Seven straight years of nailing every-24-hours deadlines — over 2,500 posts by now — is a little feather in our headsman’s hood. But even in pausing to preen, I must admit that this labor of love has felt more like labor than ever before these past months. There’s a reason that seven years comes with its own itch.
No need to belabor the point. The site presses ahead to Year 8; as a matter of fact, there are dozens of posts already pre-scheduled. But the editor under the hood is also searching for a fresh spark from the Muse to leave this fallow period behind. Executioner’s angst: surely there must be more to this world than the chopping of heads?
There are innumerable stories worth the telling that we have not yet touched and justify perseverance in an existential desert. But one also must also acknowledge that this will still be true after seven more years or seventeen. Every executioner comes to his end, sometimes when least expected.
Seven years deep, the annual list of most popular posts ever has ossified to the point where the minor yearly rearrangements just don’t have much new to say that previous annual reports haven’t already said. Last year’s installment ran up to an unwieldy 66; I’ve pared it back to 40 this year for better digestion. Check out the Year 6 report and you’ll get a pretty good idea what the next 20 or 30 on the list would have been.
One reason this list looks the same year after year is that the lifetime-pageview metric confers such a huge early mover advantage on older posts. Meaghan Good’s guest post on the electrocution of 14-year-old George Stinney, Jr. just squeaked onto our countdown at no. 39 above: it’s the most recently-posted story in that cohort, and it ran 28 months ago. Only two of the remaining 39 were published within the past four years. The random emergence of a news story or bit of cultural ephemera may cause some heretofore obscure post to pop onto the marquee come next year, but the list just posted increasingly resembles the light of a distant star — the snapshot of what transpired when the blog was young.
The diversity for periods, topics, and especially geography in the above list pleases me. One of the intentions of this site is to capture snapshots of the death penalty experience in many times and places.
Even though the major Anglo countries — the U.S., U.K., Canada, and Australia — ranked one through four in traffic sources and collectively supplied over two million of the site’s three million or so pageviews this past year, we also boasted traffic hot spots from the Philippines, Pakistan and India, South Africa, and (it doesn’t really pop on the map) Singapore … with a clear assist to the fabricators of the British Empire for promulgating English in all these places.
Outstanding guest posts accounted for more than 10% of the content for the past year, led as usual by the indefatigable Meaghan Good. Meaghan’s own individual contributions to the site are nearing a half-year’s worth of content; she also recently published for Kindle a fictional story, Execution Detail in Tartu, exploring the experience of an ordinary Einsatzgruppe commando carrying out his little bit of the Holocaust on the Second World War’s eastern front.
Though the Communists polled just 17% (with a similar tally for the Social Democrats), the General Secretary of the postwar party, Matyas Rakosi,* predicted that the putative defeat would “not play an important role in Communist plans.” And he was right.
Rakosi named his policy in response to the Smallholders “salami tactics” — as in slicing down the opposition piece by piece.
1947 was the knife’s edge.
From their post within the ensuing governing coalition — an outsized foothold relative to their electoral returns, as compelled by the presence of the still-occupying Red Army — the minority Communists in January 1947 announced the discovery of a conspiracy of “small agrarians,” and set about reducing the Smallholders and allies through a series of police raids and show trials.** Donath’s prominence in an irredentist fraternity, the Hungarian Community organization, was denounced the ringleader of the treasonable conspiracy.
Over the subsequent two years, independent and opposition parties were generally reduced to irrelevance, forced to take the Communist line, or dissolved entirely.
* Rakosi was the man whom Imre Nagy would eventually displace. The more moderate Nagy willingly swept himself up in Hungary’s abortive 1956 revolution against Communist domination. Soviet tanks crushed that revolution; Nagy hanged.
In Arequipa, there is active devotion to Victor Apaza Quispe, who was born in the Miraflores district in 1932. Apaza led a vagrant life supported by odd jobs after fleeing his abusive father. In a variant version that he related to inmates, he was sold by his father into farm labor. Apaza married in 1953, continued a life of transient jobs and petty crime, drank heavily, and physically abused his wife and daughter until he finally abandoned the home. When he returned ten years later, the marriage was beyond repair. In January 1969, Apaza dreamed that his wife was unfaithful to him. He went to the location revealed in the dream and saw the shadowy figure of a man escaping. His wife, also there, was not as fortunate. Apaza beat her to death with a rock.
