1960: Manfred Smolka, East German border guard 1584: Balthasar Gerard, assassin of William the Silent

1955: Ruth Ellis, the last woman hanged in England

July 13th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1955, Albert Pierrepoint escorted the alluringly tragic Ruth Ellis to the gallows at Holloway Prison — the last woman ever hanged in Great Britain.

The former hostess had tracked her inconstant and abusive lover David Blakely to a Hampstead pub a few months before — getting the ride, and the murder weapon, from her unrequited hanger-on Desmond Cussen — and shot Blakely dead on the street. Five bullets: the last, a coup de grace. (Another missed entirely and winged a passerby.)

A bitterly controversial case from the moment it entered the public eye, Ellis’s hanging bolstered the movement to abolish Britain’s death penalty. Juridically, however, it was resolved in the blink of an eye when a crown’s attorney cross-examined the murderess:

Christmas Humphreys: Mrs. Ellis, when you fired that revolver at close range into the body of David Blakely what did you intend to do?

Ellis: It was obvious that when I shot him I intended to kill him.

Book CoverThe jury, which never heard that Blakely regularly beat his killer (including once to induce a miscarriage), needed 14 minutes to convict her.

We’re pleased to mark this anniversary with Carol Ann Lee, author of a recent biography A Fine Day for a Hanging: The Real Ruth Ellis Story. (Here’s a review. Also check out two long pieces Lee wrote about Ruth Ellis for the Daily Mail: 1, 2)

ET: I think at a certain point in time, everyone in Great Britain would have known who Ruth Ellis was, and quite a few abroad, too. How true is that still, nearing 60 years after her execution?

I think her name is still quite familiar, to be honest.

When I began researching the book, everyone I discussed it with either already knew the very basic facts of Ruth’s story, and at the very least that she was the last woman to be hanged in England. The 1985 biopic Dance with a Stranger left a big impression too, even though it wasn’t entirely faithful to Ruth’s character, making her seem much more hysterical a personality than she actually was, although I thought Miranda Richardson was brilliant in the role — as she always is!

What led you to the Ruth Ellis story?

I’ve always been interested in Ruth and that period in history — and I vividly remember going to see ‘Dance with a Stranger’ when it came out in the cinemas here. But it always struck me that her full story had never been told, particularly the last few months of her life after she shot David Blakely. And a couple of years ago there was quite an intense debate about bringing back capital punishment; Ruth’s name was always mentioned in relation to that particular argument, and I really felt it was time to explore her whole story.

What are the greatest misconceptions people have of her? Have her previous biographies and screen portrayals fed those misconceptions?

Without doubt, many people see Ruth as she was shown in ‘Dance with a Stranger’ — very screechy, out of control and violently jealous.

I think it’s true to say that she and David were both deeply jealous of each other (both giving the other reason to be so), but Ruth was not as hysterical as she was portrayed in the film. In fact, it was quite the opposite — the men were hysterical and it was Ruth who usually vented a sort of quiet fury. There is one scene in the film which shows her smashing the windows of David’s car and screaming in the street. Reading the original police statement about that night reveals a very different story; she was described as very calm and rational. There was no screaming, and although she did damage the vehicle, it was not remotely as it was shown in the film.

I think other adaptations have also done her a disservice. Ironically, probably the most accurate portrayal is in the film ‘Pierrepoint,’ where the character of Ruth appears for no more than a minute or two on screen.

I get the sense that Ruth was always running uphill against her class position, trying to climb a little higher than she could reach — right up to the end where her lover is a well-off cad and the rivals for the lover’s affection are his middle-class friends. What role did England’s class relations have in Ruth Ellis’s life and death, and in the way that others perceived her? Do they still shape the way we talk about her all these years later?

Class and politics played a huge role in Ruth’s life generally.

England was distinctly class-led at the time and when the case hit the headlines, she was described as a working-class floozie who attached herself to the upper-class David Blakely purely in order to hoist herself up the class ladder.

That couldn’t have been further from the truth; if she was only interested in using men to better herself socially, she would surely have married her sometime-lover Desmond Cussen, who was a much steadier prospect with money and property and who wanted very much to marry her. Ruth worked hard to better herself but she didn’t use the men she loved to do so.

And when it came to her trial, the class values of the time were heavy in the courtroom with the male barristers and judge and so on all very much men of the upper classes — and who viewed her accordingly. I hope we have got beyond all that nonsense now — but it does add a very distinct dimension to discussions of her case.

She was working as a hostess when she met David Blakely. What would a hostess do, who worked in this trade, and who were the clientele? Was it usual for “real” relationships to evolve? Do people still have this job in the same form as Ruth had it?

Hostessing in the clubs in which Ruth worked was quite straightforward — or it should have been, but there was Morris Conley to contend with, and he was quite a character.

Ruth’s basic job description was to look good and to chat to customers (mostly men) in the clubs, laugh at their jokes and keep them buying food and drink for as long as possible. Most hostesses were in their late teens and early twenties, working-class girls who thought the lifestyle was more glamorous than toiling in a factory or in a shop.

They were usually paid badly and relied on tips to make ends meet, but were given a dress allowance so that they could look as alluring as possible. The clientele mainly consisted of demobbed servicemen who suddenly seemed to have lost their attractiveness to women after the war — where once they had been heroes, by the late 1940s many of them were down on their luck and working as door-to-door salesmen, very lonely and eager to talk to pretty young girls about their war exploits.

