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October 8, 2021 35 mins

Polly Nichols had a husband, a young family and lived in a brand new home built by a philanthropic millionaire. Then she walked out on it all. Why?

Surviving without a husband was almost impossible for a lone women, so Polly began a slow spiral into desperate poverty that would eventually put her in the path of her killer, Jack the Ripper.

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Speaker 1 (00:15):
Pushkin. Some one is watching Polly Nichols. He's skilled at

keeping his distance and at remaining just out of sight.
He follows her dog darkening streets. He knows which shops
or pubs she enters. He knows what work she does,
and when she leaves to return to her lodgings. He
knows where she lives, and most importantly, he knows who
she's been living with. He inquires about her in the neighborhood,

but he does so subtly, in a way that won't
raise any alarm, that won't give away his presence. I'm
Hallie ribbin Holt. You're listening to Bad Women. The Ripper retold,

a series about the real lives of the women killed
by Jack the Ripper and how we got their stories
so wrong. One side, money plenty, and friends too by
the score. Then fortune smiled upon me. Now one pass

my time anney, and not to have her seems to loney.
I'm com free. London's Fleet Street and its network and

narrow tributaries, was a hive of activity. The so called
Street of Ink was home to authors, printers, newspapermen and booksellers,
every profession dependent upon the written word. Charles Dickens himself
frequented these byways, first working as a shoeshiner and then
scribbling away in nearby rooms in workshops. All along that thoroughfare,

cylinders turned, belts moved, gears clicked, and wood as type
and ink pressed against paper. It's here that Edward Walker
plied his trade as a blacksmith. He fashioned metal parts
for the printing presses. He and his wife, Caroline also
lived nearby, amid the warren of crumbling old buildings with

leaking roofs and rotting floors. In their cramped and ramshackle dwelling,
on August twenty sixth, eighteen forty five, they welcomed a daughter, Polly.
The printing presses of Fleet Street offered Polly, her parents,
and her two brothers a humble yet steady existence. Edward's
wages as a blacksmith were constant but low. As a

skilled tradesman whose income was better than that of a
bricklayer or a dock worker, one might think the family
would have enjoyed a comfortable life. Instead, they would have
inhabited no more than two or three rooms, each about
eight by ten feet in size. They would have cooked
on a fire in their hearth and relieved themselves in
a chamber pot in the corner of the room. It

was not uncommon for the entire family to share a
single bed. Privacy was almost unheard of. Nevertheless, Edward put
a few pennies aside to send his children to school.
Schooling would not be compulsory until eighteen seventy six, and
Polly was unusually literate. We're all working class girl. This
was one of the few advantages conferred by proximity to

Fleet Street. Many dwellings here black plumbing, so residents scooped
up dirty, stagnant water from puddles for cooking and cleaning.
Block chimneys and poor ventilation trapped heavy sulfur at coal
smoke and rooms, which contributed to a host of respiratory illnesses.
Diseases such as bronchitis, dysentery, cholera, and typhus were ripe,

especially in the warmer months, when the stench also became unbearable.
Polly was not yet seven years old when her mother
began to display the symptoms of what appeared to be flu.
It began with a cough, which eventually grew worse, and
as the illness settled in her lungs. Her dreadful racking

became blood laced. At this time, tuberculosis went by the
name of consumption. The sufferer was simply assumed by the
disease and wasted away its bacterial infection that attacks the
lungs and is spread by coughs and sneezes. Antibiotics hadn't

yet been invented, and malnutrition and physical exhaustion, which were
part of working class life, enabled the disease to take
hold with ease. Consumption was a death sentence, and it
quickly claimed Polly's mother. At this time, people didn't entirely
understand how tuberculosis spread, and so women who usually nursed

the ill often caught it and passed it on within
their families. This was almost certainly how Polly's youngest brother
contracted the disease. He quickly followed his mother to the grave,
although she was still a child herself. The loss of
her mother propelled Polly into a position of responsibility within
what was now a household of three. Every Victorian household

needed a woman to cook and clean. Men who were
expected to go out and earn a wage did not
lander the baked the bread at the same time, Polly
found herself in an unusually fortunate position. Unlike most working
class households, her family was now small, and once her
elder brother was old enough to enter the workplace, there

were two male earners and only three mouths to feed.
This situation allowed Polly to continue her schooling into her
early teens. It also helped to cement a strong bond
between Polly and her father, one which would last until
her murder. Living a short walk away from Polly's home
was a man with a broad, sunny face and light hair.