It was later revealed that the crime was premeditated and carefully planned. Apaza originally denied responsibility but confessed his guilt once the evidence mounted against him. Later, during appeals for clemency, he again declared his innocence. He was convicted partially on the evidence of his two daughters, who wittingly or unwittingly offered testimony that supported the death penalty. Apaza did not understand the sentence until his lawyer translated it for him into Quechua. He hugged his lawyer, the two of them crying, and then collapsed into his chair.
People in the courtroom were shocked by the death sentence. The rarity of the event — this would be the first execution in Arequipa — resulted in extensive press coverage. Apaza suddenly gained a celebrity derived less from his crime than from the punishment. The press represented him as a poor, simple man and a good Christian. According to Apaza’s defense attorney, “the very foundation of society was shaken” when the public learned that Apaza had been sentenced to death. Horror and indignation were aroused because the imminent execution was “an unjust action of human justice.” Divine justice would make amends.
Apaza faced the firing squad in prison on September 17, 1971. (The drama is intensified in some folkloric versions by locating the execution in Arequipa’s main plaza.) Arequipa’s residents were outraged, even traumatized, and some fifteen hundred attended Apaza’s funeral. They organized themselves into squads, taking turns to carry the coffin.
Apaza had been in prison for two years before he was executed. Like Ubilberto Vasquez Bautista in Cajamarca, he became a model prisoner and something of a populist. Fellow inmates described Apaza as a good, hardworking, honest man. In 1971, the 531 men incracerated with him sent a letter to the court petitioning clemency, in part because Apaza had proven himself to be “an honorable man and dedicated to his work.” The prison chaplain, a Jesuit, found Apaza to be pious and God-fearing, and the warden thought he was a “completely good” man. Later, retrospective press accounts described Apaza and Ubilberto together as “innocent men crushed by the Kafkaesque and labyrinthine cruelties of the administration of justice in Peru.”
The devotees with whom I spoke in Arequipa knew little about Apaza. Even the official rezador, a man who prays for tips at the shrine, did not have the story clear. Many devotees had a vague idea that Apaza had been executed under circumstances that suggested injustice, however, and the key word offered by all was “innocent.” Some believed that the true killer confessed the crime after Apaza was executed.
When I asked devotees how they knew that Apaza was innocent, one woman astonished me with her answer: “because a sinner cannot work miracles.” I later encountered this same response in other devotions. Once a folk saint’s fame for miracles is accepted as true, then this truth — this evidence — revises backward to create the conditions necessary for the production of miracles. Miracles make Apaza’s apparent guilt impossible, so the verdict is reversed. Innocence causes miracles, and miracles cause innocence. Miracles occur within the circularity defined by these parameters.
Apaza is miraculous, like all folk saints of this prototype, because “he died innocent and is beside Our Lord.” “You were shot, you suffered,” people said when they requested the first miracles, because these misfortunes qualified Apaza for sainthood.
Somarama was a 44-year-old ayurvedic medicine practitioner when he was tapped for the job by a powerful Buddhist named Mapitigana Buddharakkitha, high priest of the Kelaniya temple. The latter had played kingmaker in Bandaranaike’s 1956 election — and had perhaps two interlocking grievances against Bandaranaike:
Buddharakkitha had been balked by the government of lucrative trade concessions he anticipated as the quid for his quo; and,
Buddharakkitha was closely linked to the movement of partisan Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists who in Ceylon’s early years systematically discriminatedagainst the island’s ethnic Tamils — and were angered at Bandaranaike’s halting moves to reach an accommodation.*
Exploiting the prerogatives of clergy, Somarama obtained a September 25, 1959, meeting un-screened by security for one of the Prime Minister’s public-audience days, a revolver secreted in his saffron robes. When Bandaranaike knelt ceremonially to the monk, Somarama shot him in the stomach.
The wound was mortal, but the Prime Minister lingered on all that night — long enough even to give a televised address from his hospital bed asking his countrymen to “show compassion to” his assassin “and not try to wreak vengeance on him.”* Only months before the murder, ethnic riots had devastated minority Tamil communities, and another pogrom might have been averted on this occasion only the quick thinking of a government official to promulgate immediate word that the assassin was not Tamil.
