The Real Reason Polly Was Killed
Jack the Ripper murdered Mary Ann Nichols 132 years ago today. But why did he kill her?
Was she simply in the wrong place at the wrong time?
Or was there something else that led to her untimely demise?
The truth is the path that led Polly to a dark corner that fateful summer night stretches out for years.
To understand why Polly Nichols’ life ended in a gruesome murder, we must delve into her past.
On the night of Polly’s murder, the public house where Polly had been staying in East London, Wilmott’s Lodging House, turned her away. She didn’t have her “doss money,” the cost of a night’s accommodation, so the deputy of the lodging house ejected her from the premises. Famously, Polly responded with, “I’ll soon get my doss money. See what a jolly bonnet I’ve got.” According to the deputy, this exchange took place around 1:20 a.m. Charles Cross discovered her body a mere two and a half hours later.
The exchange with the deputy convinces most historians that Polly intimated that she would earn her doss money by selling her body in Whitechapel. In recent years, modern historians, such as Hallie Rubenhold, author of “The Five,” have sought to debunk the commonly held notion that the canonical five, the five women considered to be the most likely Jack the Ripper victims, were prostitutes.
We don’t need to relitigate that here for our purposes. The more relevant point is that Polly Nichols eked out a housing-insecure existence. Some days she might lay her head down in the doss house, while other nights she might be forced to “sleep rough,” a colloquial term for sleeping on the streets.
It’s important to point out that the Whitechapel District was one of the most dangerous in London without the help of Jack the Ripper. Murder, violence, sex trafficking and abuse were rampant. A woman wandering around alone at night was especially vulnerable. It takes a desperate person without any other prospects to brave that environment.
How did Polly end up there?
Why Was Polly Poor?
Polly and her husband William Nichols lived in the Peabody Flats, sought-after living accommodations for the working class, until their marriage foundered. William cited Polly’s drinking as the reason for their troubles, but Polly’s father claimed William’s infidelity was the culprit. Either way, the result was the same: Polly left the Peabody Flats, which served as a buffer between her and the rougher elements of East London. Polly had no choice but to move to the dreaded workhouse.
A product of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, the workhouse was the scourge of working class Britain. It was designed less as a form of aid and more as a deterrent. Workhouse residents were called inmates and wore uniforms, not unlike prisons. Inmates subsisted on a watery porridge called skilly, made up of bread, cheese, potatoes and sometimes meat. Because of rampant vermin infestations, inmates would sometimes have to pick out rat droppings from the skilly. The workhouse required inmates to do hard labor, including stone-breaking, milling corn and picking oakum, which consisted of using a spike and bare hands to pull apart old ship ropes so that the fibers could be used to caulk ships. The stigma of the workhouse was so strong that women would rather turn to prostitution.
Polly moved to such a workhouse to secure financial support from her husband. She had no other recourse. A man who divorces or separates from his wife can still secure respectable work. A woman, by contrast, finds many doors closed to her. The double standard is most evident in divorce. Men could divorce women if they were unfaithful. Women had to prove other transgressions, such as rape, incest or physical abuse. Polly had to prove destitution in order to claim desertion. The workhouse satisfied this requirement.
By law, William had to provide assistance. The court granted Polly outdoor relief, which did not require her to reside in the workhouse. Instead, William paid out five shillings a week, a sum that helped keep Polly off the streets. This arrangement would not last, however. William hired a private investigator to prove that Polly was living with another man. She was, so the court ordered a stop to the weekly payments.
Polly’s situation worsened dramatically from this point on. Struggling to make ends meet, Polly developed a bad drinking habit. Her living situation was volatile, alternating from lodging houses and sleeping on the street.
Why Polly Had No Help
Working class women had very little room to maneuver in Victorian society, especially if they were separated from their husband. With a stigma imprinted on them, women had few options, which forced them into compromising situations like sex work. Single women who were housing-insecure or forced into vagrancy often opted to pair up with a male counterpart for protection, as women in these precarious situations were vulnerable to abuse. Unfortunately, such an arrangement only cast further disrepute onto a woman. The spiral downward hastened.
Emily Holland, a friend of Polly Nichols, saw Polly at around 2:30 a.m. She was in a bad way, tired and intoxicated. She was found dead about an hour later.
Jack the Ripper killed Polly not because he carefully selected her, but because she was forced into a hazardous situation. She was out by herself in the middle of the night in an unsavory part of East London, because she had to. As a result, she came across the most dangerous element East London had to offer.
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