We know nothing about their courtship, but we do know
that just before Christmas eighteen sixty three, William Nichols proposed
to the blacksmith's daughter. They were married a month later
at Saint Bride's Church. Planned parenthood did not exist for
the nineteenth century working classes. Married couples didn't get to

choose when they wanted to start a family. The making
of that family began on the wedding night. Whether a
couple was as comfortable as Queen Victoria and Prince Albert
or penniless. A woman's entire duty in life was to
marry and then to make and look after children. So
life as a wife and mother began for Polly immediately.

She bore her first baby just under eleven months after
her wedding. Unfortunately, this child died after a year and
nine months, but other pregnancies and berths followed at regular intervals.
Each child stretched William's earnings further. The expanding Nichols family
had been sharing a home with Polly's father and brother

due to a housing shortage. The combined incomes of three
male wage earners was still not enough to pay the
rent on spacious, clean family accommodation. Instead, they were forced
to make do with the usual cramped, noisy, and unhealthy
living quarters. But then William and Polly learned of a
new housing initiative. It looked as if this might solve

all of their problems. In eighteen sixty two, the American
expat philanthropist in financier George Peabody had wished to give
something back to the people of his adopted city of London.
He chose to gift the princely sum of five hundred
thousand pounds to London's poor and needy, nearly five hundred
million dollars relative to the wages of today, my object

being to ameliorate the condition of the poor and needy
of this great metropolis, and to promote their comfort and happiness.
Peabody was himself from humble beginnings in Massachusetts, but by
the end of his life he had amassed a vast fortune.
With no obvious air, he decided to erect apartment buildings
all over London. But Peabody's gift to London's working classes

came with strings attached. He'd only housed the poor who
displayed moral character and good conduct as a member of society. Essentially,
Peabody's gift was only for the worthy poor, those whom
he judged to lead a morally upright life. Peabody was
very keen, and his trustees were very keen to make

sure that you didn't attract people who seemed to want
something for nothing. Historian Sarah Wise is an authority on
nineteenth century social history and on how the Victorians classified
some poor people as more deserving than others, people who
could show that they were sober and quiet and kept

themselves of themselves, that they understood the importance of cleanliness.
The people they didn't want were those who they considered
to be loafers, people who had no intention of earning
their own living for themselves, or of even trying to
do so. Habitual drunkards were disqualified, as was anyone who
had been entangled with the law. Having more and four

children was frowned upon. And while you had to be
able to afford the rent at the Peabody buildings, you
also couldn't have too great of an income. Entry requirements
were narrow and the admissions process rigorous. The trustees would
have called at the Nichols home, where they would have
found William, Polly and their three children dressed in their
Sunday best, the rooms swept and tidy. There would have

been no indication of low morals or alcoholism, and William's
employer would have endorsed him as an industrious family man.
The Nichols application was successful, and the family took up
residence in an apartment or flat at number three Stamford Street.
They now had four rooms all to themselves and access
to all kinds of modern conveniences, including laundry facilities, a

stove to cook on, and a working indoor toilet in
the basement or the ground floors. You had the baths,
which was a real step forward, so you could have
any amounts of baths that you wanted totally for free.
That was all included in your rents. Unfortunately, these were
cold water bath facilities, but that would have been seen

as absolute luxury because there was always that struggle to
obtain good clean water in which to do anything, let
alone to wash on a daily basis. There were other
innovations at these buildings too, things like rubbish shoots to
keep trash away from the living quarters. So it really
was kind of at the forefront of what the Victorians
called sanitary science. Everything possible was built in to make

sure that the residents could keep themselves and the block
as clean as possible. Communal spaces were to be kept immaculate,
Corridors and steps were to be swept every day and
washed every Saturday. There was a perceived connection between moral
purity and physical cleanliness. It was believed that peabodies residents,
inspired by their own well scrubbed bodies and fresh smelling clothes,