Ironically Buddharakkitha was so far above suspicion at that he was solicited for a broadcast eulogy of his victim. One can only imagine his relish at the performance — but it was not to last. Buddharakkitha was tried as a conspirator for orchestrating Somarama’s deed, dodged a prospective death sentence, and died in 1967 serving a prison sentence at hard labor.
Talduwe Somara on the steps of the courthouse …
… and Buddharakkitha likewise.
Bandaranaike’s daughter Sirimavo succeeded him as Prime Minister in 1960, becoming the world’s first elected female head of government. A second daughter, Chandrika, and a son, Anura, have also been prominent Sri Lanka politicians.
This three-part series unpacks some of the primary sources on the murder and speculates as to cui bono: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3
* Buddharakkitha, also noted for exploring paths to enlightenment with various Sinhalese elites’ wives, was the high priest of the Kelaniya temple — which is the titular temple in the 1953 Sinhalese nationalist tract The Revolt in the Temple, “a blunt statement that the Tamils are a threat to [the Sinhalese] historic mission.” Its author was Don Charles Wijewardena, who had been a patron of Bandaranaike as a young monk; the (still-extant) Wijewardena dynasty had likewise associated itself with the Kelaniya temple itself, the political and the devotional mutually reinforcing one another.
You recall the time when the Jesus Indians of the Delawares lived near the Americans, and had confidence in their promises of friendship, and thought they were secure, yet the Americans murdered all the men, women, and children, even as they prayed to Jesus?
This incident during the American Revolution took place in the Ohio River basin, a vast and fertile flashpoint whose part in not only the revolution but the antecedent French and Indian War perhaps entitles it to claim the midwifery of the coming American empire.
After victory in the French and Indian War, the British closed the area west of the Appalachian mountains to European settlement. This proclamation:
Made good a wartime pact Britain had made to secure the support of the Iroquois, Lenape (Delaware) and Shawnee tribes; and
Trailed facts on the ground the moment it was issued.
European settlements and land claims already existed in the supposed Indian Reserve, and land-hungry settlers did not let the supposed frontier deter them from advancing new ones. Confrontations between these arriving claimants and the native inhabitants not infrequently came to atrocious resolutions.
By 1768, a new treaty pushed the line further west, effectively ceding to the colonists everything south of the Ohio River — present-day Kentucky and West Virginia.*
Map of the disputed area: the frontier moved from the yellow line along the Applachians to the orange line along the Ohio.
Ohio Country, the remaining territory in dark green shading north of the Ohio River, lay at the time of the American Revolution between the British garrison at Fort Detroit and colonial outposts along the nascent United States’s western marches, such as Fort Pitt (Pittsburgh).
The Lenape Indians in Ohio Country had a difficult calculation to make as to which side (if any) and how to support during the British-American fighting. The question split the Lenape internally.
In this cauldron, a strange morsel: Lenape who were Moravian** Christian converts had established a little missionary village. “Gnadenhutten” literally means “huts of grace”.
As one might imagine, Gnadenhutten and its sister settlements of pacifistic, Christian Lenape stood in a terribly ambiguous position in the brutal irregular war going on around them. Their fellow Lenape distrusted them because they were Christians; their fellow Christians, because they were Lenape.
Suspected by the British of being friendly enough with the American colonists to pass intelligence to their eventual murderers, these converts were in 1781 forced out of Gnadenhutten by British-allied Lenape to a new settlement aptly named “Captive Town”.
Starving there in the ensuing winter, the Moravians dispatched nearly 100 of their number back to Gnadenhutten to retrieve food abandoned at that settlement.
The Moravians were still at their village when a raiding party of Pennsylvanians descended on the town. Under no authority but the militiamen’s own festering grievances from the ongoing dirty war, the Pennsylvanians rounded up the Delaware and heartlessly declared their deaths.
Here were Indians who would pay for the violence Indians had done. And they were the best kind: the kind who didn’t fight back.
After spending a night praying and preparing for the end, the Moravian Lenape were systematically butchered on the morning of March 8† with mallet blows and scalpings.