The girls who worked for Morris Conley, like Ruth, were expected to sleep with the clients if that was asked of them, and often had to sleep with ‘Morrie’ and his less than respectable friends too. Many of them were very poor young women who lived in flats owned by Conley and his wife — and if they didn’t toe the line, they lost their jobs and their homes in one fell swoop.

Did real relationships evolve? Yes, they did, but very rarely. There are girls all over the world doing very similar jobs today — from London to Japan and everywhere in between too, no doubt.

You have this quote from Ruth about David Blakely: ‘I thought the world of him; I put him on the highest of pedestals. He could do nothing wrong and I trusted him implicitly.’ Ruth had an alcoholic, abusive father, and then she had two children from marriages with two different men that both fell apart — one from bigamy and abandonment, the second from alcoholism and domestic violence. Blakely himself cheated on her. Why wasn’t she more cynical about Blakely? If you take away the tragic ending to this particular relationship, was something like this a pattern she was doomed to keep repeating ad infinitum?

She loved him — it’s really as simple as that.

Although she obviously had a good degree of self-awareness and knew what David was and always would be, she truly loved him and for a time believed they had a future together. As for a pattern — I don’t know. Perhaps if she had met one good, steady man to whom she was attracted as much as she was to David, her life — and David’s too of course — might have been very different.

I’m going to phrase this inelegantly: what is the DEAL with Desmond Cussen?

Good question! I really think that he was as confused and tormented by everything that was happening as a result of Ruth’s and David’s relationship as Ruth herself.

I think he did love Ruth, and he tried hard to make things work with her, but he knew her heart was with David. His apparent lack of self-respect and backbone is baffling — quite why he kept ferrying her across London and out to Buckinghamshire in pursuit of David is a bit mystifying. I did question in the book why no one seemed to query his state of mind as much as Ruth’s — and as to whether he gave her the gun or not, knowing what she intended to do … I am sure he did, even though he must have known where it would end for Ruth herself.

Perhaps he hoped that with David out of the way, she would be reprieved and they could then have a life together. But I really don’t know!

Ruth’s legal defence was legendarily feeble. That said, I’m very interested in the barrister’s attempt to frame its insanity defense around feminine hysteria — “the effect of jealousy upon a female mind can so work as to unseat the reason and can operate to a degree in which a male mind is quite incapable of operating.” This was bound to be undermined by Ruth’s own calm and the statements about her intent to kill that she gave to police and in court. Was it the case that the law at the time didn’t have the instruments to situate Ruth’s context and state of mind, other than hysterical/not? Or could an abler barrister have presented a different story?

I think part of the difficulty is obviously that the defence of diminished responsibility was not introduced in the courts here until 1957 — largely as a direct result of this particular case.

Ruth’s lawyers tried to argue this as a defence for her to some extent, but it just wasn’t possible legally. That said, I think they served her quite badly and didn’t bring out so much that might have enabled the jury to see her crime in context. There was no mention of the abuse in her childhood, no mention of the violence she had suffered at the hands of her ex-husband and very little said about David’s own brutal treatment of her.

But Ruth herself did not seem to care much what happened in the courtroom, once it became evident that the story as she saw it — David’s friends having, in her view, deliberately destroyed the relationship between them — was not going to come to light. She gave up, and volunteered nothing that could have helped her, minimizing the violence to which she had been subjected and dismissing most of the questions put to her in a short sentence or two.

She also infamously replied to the prosecution’s question of what she intended to do when she set out to find David with the gun, “It is obvious when I shot him I intended to kill him.” That one line completely sealed her fate.

Despite all this, the public did seem to be shocked by Ruth Ellis’s hanging, and it’s supposed to have boosted the anti-death penalty campaign. If one may phrase it this way, were people shocked for the right reasons? How much did the symbolic “Ruth Ellis” that even her supporters among the general public had in view have to do with the real person as you understand her?

I think any case is always immeasurably more complex than it is presented in newspaper columns and headlines.

I think, again, the outcry at her execution has to be seen in context — people were becoming more and more opposed to the death penalty and there had been some very high-profile, contentious cases that really did cause a great deal of debate, anger, and distress: the hanging of Timothy Evans in 1950 and of Derek Bentley in 1953 for instance (both of whom were posthumously pardoned).

The fact that Ruth was a young, attractive, lively woman with two small children caused many people to question the validity of capital punishment. It was her death on the scaffold that gave the abolition movement its emotional spur.

What became of Ruth Ellis’s body after her hanging? And what became of her family and the others who were part of the story?

Ruth was buried in the confines of Holloway Prison after her execution, sharing her unmarked grave with four other women who had been hanged there. In 1971, when the prison was demolished and rebuilt, her body was released to her son for burial.

He had hoped to lay his mother to rest alongside David Blakely at the Holy Trinity churchyard in Penn but the vicar there would not allow it. Ruth was instead buried in the churchyard of St Mary’s in Amersham, a few miles away.

As to what became of her family: her son Andre (who was ten when Ruth was executed) was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a very young man and never came to terms with the loss of his mother. He committed suicide in 1982. Ruth’s daughter, Georgina, had quite a colourful life, becoming a successful model who was in the newspapers fairly often as part of the George Best ‘set.’ She married and had children and worked hard to win a posthumous pardon for her mother, of whom she spoke often. She died of cancer at the age of only 50.

As for Desmond Cussen: he emigrated to Australia and opened a flower shop there. He never married and became an alcoholic, dying in Perth on 8 May 1991 of pneumonia and organ failure following a fracture dislocation of the neck in a fall at his home.

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Interviews,Milestones,Murder,Other Voices,Popular Culture,Sex,Women

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