would wish to maintain their surroundings and keep them free
of filth. William and Polly surely felt a sense of
pride they were moving up in the world. Their new
apartment marked a contrast with their previous and wretched living conditions.
The private sector allowed very poor people to make their

living in a wide range of ways which would be
absolutely unthinkable in any philanthropic block. So all sorts of
really smelly, unpleasant industries, such as chopping up bits of
old horse to make cats meat, all sorts of fish smoking,
actually very high skilled artisan trads that involved banging and
hammering and varnishes and polishes and flames or machinery. Peabody

housing offered the Nichols family peace, quiet and cleanliness, but
there were also strict rules that the worthy poor had
to follow. You had to agree to either have been
vaccinated against smallpox or that you were going to be
No hanging out of your laundry your own room. Children
can't play on the stairs or corridors. No dogs, no lodgers,

no trading, no intemperance or disorderly behavior. Intemperance meant indulgence
in alcohol. Apparently that was immediate notice to quit. The
gas goes off at eleven PM, and you can't put
wall paper or any pictures up in your home. But
the Peabody buildings didn't suit everyone. There was a real

love of color and music and joy amongst every section
of the working class, and many of them may have
just psychologically thought, no, I can't hack this. Those who
could hack it were said to quickly acquire decent habits.
People like to be as good as their neighbors, remarked
the superintendent of Polly and William's building, and although the

move to the Peabody buildings significantly improved the Nichols family's
quality of life, William's salary was stretched further by the
arrival of a fourth child. This financial strain meant that
in eighteen seventy seven the family was forced to downsize
and exchange their four room apartment for a three room one.
Their new abode was next door to a woman named

Rosetta Walls. Rosetta had married a ship's cook. He spent
more time at sea than with Rosetta, and the pair
had drifted apart. She earned an income as a charwoman
or a cleaning lady, and by also picking up odd jobs.
In eighteen seventy eight, when Polly gave birth to a
fifth child, a son, Rosetta stepped into a sister. The

two households shared walls, a toilet, and a sink. The
doors were always open, which fostered a sense of intimacy
between the two families. We cannot know exactly when or
why the arguments between Polly and William began. Perhaps the
new closer quarters, larger family, and greater financial pressures all

played a role. William Nichols asserted that his wife suddenly
began drinking excessively and that this was the source of
their strife. Polly's father, Edward, would offer another explanation. William
Nichols had begun an affair with Rosetta Walls. Perhaps Polly
was exhausted and suffering from postnatal depression. Perhaps she was

jealous of Rosetta Walls. Perhaps both were true, and she
just turned to alcohol to lighten these burdens. We cannot know,
But on March twenty ninth, eighteen eighty, Polly was finally
tired of arguing. She handed her children over to their
father and walked through the gates of the Peabody Buildings,
never to return. Everything about Polly's life was about to change.

She could not begin to imagine what was coming. The
Ripper retold will be back in a moment. Polly's decision
to walk out on her husband in eighteen eighty, possibly

because he was seeing another woman, was an unusual one.
Most of the time, memen leave if they're being beaten
to a pulp Historian Ginger Frost is witty and straight
talking and an expert on Victorian family life. Sometimes they
will leave if he's not providing. There really is no
reason to stay. If he's a poor provider, or he's

drunk all the time, or he gambles all the money away.
If you're not being provided for, that's what the man
brings to the table. If he can't bring that, there's
no reason to stay. Walking out on your children, as
Polly did, is even less common. That is very rare.
Most women don't want to leave their children. They just stay.
They put up with it. That's the main response of women.
It's the men who usually leave. So it is a

bit unusual for a wife to walk out, especially if
they have children together. We discussed what might have been
behind Polly's decision to leave, including the credibility of William
nichols claim that his wife was an alcoholic. There are
lots of nons here. I think if he's right now,
this is self serving, So you never know if what
he's saying is true. It could be that she was
drinking and that he removed all the drink and wouldn't

let her have it, and so she had classic alcoholism, right,
you start trading everything you care about for the drug choice,
and so that could have happened, but there's no way
to know. I find those kinds of arguments by husbands
so self serving. I have trouble believing them, but I
guess sometimes they can't be true. I think it's possible,
but I think then you have to take into account