Depending on your source, there were either 90 or 96 scalps to take that morning – women, men, and children in nearly equal proportions. At least one young boy survived the death squad and reported the massacre. Nor were all the militia themselves at peace with their deed.
one Nathan Rollins & brother had had a father & uncle killed took the lead in murdering the Indians, & Williamson was opposed to it; & Nathan Rollins had tomahawked nineteen of the poor Moravians, & after it was over he sat down & cried, & said it was no satisfaction for the loss of his father & uncle after all. — So related Holmes Jr. who was there — who was out on both Moravian campaigns, & Crawford’s. (Source)
Ah, Crawford’s campaign.
Later in 1782, another expedition of frontiersmen under Col. William Crawford set out “to destroy with fire and sword” a different Lenape settlement in Ohio. Instead, the Lenape met and routed the expedition, taking Crawford prisoner. He and the other captives from that misadventure would be burned to death, in part to avenge Gnadenhutten.
This, and whatever like tit for tat could be exacted in the field, was all the justice the Lenape could ever hope to have for the hecatomb of Gnadenhutten. American authorities declined to prosecute or sanction any members of the militia.
“Here triumphed in death ninety Christian Indians March 8, 1782″: inscription at the base of a memorial obelisk in Gnadenhutten. (cc) image from Mike Drabik.
* This might have been a nice solution, except that said treaty was made by the Iroquois — and only the Iroquois. For the Shawnee who actually lived and hunted in this cessation, this was two outside powers bartering their land. They didn’t mean to give it up on the say-so of the Iroquois. Another nasty frontier war followed, and even when that was won by Virginian militia, dissatisfied Shawnee continued targeting settlements in Kentucky; it’s partly for this reason that the Declaration of Independence slates King George III with having “endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”
For more on the long and tragic Shawnee struggle in this period, see “‘We Have Always Been the Frontier': The American Revolution in Shawnee Country” by Colin G. Calloway in American Indian Quarterly, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Winter 1992).
** The Moravian Church‘s name harkens to its Czech origins. It’s a successor to the reform tradition of Jan Hus.
† There are a few cites out there for the day before or the day after March 8.
They say the coward dies a thousand deaths. Executed Today has now made it six full trips around the sun, and died two thousand, one hundred and ninety-two.*
We’re getting pretty long in the tooth in blog years, and as noted in this space last year blogging daily for five, and now six, years puts us well past our original win conditions for this site.
There has been some consideration hereabouts about how and when to let this blog die its own cowards’ death, but there are still so many stories left untold for the faithful executioner. “Encore un moment, monsieur le bourreau,” as Madame du Barry is said to have begged under the guillotine. Just one moment more … one more year at least.
This image teases a forthcoming post …
We logged about 2.77 million pageviews over the past twelve months, bringing the site near 10 million all time. (It should reach that milestone in about a month.)
That figure was spiked by a Reddit frontpage referral to the fascinating medical-history guest post on the nameless woman “Aochababa”, whose 1771 beheading and subsequent medical dissection initiated a new era of anatomical learning in Japan. That post, originally published in 2010, had five-sixths of Executed Today’s one-day traffic record (53,646 on May 1, 2013). On that strength it became the most-trafficked post on the site for the entire year, the most common visitor entrance page other than the home site, vaulting from undeserved obscurity into the site’s top 10 all time.
Also making an enormous move: the Ottoman Grand Vizier Pargali Ibrahim Pasha. This post just snuck into the top 60 last year as it began receiving search traffic after the debut of a Turkish costume drama about the reign of Pasha’s friend, sovereign, and executioner Suleiman the Magnificent. In Executed Today’s sixth year, Pargali was consistently among the top two or three most-seen posts day in and day out; it’s the ninth-most-trafficked post all-time on the site as of this writing, but if the next year is like the last, it could easily stand as high as no. 2 next Halloween. (A different post about the capable heir Suleiman foolishly executed also reached the top 50.) For close-but-no-cigar cultural ephemera, the TV series Vikings drove “Ragnar Lodbrok” to the no. 21 search term for the year — surely a spoiler for viewers who learned that the show’s protagonist is destined for execution in a snakepit. Like those snakes, such search wins can be poisonous; while once we had one of the few pages on the whole Intertubes about this fellow, it has subsequently been buried by posts about the television program.**
Current events spurred other movers. Eva Dugan, the last woman executed in Arizona, shot up into the top 20 thanks to the wall-to-wall media coverage of Jodi Arias’s Arizona capital murder case. John Bennett, the last U.S. military execution to date, cracked the top-posts list for the first time because of Major Nidal Hasan‘s death penalty court-martial for the Fort Hood shootings. We’re not above drawing such connections explicitly ourselves on Twitter, where we’ve sent about 17,200 tweets (4,500 in the past year) to a follower universe now nearing 3,000.
