Dubbed “Jack the Ripper” by the press, he slipped through the dark, foggy streets of London’s Whitchapel district, targeting women and leaving no witnesses and no clues as to his identity. The police were stumped. The press went wild. But no one could find Jack the Ripper.

Even today, Jack the Ripper continues to fascinate. Amateur detectives, known as “Ripperologists”, books, movies, and walking tours all focus on one question: who was Jack the Ripper? Get a little closer to finding out with this biography that takes a deeper look at Jack the Ripper…because while he may be one of history’s worst people, his legend lives on.


Jack the Ripper 1 THE LAST OF POLLY
The sky glowed red over parts of London’s East End on the night of August 30, 1888. Around nine p.m., a fire broke out at a warehouse on the docks along the Thames River, and soon after firemen put that blaze out, another erupted nearby. The second fire burned through the night.

A certain man out walking the streets of Whitechapel, a neighborhood in the East End, would have heard the horse-drawn fire engines racing to the blazes. He would have seen the red sky and perhaps smelled the smoke of the burning buildings. But the fire was not what concerned him that night. He had something else on his mind. He was thinking about murder.

MARY ANN NICHOLS must have heard the commotion the fires caused too. She was also walking the streets of Whitechapel that night, though at times she might have stumbled more than she walked. Nichols, who was better known in the neighborhood as Polly, was a heavy drinker—some might say an alcoholic. She was also a prostitute. She often walked the streets at night looking for men who would pay her to have sex with them. Nichols did not make much money this way. But she made enough on the night of August 30 and in the early hours of August 31 to buy drinks in several pubs.

Nichols was not a great beauty. Just five foot two, her hair was turning gray, five of her front teeth were missing, and a scar ran across her forehead. She had turned forty-three just a few days before. Her clothes were shabby—except for the new black hat she proudly wore that night. She had been married once, but she and her husband, William, had divorced eight years before. Nichols left behind five children as she tried to make a life for herself in London.

For a time she stayed at a workhouse. In workhouses across London, the poor and sick lived in crowded dormitories. They worked in return for food and a place to sleep. Women might scrub floors to earn a place in the workhouse, while men might break stones. Anyone who disobeyed a rule or complained about the crowded conditions and bland food would be punished, which could include being whipped.

One of Nichols’s last respectable jobs was as a servant. She wrote her father earlier in 1888 that her employers were “very nice people” who lived in “a grand place.” 1 But Nichols did not keep the job for long. She stole some clothing and left the house. She sold the clothing, perhaps to buy alcohol.

Nichols ended up in a common lodging house. These houses took in several thousand of the East End’s prostitutes and poor working people. Like the others, Nichols paid a daily fee to stay in a tiny room, which she shared. Some lodgers even shared a bed, and each building only had one kitchen. The houses were often called doss houses, as “doss” was street slang for sleeping anywhere one could.

Around twelve thirty a.m. on August 31, Nichols left a pub and headed for a doss house where she had stayed about a week or so before. Yet by now she had run out of money and was turned away. Nichols wasn’t worried, though. She believed she could find another customer who would pay her so she could afford a bed. “I’ll soon get my doss money,” she called out as she went back into the streets. 2

At about two thirty a.m., Nichols was still drunk and still searching for a customer. Coming up the street she saw a friend, Ellen Holland. She and Nichols had recently shared a room at the doss house Nichols had just left. Holland was returning home after going out to watch the second fire down at the docks. She had seen Nichols drunk a few times before, but she considered her old roommate a nice, quiet person. On this night Holland thought Nichols was too drunk to keep walking the streets, so she asked Nichols to come back with her to the room they once shared. Nichols said no. She headed down Whitechapel Road, determined to find her last customer of the night.

Sometime within the next hour or so, Nichols found her man. She led him onto a side street called Buck’s Row. It wasn’t unusual for prostitutes to work outside in the darkness if they didn’t have money for a room. Nichols and her customer ended up by a row of cottages on a narrow part of the street. Only one of the pair would leave Buck’s Row alive.