her father's side of the story, which is she and
her husband were arguing and it was because he was
carrying on with the woman next door, but she left.
They could both be true. He could have been carrying
on and she took to drink because of that. I
think this may remain a mystery. I don't think we're
ever really going to get to the bottom of this,

other than to speculate, because you know, as with any dispute,
there are always two sides, and the one thing that
we're not hearing in all of this, and I think
this is true of all five victims, and it's true
in any murder case, really is the one person we
don't hear from is the person who was killed. Yeah.
The victim is always silent, yes, And the easiest way

to get someone off is to make the victim the villain.
Polly suffered financial, social, and emotional consequences for walking out
on her family, striking out on her own. She had
few choices. Ideally, she would have been expected to live
with relatives, or she could try to make ends meet
with grueling physical labor such as domestic service or work

in an industrial laundry. But whatever she chose, she faced
an empty existence in a society where a woman without
a family or a husband was viewed with deep suspicion.
Such a woman was an aberration and invariably also assumed
to be sexually immoral. Culpability did not matter to Victorian society.

If a woman left her family, she had failed. We
cannot underestimate Polly's internal license of shame. At this point,
she had lost her home, a husband, her dignity, and
her very reason for being. There was no way of
severing ties to William and starting afresh either. For a

woman of police class and means, divorce was practically impossible.
The English did not have divorce until eighteen fifty seven.
You could get separated by the church before that, but
it was not a divorce. You could not remarry. After
eighteen fifty seven, they did have secular divorce, but they
limited it in a number of ways, and it was
very expensive. There was only one court and it was

in London, so if you had witnesses then you had
to pay their expenses to come in. There were court
fees and solicitor's fees for this as well. And it
was gendered. That gendered aspect of divorce was all about
a double standard between men and women. So men could
divorce for a single act of adultery of their but

women had to have adultery and another ground, a ground
such as cruelty, desertion, incest, bigamy, or my personal favorite, bestiality.
The other thing to remember about English divorce was that
it required what they called clean hands, which meant that
the petitioning party that wanted the divorce could not have

committed a matrimonial offense themselves. So for the most part
it was a compromise. It was a compromise between people
who didn't want women to be able to sue at all,
who wanted divorce to be only for men, and those
who argued that there should be equal grounds between men
and women, so they did a compromise between those two.
They allowed women to sue, but it was harder for
women to sue. And this was, of course, if you

had money. If you didn't have money, how would you
effectively end your marriage. For the most part, working class
people simply walked away. They divorced with their feet. There
was no way to do it legally unless they somehow
came into a fortune. Respectable society simply did not cater
to men and women who are openly separated. Separation was

judged to be a living death because married couples who
split apart could never fully move on with their lives.
Any future relationship would be considered adulterous. After Polly walked out,
William's bond with Rosetta developed and she effectively became an
adoptive mother to his children. However, as their extramarital relationship

directly contravene Peabody's rules, the couple was forced to find
another home. Any time that their irregular situation got exposed,
they were going to face consequences social more than legal consequences.
It's not illegal what they're doing, it's just socially problematic.
What I find is people who live together but were
not married, almost all of which are adulterous because they

can't get divorced. They bump along, okay, they can tell
their neighbors they're married, they act like husband and wife.
It's when they run into trouble when it gets exposed,
because no matter how long you've lived together, no matter
how much you love each other, no matter how much
of your children, you are not married in the eyes
of the state, and the state will treat your children
as illegitimate children, which means they don't have a legal father.