One of the more noticeable site trends in the past year has been the continued steady growth in traffic share of mobile devices. Those accounted for only a bit over 10% of the traffic in Year V (Nov. 2011-Oct. 2012), but that soared to 25% in Year VI (Nov. 2012-Oct. 2013). The month-over-month change shows a still stronger trend than that, with site views from desktop devices bottoming out at 68.7% in August 2013 before rebounding ever so slightly the past two months. Both mobile phone views and tablet views have grown by about +50% relative to where they were last October — perhaps facilitated by plumping for WPTouch Pro, money very well spent by my lights.
The site has always managed to get by on the kindness of strangers, several of whom once again contributed a trove of guest posts.
In addition to those named below, a special thanks is due my correspondent “Mastro Titta” (here‘s the inspiration for the name) for adding countless names and dates to our expansive archives of potential source material. Similar gratitude goes to Tom E. for reasons which will become clear in the near future.
Grazie to them, and to all of these …
Co-authored with Bora Chung
Our 2001 days‘ meta-post musings on the death penalty in dystopian literature
With this year’s contributions (and there are many more already scheduled for future dates), Meaghan’s published posts on Executed today ran past 100. As noted last year, we’d have been hard-pressed to keep this operation running all these years without her prolific and thoroughly researched output.
If all goes well, we’ll manage a bit more of these in the year to come.
* Actual sum total of persons executed in the 2,192 posts — or however many it ends up being — would be an interesting figure to have but an extremely tedious (not to say depressing) job to compile.
** This same thing happened with Cameron Todd Willingham: when the New Yorker put the story in the national eye, our longstanding account of Willingham’s likely innocence was one of the few already online and became one of the most visited pages on the site in 2009. As one can see from the traffic ranker above where it now sits at #57, it’s been subsumed for everyday websearchers by the many thousands of new Willingham links in the past few years.
She was the third-last woman hanged in Britain and the very last woman to be executed at that particular prison, which now houses only men; the job was performed by Albert Pierrepoint.
Born in 1906, Louisa had already served prison time for ration book fraud by the time of the murder, and she lost custody of her four children due to her excessive drinking and neglect.
She couldn’t seem to hold on to a man (she was married three times) or a job (she had 20 in three years).
She took her final position on March 12, 1953, after she and her husband of one month, 71-year-old Alfred Edward Merrifield, became housekeepers and live-in companions to Sarah Ann Ricketts, a spinster who was nearly eighty years old. Sarah Ricketts owned a bungalow at 339 Devonshire Road, North Shore, Blackpool.
The Merrifields indulged in elder abuse and neglect, and Sarah Ann complained she didn’t get enough to eat and that her housekeepers swilled rum on her dime. Meanwhile, Louisa was going around boasting that she’d inherited a £3,000 house.
When someone asked her who had died, she answered, “She’s not dead yet, but she soon will be.”
Louisa’s prophecy was eerily accurate: Sarah Ann Ricketts expired on the night of April 14, 1953, only a month after she’d hired the Merrifields and three days after Louisa’s prediction … but not before drafting a new will which left her bungalow to the Merrifields.
Louisa didn’t call a doctor until the next morning. She said that, as the old woman was clearly beyond help, she didn’t want to drag anyone out of bed in the middle of the night.
The suspicious GP refused to sign a death certificate and insisted on an autopsy, which revealed the cause of death as phosphorus poisoning, administered in the form of a rat poison called Rodine.
Although a police search of the bungalow didn’t turn up any Rodine, a check at the local pharmacy showed Louisa had recently purchased the stuff and signed the poison register.
