The Canonical Five: Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols

Our latest novel, Cold Stone and Ivy, by H. Leighton Dickson, is a Gothic steampunk mystery. Set in England, (Lancashire and London, mostly) during 1888, the book features several real people as characters. We will be showcasing some of these historical figures in the next few weeks. (Make sure to begin with a review of Jack the Ripper.) 

For most of Cold Stone and Ivy, the victims of Jack the Ripper appear as ghosts, haunting the Mad Lord of Lasingstoke.

Polly's Gravesite

Polly’s Gravesite

It is unknown how many victims there were of the serial killer known as Jack the Ripper. Over time, five women have been generally accepted to be victims of Jack the Ripper, due to the similarity in their gruesome deaths. The “canonical five” are: Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelley.

In the wee hours of the morning of August 31, 1888, Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols was tossed out of her lodging house for not having rent money. Once outside, she soon ran into her friend, Emily Holland. The two women chatted for several minutes; Polly claimed she had earned her doss money three times already that day, but had spent it. She was unconcerned about earning it again. When she and Emily parted ways, Polly went east, down Whitechapel Road.

Her body was found about thirty minutes later.

Polly Nichols was the daughter of Edward and Caroline Walker. She married William Nichols in 1864, at the age of 22; they had five children. After twenty-four years of marriage, the couple separated (each accused the other of having affairs).

Her remaining years could not have been easy. Although able to dress “respectably”, Polly was in and out of workhouses (places which offered rooms and employment), and supplemented her income with casual prostitution, as many women did. Her income further shrank when her husband refused to send her support payments after discovering her prostitution.

In late spring of 1888, she found employment as a domestic servant through the Lambeth Workhouse. But the couple who hired her, Samuel and Sarah Cowdry, were strict teetotalers, and Polly, as even her father conceded, was an alcoholic. After two months, Polly left in disgrace, stealing clothes from the Cowdry household.

Six weeks later she was dead, murdered by Jack the Ripper with a couple of deep slashes across her throat and a mutilated abdomen.

The press linked Polly’s death to the murders of Emma Elizabeth Smith and Martha Tabram, which prompted the reassignment of Detective Inspectors Frederick Abberline, Henry Moore, and Walter Andrews from Central Office Scotland Yard to the Whitechapel District.

Among her mourners at her burial were her father, her husband, and her eldest son.

In 1996, Polly’s grave was marked with a special plaque. The identity of Jack the Ripper has never been solved, although the man who discovered Polly’s body, Charles Cross (aka Charles Allen Lechmere), has been suggested to be the Ripper.


Need a copy of Cold Stone and Ivy? Load up your Kindle, Kobo, or Nook, or try out a dead-tree edition.


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