They don't even really have a legal mother. She's just
responsible for supporting them. There's far more consequences for the
working class woman, but the man is not without them.
For her part, Polly faced not only degradation, but also
abject poverty. The work available to women at the time
was deliberately designed to pay less than a male wage,
because women were intended to be dependent on men. Ironically,

Polly's only hope of securing an income was to prove
she was completely destitute and to enter her local workhouse.
The ripper retold will be back in a moment. Few
places were more feared or reviled than the workhouse. This

austere and foreboding institution was funded by taxes or rates,
and offered accommodation and basic rations to those who are
unable to support themselves. Men perform tasks such as stone breaking,
Women did laundry work, prepared food and picked oakum the
arduous process of separating out fibers from old ship's ropes

to sell them on. One of the primary functions of
the workhouse was to humiliate those who relied upon it,
regardless of their circumstances. The old, the infirm, the sick,
the abandoned, and the able bodied were treated with equal disdain.
In the workhouse, Polly could expect to experience constant hunger,

frequent illness, and broken sleep. Beatings and bullying at the
hands of both staff and by fellow inmates were common.
Restricted access to water, exposure to rats, light, and contaminated
food ensured that inmates regularly suffered from diarrhea and infections.
These grim conditions, well known to those outside the workhouse walls,

were partly about deterrence. They highlight the Victorian belief that
poverty was somehow a choice, a question of moral deficiency
as much as one of material lack. Inmates were judged
to be lazy and immoral. Paupers refused to do honest
work and had to be broken into submission. When Polly

approached Lambeth Union Workhouse, she would likely have been fearful,
aware that once she passed through its gates she would
be tainted. However, it was only with the approval of
the workhouse guardians that she would be able to secure
regular alimony or maintenance payments from William. The legal basis
of it is that the rape payers are supporting her

when her husband should be, and so she would go
to the workhouse and then they would basically sue him
to get the money for her maintenance from him, and
they could bring a criminal case against him for a
non support of his wife. But usually all you had
to do will send a letter to the husband and
say we or the guardians of this parish, and we're
supporting your wife and you should be supporting your wife,

so we expect you to remove her or to repay
us for her maintenance. And at that point he has
to decide how to respond to that. Usually men would
offer money. They would say I can pay this much,
and lots of times the parish would take the deal.
I can't afford six shillings a week, but I can
afford three. They'll take the three, usually to help offset
the money. Even after the court started giving women maintenance payments,

getting the men to pay it was what was hard.
A man could even if you arrested him and he
was found guilty, he'd get a couple of months in jail,
and then he'd be out and the debt is wiped
clean by the jail sentence, and then you'd start the
process over, but you never get the money. Securing maintenance
from William was far from easy. Polly had to claim desertion,

and the guardians regarded women who declared themselves deserted with
profound suspicion. Upon entrance, Polly underwent a verbal exam nation
from one or more officials to determine whether she was
worthy of aid. Their questions prodded and probed, and were
steeped in judgment. They began by asking her her full name,

her age, address, and her marital status. Then the questions escalated,
do you have any relatives who are legally bound to
support you? What is your husband's name? How many children
do you have? Are they legitimate? That last question was
designed to mortify Polly and prompt her to reveal the

embarrassing details of her marriage breakdown. Next, William Nichols was
made to account for himself. He was interviewed by the
official handling Polly's case. Nichols likely told him that Polly
was not a deserted wife at all, but that their
marriage ended because of her drinking. He had a vested
interest in sullying her name. The official was unconvinced, however,

and he compelled William to pay five shillings per week,
a pittance which Polly then collected from the workhouse. When
a marriage breaks down in the working class, it's hard
on both because the man can't afford two households. So
if he's supporting his wife, his legal wife, and another woman,
almost no working classman can afford that. They can barely
get by with one household. So unless she can make

her own money, or unless she hooks up with someone else,
unless she ends up living with another person, that is
not a viable financial situation for either party. If William
could prove that Polly was living with another man, that
she was someone else's financial problem, he could wriggle free
of his obligations to her for a time. It seems
Polly had taken up with another man, and it was

around this point that William Nichols engaged the spying services
of a private eye. Private investigation agents regularly advertised in
London's newspapers. Procuring evidence for divorce cases was always listed
prominently among the services offered. Private detective offices conducted by
Messrs Cameron and Co. Divorce and all confidential cases investigated

with secrecy and dispatch by experienced detectives. Evidence collected and
witnesses found for any law cases and their evidence taken,
foreign languages spoken and translated. A spy followed Polly, watching her,
asking about her in the neighborhood, obtaining the necessary evidence