The Merrifields found themselves charged with murder. Louisa was arrested first, two weeks after Sarah Ricketts died, and Alfred a few days later.
At their trial in July 1953, Louisa was convicted and sentenced to hang. The judge called her crime “as wicked and cruel a murder as I ever heard tell of.”
The jury couldn’t reach a verdict on Alfred, however, and the district attorney decided not to prosecute again. He was released and in due time inherited a half-share in Mrs. Ricketts’s bungalow. He died in 1962 at the age of 80.
Louisa Merrifield’s ghost is said to haunt the cell she once inhabited at Strangeways Prison.
Stalin was already a wanted Bolshevik revolutionary at this time, but so was Svanidze. Kato was a homebody with no known political interest, and sufficient piety to force her communist groom to say his vows in an Orthodox church. Afterwards, his priorities reasserted themselves.
While Stalin agitated, propagandized, and politicked against Menshevism in the wild oil boom city of Baku,** his pretty wife kept an empty apartment tidy and fretted the omnipresent danger of her husband’s arrest. “When he was involved, he forgot everything,” fellow-Bolshevik Mikheil Monoselidze remembered. Many revolutionaries’ wives walked similarly lonely roads.
Kato did not have to walk hers very long: she contracted a horrible stomach/bowel disease and wasted rapidly away late in 1907. Stalin’s own indifference might have been the ultimate cause, for when she was unwell the young cadre took her on a sweltering 13-hour train ride back to Tiflis that greatly worsened her condition — all so that her family could care for her, and free Stalin’s time for his plots. Kato died in Stalin’s arms, but only when he had been urgently summoned back from Baku with word that her condition had become dire.
Whatever his actions said about him as a family man, the future dictator really loved his neglected wife. He “was in such despair that his friends were worried about leaving him with his Mauser,” writes Simon Montefiore in Young Stalin.
“This creature,” [Stalin] gestured at the open coffin [at her funeral], “softened my heart of stone. She died and with her died my last warm feelings for humanity.” He placed his hand over his heart: “It’s all so desolate here, so indescribably desolate.”
At the burial, Soso’s habitual control cracked. He threw himself into the grave with the coffin. The men had to haul him out. Kato was buried — but, just then, revolutionary konspiratsia disrupted family grief. Soso noticed some Okhrana agents sidling towards the funeral. He scarpered towards the back of the graveyard and vaulted over the fence, disappearing from his own wife’s funeral — an ironic comment on his marital negligence.
For two months, Stalin vanishes from the record. “Soso sank into deep grief,” says Monoselidze. “He barely spoke and nobody dared speak to him” … “He cried like a brat, hard as he was.”
Stalin’s deep grief did not change his life’s work. If anything, he would seem in later years almost too aghast by the whole experience (and his uncharacteristic bout of sentiment) to grapple with it. He abandoned little Yakov to the Svanidzes, and would curiously dislike his son so much that he eventually permitted Yakov to die as a German POW during World War II rather than exchange prisoners for his release.
By the time of the great purges, then, being Stalin’s brother-in-law was of little help to Alexander Svanidze. It might have been an outright detriment; certainly Svanidze’s own prominence — he had served as People’s Commissar for Finances of the Georgian SSR, and found a scholarly journal in his capacity as a historian — were of a kind with Old Bolsheviks who had also attracted denunciations.
In 1937, most of the beloved Kato’s family was arrested: Alexander Svanidze, but also Alexander’s wife Maria, and opera singer, and his sister Mariko. Svanidze defiantly refused NKVD blandishments to confess to spying for Berlin to save himself, perhaps realizing that such a deal would merely sell his pride for a mess of pottage. “Such aristocratic pride!” Stalin is supposed to have tutted upon hearing the way Svanidze went to his execution still insisting he had done nothing wrong. (Svanidze’s ancestors were petty nobility.)
* There are some other dates out there for Svanidze’s execution. I’ve had difficulty identifying a primary source for any of them, but am prepared to be corrected if an alternative possibility can be strongly documented.
† Revolutionary Russia produced a number of similarly curious neologisms on birth certificates, such as “Vladlen” (crudely blending “Vladimir Lenin”), and even the outlandish “Electralampochka” (“light bulb”, inspired by the Soviet electrification campaign).
