On 13th July 1955, Ruth Ellis secured her place in history as the last woman to be executed in Britain. Portrayed by many as the victim of a cruel boyfriend who abused her, and a cruel legal system that hanged her, Ellis' case is only really so memorable because of the fact that she was hanged - if she had received a life sentence for her crimes, she would most likely have been forgotten by many people after only a few months.
Anyone who has seen the film 'Dance with a Stranger' will be familiar with the crime, trial and execution of Ellis. Unfortunately, the film only really tells half of the story, and gives no real factual coverage of the trial itself, her behaviour at the trial, or evidence given in answer to some of the questions that she was asked.
Ellis was known to be having a passionate relationship with a young man called David Blakely. The relationship was also tempestuous, and the couple often quarrelled, many times to the point of violence - shortly before the murder was committed, Ellis had recently suffered a miscarriage after Blakely had punched her in the stomach during a fight.
Blakely was classed by many as a 'waster and a heavy drinker' who regularly frequented the 'Little Club', a drinking establishment managed by Ellis. Shortly before his murder Blakely was staying with friends, the Findlater's, and despite repeated visits and telephone calls, he refused to see Ellis over the Easter Holiday of 1955. His reasons to Ellis were that 'he was building a racing car with his friends'. The Findlater's had, unfortunately, just employed a nanny whom Ellis suspected Blakely was having an affair with - this was the fatal mistake, as in truth he really was building a car with his friends, but Ellis' fury and jealousy emotionally blinded her, and her murderous decision was made.
In a pique of jealousy and rejection, on the afternoon of Sunday 10th April, Ellis persuaded another male friend of hers, Desmond Cussen, to drive her to Hampstead where she lay in wait for Blakely outside the Magdala public house in South Hill Park, where he was socialising with friends. When the men had finished their drinks and left the public house, they walked over to their car in order to drive home. Ellis pursued Blakely and shot him five times - the last shot from point blank range, as he lay wounded on the ground. One bullet ricocheted from the ground and injured Mrs. Gladys Yule in the hand as she was walking along the street.
Even before the last shot was fired, people had emerged from the pub to see what had happened. Alan Thompson, an off-duty policeman who was in the pub at the time, arrested Ellis, who was still holding the smoking gun. She was immediately taken to Hampstead police station where she appeared to be 'calm and not obviously under the influence of drink or drugs which she is alleged to have been taking prior to the shooting'. Ellis confessed to the police and was immediately charged with first degree murder. She appeared at a special hearing of Hampstead Magistrates Court the following day and was then remanded in custody to Holloway Prison to await her trial.
The trial of Ruth Ellis commenced on Monday 20th June 1955 in the Old Bailey's Number One Court, before Lord Justice Havers. Ellis appeared in the dock wearing a smart, two-piece black suit and white blouse; her hair re-dyed to her preferred platinum blonde.... in the juror's eyes, hardly the image of a poor, abused and downtrodden woman.
Ellis pleaded not guilty as the charges were read to her, purely so that she the opportunity to tell her version of events, rather than in any hope of acquittal. It appeared that she particularly wanted disclosed the involvement of the Findlaters in what she saw as a 'conspiracy to keep David away from her'. Ellis' trial was greatly publicised, and many people feel that she had already resigned herself to the fate of the gallows, and was being truthful when answering the jurors questions. Excerpts from various media articles* at the time of the trial said;
When the prosecuting counsel, Mr. Christmas Humphries asked "Mrs. Ellis, when you fired that revolver at close range into the body of David Blakely what did you intend to do", she replied "It was obvious that when I shot him I intended to kill him."
Although there were legal submissions made by Mr Melford Stevenson QC, counsel for the defence, regarding provocation, Lord Justice Havers said he had given careful consideration to these, but ruled that there was "insufficient material, even upon a view of the evidence most favourable to the accused, to support a verdict of manslaughter on the grounds of provocation." Mr Melford Stevenson said that in view of that, ruling it would not be appropriate for him to say anything more to the jury.
The jury were then brought back into Court and in their presence Mr Stevenson said: "In view of the ruling which your Lordship has just pronounced I cannot now with propriety address the jury at all, because it would be impossible for me to do so without inviting them to disregard your Lordship's ruling." Mr. Christmas Humphreys, for the Crown, indicated that in the circumstances he would not make a final speech to the jury either.