and presenting it to William, who promptly ceased his payments. Eventually,
William was summoned to the magistrate's court to explain himself.
He was prepared and produced his proof. Polly denied that
she was living with another man, but the judge sided
with William and absolved him of his financial responsibilities. In

all probability, Polly's relationship with the other man had ended
by this point. If it hadn't, would not have found
herself destitute when William's five shilling payments were terminated. If
she had another viable means of supporting herself, such as
sex work, as it has been suggested, she would not
have had to surrender herself once more to the stony

embrace of Lambeth Union Workhouse. Over the next few years,
Polly was in and out of the workhouse. At one
point she went to live with her father, brother, his wife,
and their five children in their small home. She reportedly
spent a lot of time at the local pub, and
her drinking cost arguments. According to Edward Walker, his daughter

did not stay out particularly late, and nor had he
ever heard of her conduct being, as he said, improper. Nevertheless,
in eighteen eighty four, Polly's behavior apparently rendered home life impossible.
She thought she was better by herself, her father said,
so I let her go. At this point, Polly had

either a husband nor a family at her side. She
was alone, with little possibility of supporting herself and placing
a roof over her own head. In the following years,
she oscillated between the workhouse, temporary lodging houses or doss
houses and the cold cobblestones of the streets. In eighteen

eighty seven, she was sleeping rough one of an estimated
seventy thousand homeless people in London that year. The experience
was a miserable one. Women like Polly who found themselves
without shelter would even expect to become the victims of
sexual violence. But this is not the point in our
story where Polly meets her end. As had been the

case throughout her life, there were choices and opportunities before her,
and events that altered her trajectory. In the spring of
eighteen eighty eight, the workhouse found her a job as
a domestic servant. This was part of a scheme to
rehabilitate inmates. She was dispatched to the Cowdrees, a Baptist
couple who lived in a large house surrounded by gardens

and trees. Polly arrived on May twelfth with nothing more
than the clothes on her back. Missus Cowdrey supplied her
with various necessities, including shoes, a decent bonnet, a night dress, caps, pinafores,
and hair combs. After all, no middle class mistress wanted
to her maid to appear ragged before visitors. In her

first week with the Cowdrees, Polly gathered the courage to
write to her father, who was now living with her
eldest son. I just write to say you will be
glad to know that I am settled in my new
place and going all right up to now. My people
went out yesterday and have not returned, so I am
left in charge. It's a grand place with trees and gardens.

Back in front all has been newly done up. They
are teetotalers and very religious, so I ought to get on.
They're very nice people, and I have not much to do.
I do hope you're all right, and the boy has work,
so good bye for the present. Yours truly, Polly answer,

so please and let me know how you are. Polly's
experiences at the Cowdreyes would have been more comfortable than
life sleeping rough or at the workhouse. She had the
use of the garden, eight three meals a day, and
wore clean clothes. But perhaps she was also lonely, marched
to chapel by the religious Cowdrees and shamed for the

life that she had thus far led. There was no
other servant with him to chat or share jokes. And
separated from her family. The days and nights may have
seemed painfully empty, whatever the reason. For a second time
in her life, Polly made the decision to walk out.
In July eighteen eighty eight, she took her new belongings

with her and simply disappeared. This time she ended up
in Whitechapel Jack, the Rippers Hunting Ground. In six weeks time,
she would be dead and her story would cease to
be her own. Society would pick at her carcass, breaking

over not only the grim details of her demise, but
also linking her murder to the supposed depravity of her existence,
because in the end, bad women get what's coming to them.

Bad women. The Ripper Were Told is brought to you
by Pushkin Industries and me Hallie Ribbinhold, and is based
on my book The Five. It was produced and co
written by Ryan Dilley and Alice Fines, with help from
Pete Norton. Pascal Wise Sound designed and mixed the show
and composed all the original music. You also heard the
voice talents of Soul Boyer, Melanie Guttridge, Gemma Saunders, and

rufus Wright. The show also wouldn't have been possible without
the work of Mia La Belle, Jacob Weisberg, Jen Guerra,
Heather Fane, Carlie Migliori, Maggie Taylor, Nicole Morano and Daniella
Lacane were special thanks to my agents Sarah Ballard and
Ellie Kron
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