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.
The jury, which never heard that Blakely regularly beat his killer (including once to induce a miscarriage), needed 14 minutes to convict her.
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.
You can read all about this hecatomb and its aftermath on this very thorough and impressive website dedicated to the atrocity, from which much of the information in this account is drawn.
The tiny village, which you could walk through in all of ten minutes, had been the victim of mistaken identity.
Twenty miles away was a somewhat larger town with a similar name, Oradour-sur-Vayres, which was known for its Resistance activity. Adolf Diekmann, commander of the SS battalion, had been informed that the French Resistance had captured an SS officer (possibly the kidnapped Waffen-SS Sturmbahnfuhrer Helmut Kampfe, who had been executed by the Resistance earlier that same day) in Oradour-sur-Vayres and decided reprisals were needed, but he got the two villages mixed up and went to Oradour-sur-Glane instead.
When the SS arrived in the village at lunchtime, they ordered all the inhabitants to assemble in the fairground to have their papers checked. Everyone had to come, including children and the sick. Six people who were not residents but happened to be in the village at the time were also sent to the fairground.
Twenty villagers who had some compelling reason to avoid the Nazis, or merely had a bad feeling about the whole thing, hid or left the village as soon as the SS division showed up. These twenty survived. One seven-year-old boy, Roger Godfrin, was spotted and shot at, but survived by playing dead. He was the only survivor in his family, and the youngest survivor from the town.
The women and children were locked in the village church, and the men were lead to barns and sheds where the machine guns were set up. They were shot in their lower bodies and legs, in order to prolong their deaths. One of the men, who’d lost a leg in World War I, supposedly cried out, “Those bastards! They have cut my other leg off!”
After the shooting, as the men of Oradour-sur-Glane lay helpless, the SS men locked the sheds and set them on fire.
Only six men were able to escape. They hid in some rabbit hutches for several hours before attempting to escape the village. Five of them made it, but Pierre-Henri Poutaraud was spotted later that day and shot dead. The SS man who shot him then tethered a horse to Poutaraud’s outstretched hand.
In all, 190 men were killed.
The SS division then went back to the church, set off a smoke bomb inside it, and set the building on fire. Anyone who tried to get out of the church was machine-gunned. One woman cried out that she was German, not French, and begged to be released, but the SS shoved her back into the flames.
47-year-old Marguerite Rouffanche was able to slip out the back window, and another woman followed her with her seven-month-old baby, but all three of them were shot and only Marguerite survived, hiding in a garden for more than 24 hours until help arrived. Her two daughters were killed. (Marguerite refused to leave Oradour after the massacre. She remained there for the rest of her ninety-one years and is now buried in the village cemetery.)
The church fire and shootings claimed the lives of 247 children and 205 women.
Children from the village’s girl’s school, in the 1942-1943 school year. All of these girls were killed in the massacre.
Unbeknownst to the Nazis, there were several Jews living in the village, among them five children between the ages of eight and fifteen. Twelve of them were killed. In the case of a Jewish family called Pinede, the parents decided to present themselves for inspection but told their three children to hide. The children survived; their parents did not. One of those three Jewish survivors was still alive as of 2004.
Several days passed for the 26 survivors were permitted to bury their dead. Only 52 of the bodies could be identified; the other ones were burned too badly to be recognizable.
Collective punishment in reprisal for the actions of others was par for the course in Nazi-occupied Europe, and Adolf Diekmann had directed his unit to commit a number of mass shootings. Even so, he didn’t have authorization for the bloody events at Oradour-sur-Glane and his commanding officer requested for a court-martial, saying, “I cannot allow the regiment to be charged with something like this.” Field Marshal Erwin Rommel supposedly volunteered to preside over the court-martial himself.
But before that could happen, the war took care of Diekmann: he was killed on the Normandy front on June 19, hit in the head with shrapnel, a mere nine days after his last atrocity. The front, in fact, took care of most of his unit: only 65 of the 200 members survived the war.
In 1953 in Bordeaux, a military tribunal convened to hear the case against the surviving members of the 2nd Panzer Division. Only 22 of them were present in the courtroom; the others were in East Germany, which refused to extradite them. All but one said they’d been conscripted into the SS; one of them admitted he’d joined voluntarily to fight Communism.
