The case of Ruth Ellis, executed in 1955 for murdering her ex-boyfriend and the last woman hanged in Britain before the death penalty’s abolition, is both a distinctive and tragic affair. Born (and later buried as) Ruth Hornby in Rhyl, Wales on September 10, 1926 she would die on the gallows at London’s Holloway Prison on July 13, 1955. While born into obscurity, she would die in a blaze of publicity. The tragic circumstances of her crime and the heated split in public opinion over her execution would contribute to the abolition of the death penalty in Britain and still resonate even today.
Initially there was nothing to separate her from thousands of other provincial women who came to London seeking the bright lights and big city. Granted, she’d fallen pregnant in 1944, bearing the illegitimate son of a married Canadian soldier who then departed back to Canada, but there were no early signs of criminal behaviour. From then on the bright lights became slowly darker until, at the hands of chief executioner Albert Pierrepoint, they would blink out to the crash of trapdoors and the sudden jerk of the hangman’s rope. After holding a few factory and minor clerical jobs she started some modelling work on the side for the extra money. She soon attracted the unwholesome attention of the owner of London’s Court Club, a rather odious individual named Morris Cowley.
Cowley had a nasty habit of blackmailing his female employees into sleeping with him to keep their jobs as ‘hostesses’ at the Court Club. He also profited from a cut of their extra earnings as he pimped them out to the club’s patrons. Having drifted from modelling to hostessing to prostitution, it was in 1950 that she first fell pregnant. Desperately needing to hold her job at the Court Club, she had an illegal termination and quickly returned to work.
One patron was George Ellis, who she married on November 8, 1950. Ellis might have been a step up from Cowley, but not by much. A violent, jealous, paranoid alcoholic, George Ellis was not what many women would consider a decent catch. But, given that her expectations of men were less than stellar to start with, he was good enough for her at first. After a string of arguments (some violent) amid increasing accusations of infidelity, she left him several times before finally departing for good. With her went her daughter Georgina, whose paternity Ellis had steadfastly refused to acknowledge. Having left Cowley’s employ she returned to ‘hostessing’ at another club to make ends meet.
Things briefly improved when she was appointed manager of the Carroll Club in London. In the process of managing the club she acquired many wealthy admirers and plenty of expensive gifts and celebrity acquaintances. One of these was racing driver Mike Hawthorn, whose talents of Grand Prix and sports car racing saw him win the Le Mans 24 Hours in 1955 and later become Britain’s first Formula One World Champion in 1958. One night she met an acquaintance of Hawthorn’s, a minor-league racing driver and playboy then attached to his fiancée Mary Dawson. With that meeting her fate was sealed. And so was his.
His name was David Blakely.
Blakely, a playboy with an expensive private education, the manner of a gentleman and the driving talent of a perennial also-ran, was rather less pleasant than he at first appeared. He could behave like a gentleman when he wanted to and a spoiled, self-entitled brat as well. Given that Ruth wasn’t overly given to self-control either, their relationship was always going to be a tempestuous one. So tempestuous, in fact, that it would end with him shot dead outside a London pub and her keeping a date with the hangman.
Blakely, fiancée notwithstanding, soon moved in as her new boyfriend. Ellis fell pregnant again and again opted for another illegal termination. Their relationship soon became a downward spiral of mutual jealousies, accusations of cheating by both partners, excessive drinking and violence on both sides, but especially from Blakely. They were, in short, a toxic couple almost from the start. Neither was right for the other, eventually with fatal consequences for both of them.
Ruth sought some small consolation in the arms of former bomber pilot-turned accountant Desmond Cussen, with whom she continued a parallel relationship much to Blakely’s anger, moving in with Cussen after she was fired as manager of the Carroll Club. Cussen was also a step up from her previous partners but, if Ellis’s story is true, he too had a decisive role to play in her downfall, but more on that later.
The constant cycle of violent arguments, break-ups, public altercations and general misery lasted until early in 1955 when Blakely finally left her for good. He claimed to be afraid of her violent temper (rather rich coming from him as he’d only recently caused her to suffer a miscarriage by landing a heavy blow to her stomach during one of their many fights). He left and Ellis, by now thoroughly unstable, seemed to think that the only life worse than being with Blakely was not being with him. Perhaps she decided on revenge for his mistreatment of her. Perhaps life’s trials had finally broken her sense of reason. Or maybe she decided that, if she couldn’t have him, that nobody else would. Possibly even Ellis herself wasn’t sure of her motives. What she did seem to have decided was that this was going to end, permanently.
On Easter Sunday, 1955 she took a cab to the home of Anthony and Carol Findlater. She didn’t like the Findlaters and they didn’t like her but, knowing that Blakely might be there, she stopped by unannounced, uninvited and probably unwelcome in the hope of meeting him
She was moments too late. As her cab arrived at the Findlater home she saw his sports car driving off towards the local pub, the Magdala. Her initial account stated that she paid off the cab and walked to the Magdala in the hope of finding him there. If she hadn’t found him there it would probably have been safer for them both.
In her handbag was a loaded .38 revolver.
She spotted his car parked outside the pub and, at around 9:30pm, he came out of the bar with friend Clive Gunnell. He ignored her greeting and then ignored her when she shouted his name. This may have proved to be the last slight she was prepared to endure from her erstwhile lover and regular abuser. She drew the revolver from her handbag, took aim and started shooting.
