Saturday, August 2, 2014

Ruth Ellis, The Last Woman Hanged in Britain

Ruth Ellis (1926-1956) has the distinction of being the last woman to be executed in the United Kingdom after being convicted of the murder of her lover, David Blakely. 

Ellis left school at 14 and became pregnant to a married Canadian soldier at a 17. The soldier sent money for a year and then stopped. The child, Andy, was left with Ellis’s mother to care for. 

A young Ruth Ellis

Ellis went from various jobs to waitressing, then to modelling, nightclub hosting and prostitution.  The modelling photographs were mostly dated cheesecake that today seem decidedly unsexy, almost a sendup of the genre and quite sad:


Ellis had a series of relationships which all ended badly. In 1953 she became the manager of a nightclub and entered into a relationship with racing car driver David Blakely, who moved into her flat despite being engaged to another woman. She subsequently moved in with another man, former WW2 RAF pilot Desmond Cussen but continued seeing Blakely. 

Ellis with Dave Blakely

Ellis with Desmond Cussen

The relationship with Blakely became increasingly toxic and violent with Ellis miscarrying after being punched in the stomach by Blakely. 

In 1955 Ellis confronted Blakely outside the Magdala Pub in Hampstead and fired five shots.  The first shot missed, the second brought him down and the last three were fired into his body as she stood over him.  The last shot was fired half an inch from him. She then aimed the gun at her head and pulled the trigger a number of times but the pistol misfired.  It did eventually discharge, into the road from where it richoceted and injured a nearby bystander.

A sign for tourists at the location

On arrest she said "I am guilty, I'm a little confused." Interviewed without having been able to see a solicitor or to obtain legal advice she made a full confession and at trial was asked only one question by the prosecution: "When you fired the revolver at close range into the body of David Blakely, what did you intend to do?” She replied “It's obvious when I shot him I intended to kill him.” She was convicted in 20 minutes and received the mandatory death sentence. 

In a meeting with a religious adviser prior to her hanging she said to him "It is quite clear to me that I was not the person who shot him. When I saw myself with the revolver I knew I was another person." 

It also emerged after conviction and just prior to her death that the pistol had been given to her by Desmond Cussen, that she had been given shooting instructions and target practice by Cussen, that she had spent most of the weekend of the shooting drinking with Cussen and that he had driven her to Blakely for the shooting. 

According to the website “Murder is Everywhere – Ten renowned crimwriters blog from different parts of the world”:

Cussen went to Australia where he died in his late 60's. Ruth's sister believes that Ruth protected him during the trial because he had promised to look after her family. And he did.

The sister also says that their father had raped her at the age of 14, producing a son who was brought up as her brother, and had probably abused Ellis as well.

The defence counsel today would be spoiled for choice; clinical depression, battered spouse syndrome, post-natal/ post-miscarriage depression. There was only 10 days between the miscarriage and the murder.

Ellis was hanged on 13 July 1956 by prominent official hangman Albert Pierepoint (pictured below), who said she was peaceful and polite and that she had greeted him with a smile. He later said that he felt it was wrong.  He resigned soon afterwards over a pay dispute with the Home Office concerning the fee payable in respect of a reprieved prisoner.

As was the custom, she was buried in an unmarked grave at Holloway Prison, a jail for women prisoners and young offenders. When the prison underwent renovations in the 1970’s, the bodies of the executed female prisoners were exhumed and reinterred at other public cemeteries. Ellis was reburied in Buckinghamshire.

The case remained controversial and contributed to public opposition to the death penalty. Between 1926 and 1954, 677 men and 60 women had been sentenced to death in England and Wales, although only 375 men and seven women had been executed.  Following the Ellis execution the death penalty was used a lot less and was abolished altogether in 1969. Reprieves had also been increasingly granted. The case also led directly to the introduction of the defence ‘diminished responsibility’ in English law in 1957.

Sadly, in 1982 Ellis’s son Andy committed suicide by hanging after desecrating his mother’s grave by destroying the headstone.

The trial judge, Sir Cecil Havers, had sent money every year for Andy's upkeep, and Christmas Humphreys, the prosecution counsel at Ellis's trial, paid for his funeral.

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  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. The photo is not Albert Pierpoint, this is Sid Dernley, another British Executioner.


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