I was not surprised that Coroner Baxter was eager to resume his inquest into the death of Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols, which he did promptly on Monday morning, 3 September, 1888. But I was surprised by the first witness presented – Detective Inspector John Spratling, from the Bethnal Green “J” Division.
Spratling had not even arrived at the murder scene until after Polly Nichols' body had been removed, leaving just a blood stain on the sidewalk. Even then, Spratling had quickly followed Polly's body to the Montague Street Morgue, where he found the corpse already stripped by the two workhouse morgue attendants. It was at this point that Coroner Baxter demanded to know who had given the attendants “authority” to do that. “I don't object to their stripping the body,” said the prickly Baxter, “but we ought to have evidence about the clothes.”
The clothes had been left lying on the floor of the tiny exam room– a black straw bonnet trimmed with black velvet, a reddish brown coat and an ulster jacket with seven large brass buttons, a brown linsey dress which looked new, both a gray woolen and a flannel petticoat, with “Property of Lambeth Workhouse” stenciled on their waistbands, and a pair of stays “in fairly good condition”. Baxter immediately became focused on the stays. The police, concerned that the case was veering off course, sent for the clothing.
While waiting for the missing stays, Inspector Spratling explained he had returned to Buck's Row that evening and examined the pavement up to Brady Street, and down to Baker's Lane, but found no traces of blood, dispelling the possibility Polly Nichols had been killed any where but where her body had been found.
And after interviewing the residents in the houses on the south side of Buck's Row, including a woman who was awake and pacing in her kitchen between 3 and 4 that Friday morning, he could find no one who had heard a struggle or a woman crying out. Polly Nichols had been murdered quickly, probably by chocking, and all of the knife wounds had been inflicted after her death. And, in answer to a jury question, Spratling said all the wounds had been inflicted through her clothes.
Slaughter-house worker Henry Tompkins offered nothing new, and he was followed by 40 year old Police Constable Jonas Mizen - badge number 56 “H”, Whitechapel division. With 15 years on the force, he was the “extra” Bobby at the scene, who had been sent to fetch the ambulance cart, and he now explained how and why he arrived there. While rousting drunks and vagrants sleeping on the street around Hanbury Street and Baker's Row – part of his beat - he had been approached by Charles Cross (above), who told him there was a policeman on Buck's Row who had found a woman who was either dead or dead drunk, and who had asked for assistance. Mizen eventually responded, but not very quickly.
Charles Cross, a.k,a Charles Allen Lechmere, then testified he never told PC Mizen another policeman needed him. Then William Nichols, Polly's estranged husband, testified the failed marriage was entirely Polly’s fault. Then Emily Holland testified about her conversation with Polly at Whitechapel Road and Osborn Street And after half a dozen other witnesses testified they had heard and seen nothing on Buck's Row that night, Corner Baxter (above) got to the witness he wanted to grill – the mentally impaired 53 year old ex-dock worker and Workhouse poverty case, Robert Mann.
By this time the clothing had been brought to the inquest, and Detective Inspector Joseph Helson of Bethel Green division said the stays (above) had been so loosely tied the stab wounds could have been inflicted merely by throwing Polly's dress up over her knees, which she or the killer could have done. But Baxter, the firm advocate of procedure, was not to be dissuaded from uncovering the failings of his "lessers". Robert Mann testified his breakfast had been interrupted by the arrival of the body before 5:00 am that Friday morning. He had admitted the the police to the mortuary, and after breakfast had returned with 68 year old James Hatfield, and together had they disrobed the body.
Baxter (above) demanded to know, “Had you been told not to touch it?” - meaning the body. Mann replied simply, “No.” Then he made the mistake of adding, “Inspector Helson was not there.” Baxter asked, “Did you see Inspector Helson?” Mann suddenly realized he had said too much, and gave the standard servants' reply “I can't say”. In other words not yes and not no. Still on the scent, Baxter asked “I suppose you do not recollect whether the clothes were torn?” Mann responded, “They were not torn or cut.” Baxter gave his wounded prey a little more rope. “You cannot describe where the blood was?” And Mann took it, answering “No sir, I cannot.” Then Mann jumped, asking, “How did you get the clothes off?” Robert Mann realized that somehow he was now caught, but he didn't seem to know what his mistake had been. So he responded simply, “Hatfield cut them off?”
A member of the jury came to Mann's rescue, asking “Was the body undressed in the mortuary or in the yard?” And Mann could now understand what he must have done. The “gentlemen” were worried that a woman, even a dead one, had been naked in public. So he proudly answered, “In the mortuary.” The break gave Coroner Baxter the chance to play the “better man”, when he pointed out to the jury what they must have known from the instant Mann had opened his mouth. Baxter said, “It appears the mortuary-keeper is subject to fits, and neither his memory nor statements are reliable.” Of course, if that were true, why call him as a witness, except to humiliate him in public?
But Baxter was so determined to re-establish the social order that he then called James Hatfield to the stand next, and asked him, "Who was there?” Hatfield replied, “Only me and my mate.” Then the old man went on to explain, he first took off Polly's ulster, “... which I put aside on the ground. We then took the jacket off, and put it in the same place. The outside dress was loose, and we did not cut it. The bands of the petticoats were cut, and I then tore them down with my hand. I tore the chemise down the front. There were no stays.”
Baxter asked who had told them to this, and Hatfield responded, “No one...We did it to have the body ready for the doctor.” Baxter seemed offended by Hatfield's impudence. He demanded, “Who told you the doctor was coming”. The idea that an assistant morgue attendant would have expected a doctor to appear after the arrival of a murdered woman, did not seem to occur to Coroner Baxter. But even the partially senile Hatfield was too smart to fall for this trap. He said only, “I heard someone speak of it.” Baxter pressed ahead. “Was any one present whilst you were undressing the body?” Hatfield stepped lightly aside the trap. He answered, “Not as I was aware of.”
You can almost hear the arrogance and sarcasm dripping from the transcript as Baxter then asked the old man, “Having finished, did you make the postmortem examination?” Hatfield explained, “No, the police came.” Baxter missed the joke entirely. Clearly enjoying his own power, he sneered, “Oh, it was not necessary for you to go on with it! The police came?” “Yes,” said the assistant morgue attendant, “ They examined the petticoats, and found the words "Lambeth Workhouse" on the bands.” “It was cut out?”, asked the bureaucrat. “I cut it out,” said the old man. Supremely confident, Baxter asked, “Who told you to do that?” And now Hatfield sprang his own little trap. He answered, “Inspector Helson.”
Now it was Inspector Joseph Helson's chance to rescue the coroner, by pointing out he had arrived at about 6:30 that morning, thus giving a time to Hatfield's story. But Coroner Baxter still tried to salvage his reputation. He challenged the witness, “Did not you try the stays on in the afternoon to show me how short they were?” To which Mr. Hatfield gracefully replied, “I forgot it.” Baxter was now able to tell the jury, “He admits his memory is bad.” Hatfield admitted that, and Baxter took his little victory and closed by saying, “We cannot do more.”
After Mary Ann Monk testified that at about 7:00 pm on Friday 31 August, 1888 she had seen Polly entering a pub on New Kent Road, indicating that like Martha Tabem, Polly Nichols had been pub hopping, Then the inquest was adjourned until 17 September, to give the police two more weeks to gather evidence, and for Coroner Baxter's bruised ego time to recover. But it also gave Bloody Jack time to recover as well.