The Judge then summed up the trial. After reviewing the evidence for the prosecution, his Lordship said: "You will remember that when Mr. Stevenson made his opening address, he told you that he was going to invite you to reduce this charge of killing from murder to manslaughter on the grounds of provocation. The House of Lords has decided that where the question arises whether what would otherwise be murder may be reduced to manslaughter on the grounds of provocation, if there is not sufficient material, even upon a view of the evidence most favourable to the accused, that a reasonable person could be driven by transport of passion and loss of control to use violence and a continuance of violence, it is the duty of a judge, as a matter of law, to direct the jury that the evidence does not support a verdict of manslaughter. I have been constrained to rule in this case that there is not sufficient material to reduce this killing from murder to manslaughter on the grounds of provocation."
Referring to the evidence for the defence the Judge said: "This Court is not a court of morals, this is a criminal court, and you should not allow your judgement to be swayed or your minds to be prejudiced in the least degree against the accused because, according to her own admission, she had committed adultery, or because she was having two persons at different times as lovers. Dismiss those matters wholly from your minds."
His Lordship went on: "But I am bound to tell you this, that even if you accept every word of Mrs Ellis's evidence there does not seem to be anything in it which establishes any sort of defence to the charge of murder."
The jury found Ellis guilty after deliberating for only fourteen minutes. In order to convict a person of murder two things always have to be proved; the first is that the person actually killed the victim, and the second is the 'mens rea' or 'guilty mind' - the murderer intended to kill the victim. From the evidence presented, and from Ellis' replies, there was clearly no question as to whether Ellis had both actually killed and intended to kill David Blakely.
Lord Justice Havers had no alternative but to sentence her to death. The black cap was placed on his head and Havers officially sentenced Ellis to 'be taken to the place that you had last been confined and from there to a place of execution where you will suffer death by hanging, and you shall hang by the neck until you are dead."
'Thank you' replied Ellis. Many people upon hearing their death sentence faint or become hysterical, but Ellis spoke two simple words, turned smartly and smiled to her friends and family in the public gallery and walked calmly down the stairs at the back of the dock.
Ellis decided against an appeal as there were absolutely no legal grounds for one, and the final decision on her fate rested with the Home Secretary, Major Gwilym Lloyd George. Despite considerable pressure from the public and the press, Lloyd George decided to stick with the original sentencing.
After just three weeks and three days in the Condemned Cell at Holloway, Ellis' execution took place at 9.00 am on the morning of Friday July 13th 1955. Around a thousand people stood silently outside Holloway Prison waiting for the execution notice to be posted outside the prison's gates.
The usual preparations for an execution had been made - Ellis had been weighed and measured, and the correct length of drop had been calculated. The gallows had been tested on the Thursday afternoon using a sand bag of the same weight as Ellis, which was left overnight on the rope to remove any stretch from it and test its strength. The only item that was different from any other execution chamber was a religious cross that had been placed on the far wall of the execution room at Ellis' request.
Given a large brandy by the prison doctor to steady her nerves, Ellis was attended by a Catholic Priest, and at nine o'clock, Albert Pierrepoint entered her cell, pinioned her hands behind her back with a leather strap and led Ellis the 15 feet from the cell door to the gallows. Pierrepoint recalled that Ellis said nothing whatsoever during her execution. When she reached the trap, a white cotton hood was drawn over her head and the noose placed round her neck. The hangman's assistant pinioned her legs, and when all was ready stepped back, allowing Pierrepoint to remove the safety pin from the base of the lever and push it away from him to open the trap through which Ellis plummeted. The process of execution from start to finish took no than ten or twelve seconds, and Ellis's corpse was briefly examined by the prison Doctor, and was then left to hang for the regulatory hour. An autopsy of Ellis' corpse was performed by the Guy's Hospital pathologist, Dr. Keith Simpson, and showed that she had died virtually instantaneously from 'a fracture-dislocation of the spine and a two-inch gap and transverse separation of the spinal cord. There was also a fracture of both wings of the hyoid and the right wing of the thyroid cartilage. The larynx was also fractured.'
Ruth Ellis was buried within the grounds of Holloway prison, but was later disinterred and reburied in a churchyard in Buckinghamshire when Holloway was rebuilt.
Ruth's sister, Muriel, is still attempting to get the case considered by the Criminal Cases Review Commission in the hope of getting the conviction reduced to manslaughter. To date there has been no record of her being successful.
*Quotes for the trial of Ruth Ellis are taken from the following websites, and remain copyrighted to the relevent parties.