The first bullet, fired while he was searching for his car keys, missed him. As he ran away across the car park her aim improved. Her second bullet struck him in the back and he fell to the ground. She walked over, took careful aim and fired three more shots into his body, one being fired from so close-up that it left powder burns on his clothes. She tried to empty the revolver by firing the last shot into the ground. After pumping the trigger several times the cartridge finally fired. The bullet ricocheted off the ground and immediately wounding bystander Gladys Yule in her left hand.
With Blakely dead and the revolver now empty she handed the gun to Gunnell and asked him to call the police. An off-duty Constable, one Alan Thompson, arrested her on the spot. She was taken to Hampstead Police Station for questioning. She lacked legal representation at both her initial questioning (after which she was charged with murder) and at the Magistrate’s Court the next day (where she was arraigned for trial). That didn’t stop her issuing a full confession to having killed Blakely although, given she killed him in front of a pub crammed with witnesses, her having done the deed was in no doubt. What remained in doubt was whether or not she was sane and so fit to stand trial. That was resolved in the eyes of the law while she was incarcerated in Holloway Prison awaiting trial. She was examined by the prison medical officer Doctor M.R. Penry-Williams. Then she was examined by Dr. Dalzell, a psychiatrist from the Home Office (now the Ministry of Justice). She was also examined by a psychiatrist for her defense team, Dr. Whittaker. None found evidence of her being insane under the law so she went on trial for her life.
By now the case was arousing national passion and indignation. Her trial began on June 20, 1955 in the Number One Courtroom at the Central Criminal Court, known to crime buffs everywhere as ‘The Old Bailey.’ Mr. Justice Havers presided, experienced Queen’s Counsel Christmas Humphreys led the prosecution and the defense was led by Aubrey Melford Stevenson (later to achieve a certain public profile as the presiding judge in the trial of the notorious East End gangsters Ronnie and Reggie Kray).
Ellis seems to have wanted to die. To judge by her own testimony she was the best witness the prosecution had. When the prosecutor asked her about her intentions when she produced the revolver she all but condemned herself with the reply:
“It’s obvious that when I shot at him I intended to kill him.”
With that in mind nobody could be in doubt of her guilt, not of her seeming death wish. Openly admitting premeditated murder in a capital case was tantamount to pleading guilt and it has been suggested that Ellis, either out of guilt at her crime or perhaps because of her disillusionment with life itself. Had simply given up and actually wanted the judge to condemn her to death. The jury were obliging, deliberating only 20 minutes before finding her guilty. With her guilt established and the verdict rendered, there remained only one course of action open to the judge. The Clerk of the Court placed a square of black silk atop his wig, the dreaded ‘Black Cap’ traditionally worn during death sentences as a sign of mourning for the condemned and uttered what journalists once called the ‘dread sentence’:
“Ruth Ellis, the sentence of this Court is that you will be taken from this place to a lawful prison and thence to a place of execution where you shall be hanged by the neck until you are dead, and that your body afterwards be cut down and buried within the precincts of the prison in which you were last confined before execution. And may the Lord have mercy upon your soul.”
“Remove the prisoner.”
Ellis was transported back to Holloway, this time not to a regular cell but to the ‘Condemned Suite.’ The ‘Condemned Suite’ was twice as large as a normal cell, with an adjoining visiting room to one side where a prisoner could receive visitors with a glass partition between them. The visiting room was to one side of the main cell. Unknown to condemned prisoners, the other side, only fifteen steps away behind a door adjoining a smaller cell, was the gallows.
Public opinion was hotly and bitterly divided over her impending fate. Many felt that she had acted under extreme mental and emotional strain and that she should be reprieved on the grounds that it was a crime of passion. The concept of diminished responsibility (in which a defendant can plead temporary insanity) didn’t exist in English law until the Homicide Act of 1957. It was the one plea that could have saved her from the gallows and, with bitter irony, was included in part as a response to her execution, two years too late to save her.
Her lawyers did what they could to obtain a reprieve, considering their client had done everything possible to hinder their efforts during the trial itself. Junior lawyer John Bickford appealed personally to Home Secretary (today known as Minister of Justice) Major Gwylim Lloyd George. In doing so he ignored Ellis’s express instruction not to ask for clemency so she dismissed him. His request fell on deaf ears and there was no reprieve.
Ellis herself approached the lawyer she’d used during her divorce from George Ellis, Victor (later Lord) Mishcon. Through his clerk Leon Simmons she asked him to visit her on the eve of her execution. She told them that she’d lied in her original statement, that Desmond Cussen had not only driven her to the Magdala, but had also given her the revolver and shown her how to use it. She demanded that Mishcon not use the new information to apply for a reprieve, a demand Mishcon ignored.
He appealed to Permanent Secretary Sir Frank Newsam to advise Gwylim Lloyd George to grant mercy. Newsam sent detectives to check her claims only hours before her scheduled execution at 9am the next morning. The Home Secretary stuck to his guns, stating that her admission only further proved her premeditated intent to kill. He also cited the injury caused to witness Gladys Yule as further reason to deny clemency.
Meanwhile, chief hangman Albert Pierrepoint and assistant executioner Royston Rickard were making their final preparations. Using her weight, height, gender, a precise mathematical formula and his own immense experience, Pierrepoint set the drop at 8 feet, 2 inches.
At 9am on July 13, 1955 Pierrepoint and Rickard entered the ‘Condemned Suite.’ Pierrepoint strapped her arms securely behind her back and the 15 steps to the gallows were covered almost instantly. With Ellis carefully positioned on the exact center of the doors, Pierrepoint placed the hood and noose while Rickard crouched behind her and strapped her legs together. As both men cleared the trapdoors Pierrepoint pushed the lever. Ruth Ellis was dead.
The total time from entering the cell to Ellis hanging at the end of the rope?