To further complicate matters, 15 of the defendants present were actually French nationals of German descent, from Alsace-Moselle, and 14 of them claimed they’d been drafted against their wishes.
(After they conquered France, Germany declared inhabitants of Alsace to be German citizens whether they wanted to be or not, and drafted the region’s men. The conscripts were known in France as Malgre-nous, meaning literally “despite ourselves.”)
In addition, eight of the French defendants had been under the age of 18 when they were drafted into the SS, making them minors under French law. Many French people, including some of the survivors of Oradour-sur-Glane, viewed the Alsatian conscripts as fellow-victims of Nazi Germany and didn’t believe they should be held responsible for their actions.
Most of the defendants were cagey.
They implicated each other, but not themselves, admitting to some specific offenses but denying other, far more serious ones. One man, for example, said he’d been part of an execution squad that shot 20 men, but insisted he’d only helped load the machine guns and hadn’t personally shot anyone. Another said he hadn’t been in Oradour-sur-Glane at all, but was stationed as a sentry outside the village to prevent escapes. Only one of the defendants had admitted to killing anyone at all prior to the trial.
Twelve members of the victims’ families came to watch the trial proceedings, including an eight-year-old girl whose father and grandfather had been killed. Marguerite Rouffanche was ill at the time of the trial and very weak, but she showed up anyway and testify about her experience. Roger Godfrin, the little boy who played dead, also testified.
The tribunal’s judge demanded the defendants view photographs of the charred corpses of the victims, saying, “Let them look at the glorious work of the valiant Third Company of Der Führer Regiment.”
When the prosecutor summed up the case, he referred to the defendants’ evasive statements and said, “You might as well say despite the heaps of ashes and ruins, that the massacre never took place. But the people of Oradour are dead.”
The tribunal deliberated for thirty-two hours before returning its verdicts. One of the defendants was able to prove he hadn’t been in Oradour-sur-Glane the day of the killings, and was acquitted. The rest were convicted.
The 46 members of the SS unit who hadn’t shown up for trial were sentenced to death in absentia, as was one of the German nationals and one of the French. The others got various prison sentences, mostly between five and eight years, none exceeding twelve years. The Germans tended to get longer prison terms than the French. In addition, the Germans were prohibited from residing in France for at least twenty years.
Survivors of the Oradour-sur-Glane massacre.
No one in France was happy with the tribunal’s ruling: some said the sentences were too harsh, others, too lenient. In the face of widespread protests from the Alsace area and threats to secede from France, the French National Assembly passed a bill granting amnesty to all Malgre-nous (at a vote of 319 to 211, with a whopping 83 abstentions) and 13 of the 14 Frenchmen were released only eight days after the verdict was rendered. (One of them, the one who had volunteered for the SS, got no sympathy from anyone and no such leniency.)
Germany was upset, saying it was unfair to pardon the French SS but not the Germans. But within five years, everyone had been freed. No one was actually executed.
In 1981, East German authorities tracked down Heinz Barth, a second lieutenant in the 2nd Panzer Division, and put him on trial in their country for his role in the Oradour-sur-Glane Massacre.
He never tried to deny his participation in the attack, and used the old “just following orders” defense, saying, “In war one acts harshly and with the means available.” Barth admitted he helped round up the village men and personally shot fifteen times into the crowd. He also acknowledged responsibility for the deaths of nearly 100 people in Czechoslovakia.
Barth was convicted in 1983 and sentenced to life in prison. In 1991, still behind bars, he was awarded a pension as a “war victim” because he’d been wounded in Normandy in August 1944 and lost a leg. The resulting howls of protest led the government of a newly reunited Germany to pass a law stripping convicted war criminals of their pensions.
Barth was released from prison in 1997, and managed to finagle his war pension back somehow. He died of cancer ten years later, at the age of 86.
Marguerite Rouffanche died in 1988. Her fellow-survivor Roger Godfrin died in 2004.
The survivors of Oradour-sur-Glane created a new village after the war, but the burned-out ruins of the old village remain, with rusted cars, sewing machines, bicycles and other personal items lying in plain sight on the street, a grim testimony to what happened there nearly seventy years ago.