THE WORKDAY BEGAN early for Charles Cross on August 31. He was a carman—a driver of a horse-drawn carriage. In the years before gasoline-powered cars, horse-drawn carriages, carts, and wagons took people and goods all across London. Some streets also had trams, which carried up to sixty people in cars that horses pulled along rails.

Cross was walking down Buck’s Row at about 3:40 a.m. when he noticed something in a gateway across the street. As he crossed the street to inspect the scene, he realized it was the body of a woman. Before he got closer, he heard footsteps down the street. Cross saw another carman, Robert Paul. As Paul approached him, Cross said, “Come and look over here; there is a woman lying on the pavement.”

The two men went over to the body. Mary Ann Nichols was lying on her back, with her skirt raised above her legs. Cross took one of her hands; it was cold and lifeless. “I believe she is dead,” he said, but when he touched her face, it was warm. Paul put his hand on the woman’s heart. “I think she is breathing, but very little if she is,” he said. 3 Cross wanted to prop up the body, but Paul pulled away. Cross was now fairly certain that Nichols was dead. He would have known for sure if the morning darkness had not kept him from seeing the deep gash across Nichols’s neck.

The two men briefly discussed looking for a constable, but neither wanted to take the time, as they were late for work. As they left Buck’s Row and entered Baker’s Row, they happened to find Constable George Mizen making his rounds. Cross explained what they had found in the dark. Before Mizen could get to the crime scene, Constable John Neil had turned down Buck’s Row and found Nichols for himself. He had been down the street just thirty minutes before and not seen a soul. Nichols and her customer-killer either entered the street after he passed, or the darkness had shielded them from his sight. Neil had not heard any screams either, even though his foot patrol never took him that far from Buck’s Row.

Using his lantern, Neil inspected the body in the street and saw the slashed throat that Cross had missed. Blood still oozed from the cut. Nichols’s vacant eyes stared at the officer, and her new black hat lay by her side. Neil saw Constable John Thain approaching and ordered him to get a doctor. Mizen soon reached the scene as well, and Neil sent him to get an ambulance.

Thain quickly came back to the scene with Dr. Rees Llewellyn, who lived nearby. The doctor saw Nichols’s slashed throat and pronounced her dead. Parts of her body, however, were still warm, which told Llewellyn she’d died just a short time before—perhaps only half an hour. And though there was blood around the cut, it was only a small amount. To Llewellyn, this meant Nichols had not killed herself. Someone had murdered her. He told the police to bring her body to the mortuary, where he would examine it further.

Before leaving the scene, Neil talked to two men who worked in a nearby slaughterhouse. This part of the East End had several of these businesses, where animals were killed and then cut up to be sold as meat. The men told Neil they had not heard any unusual sounds either.

Constable Thain helped to put the body on the ambulance and noted that the back of Nichols’s dress was saturated with blood, which covered his hands. 4 As the ambulance rolled away with Nichols’s body, Thain continued to look for clues. He walked around the neighborhood, searching for signs of blood or other evidence. He came up empty-handed.

At the mortuary Inspector John Spratling looked over Nichols’s body. He pulled up the dead woman’s dress high enough to reveal her stomach. He discovered another huge cut that ran from her lower belly up to her breastbone. Through the cut, some of her intestines hung out. Spratling sent for Llewellyn to examine the body again. What he saw astounded him. As he told the newspapers after, “I have seen many horrible cases, but never such a brutal affair as this.” 5

LLEWELLYN’S WORDS APPEARED in one of several stories about the killing published in the London papers of September 1. The Daily News reported that who had committed the murder and why was “a complete mystery.” 6 Yet the paper offered one theory: A gang of men had once terrorized prostitutes in the neighborhood. The gang demanded money. If the women didn’t pay, the men threatened to hurt them. The paper also noted that this was not the first terrible murder in Whitechapel in recent months. One had taken place earlier in August, and the Daily News suggested that it could have been carried out by the same gang.

News of the Nichols murder crossed the Atlantic Ocean as well. The New York Times described the killing in a brief piece labeled “London Crime and Gossip.” And the report was filled with gossip, as the paper reported a scene that no one else saw or heard: a man running down the street with a knife, chasing a screaming woman whose cries went unanswered. However, the paper’s gory description of the victim’s body was close to the truth. The Times also noted the earlier killings of prostitutes in the East End and said, “The women in Whitechapel are afraid to stir out of their doors unprotected after dark.” 7

Even though Mary Ann Nichols had no papers with her name on her body, the police were soon able to identify her. Some people in the neighborhood heard about the murder and the description of the victim and said the woman seemed to be Nichols. Further proof came when police noted printing on her clothing that had come from the workhouse she had stayed at earlier in the year. Someone from the workhouse came down and positively identified the victim as Nichols. Ellen Holland came to identify the body as well. She cried when she saw her dead friend.


In nineteenth-century England the process for investigating a suspicious death included a coroner’s inquest. The coroner usually had a legal or medical background. He—all were men at the time—was responsible for determining if a death was murder or the result of something else, such as a suicide or accident. After police informed the local coroner of the death, he arranged for a jury to examine the body and hear testimony from witnesses. At the end of the inquest, the jury decided whether or not they thought the death was murder. If they reached a murder verdict, then the police began their formal investigation to look for the killer. Coroners are still part of the legal system in Great Britain, as well as in other countries. In the United States the duties of a coroner are sometimes carried out by a medical examiner. As in London in 1888, some but not all coroners today are also medical doctors. Medical examiners, however, are almost always doctors.

On September 1, Wynne Baxter, the coroner for the Whitechapel area, began his inquest. The witnesses included Nichols’s father, her former husband, Ellen Holland, and all the police officers who had seen Nichols’s dead body. Dr. Llewellyn offered further details about the condition of the body, including bruises he found on her face. The murder weapon, he thought, was “a long-bladed knife, moderately sharp, and used with great violence.” 8 From what the doctor could tell, the person who’d used it to slice Nichols was left-handed. (Later, though, he would admit he couldn’t tell for sure, so even this small clue was not helpful.)

Other testimony suggested that Nichols had been murdered at the spot in Buck’s Row where her body was found. But no residents who lived close to the scene had heard anything unusual in the street. Somehow the killer had done his gruesome task without his victim making a loud noise of any kind. Then he was able to get away without being noticed. Of course, even if he had blood on his clothes, he would not have been too suspicious in an area with several slaughterhouses. Men often walked the streets with blood-soaked clothes. And once he reached the main street, Whitechapel Road, the murderer could have blended into the crowd. Even at three thirty a.m., the street was already active with people going to work—or prostitutes still doing theirs.

WYNNE BAXTER ENDED his inquest on September 22. He summed up for the jury all the evidence and the testimony of the witnesses. As far as a motive, he said, “Robbery is out of the question, and there is nothing to suggest jealousy; there could not have been any quarrel, or it would have been heard.” He ended by saying, “But one thing is very clear—that a murder of a most atrocious character has been committed.” 9

The jury agreed. In the language used in such inquests, the jury said what happened on the early morning of August 31 was a “willful murder” carried out by “some person or persons unknown.” 10

The murderer, of course, was only unknown to the jury, the police, and the press. Nichols knew who killed her, in the brief time between when he began to slash her body and when she died. But chances are, the last customer she met that night never told her his real name. Somewhere in London only one person knew who had killed her—the man the world soon came to know as Jack the Ripper. And between the morning of August 31 and the end of the inquest, he committed another murder, and more would follow. But the clever Jack left no clues that clearly pointed to who he was. He became and remains the most famous killer who no one has ever identified.

About The Author

Michael Burgan has written numerous books for children and young adults. Many of his books have focused on US history, geography, and the lives of world leaders. He has also written fiction and adapted classic novels. Michael has won several awards for his writing, and his graphic novel version of the classic tale Frankenstein (Stone Arch Books) was a Junior Library Guild selection. Michael graduated from the University of Connecticut with a bachelor’s degree in history. When not writing for kids, he enjoys writing plays, and his works have been staged across the United States. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with his cat, Callie.

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