Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

RUTH ELLIS: THE LAST TO HANG

A Good Day for a Hanging

Hanging criminals is the favourite sport of the English.

B. L. de Muralt, 1694.

Ruth was arraigned in the Hampstead Magistrates Court on the charge of murdering David Blakely. She appeared there, three times: on April 12th, 20th and the 28th. At the third hearing, her ex-husband George appeared in the court foyer, wearing a camel hair overcoat, hands flapping and very drunk, demanding that the trial be stopped. He was hustled away to the nearest bar by a newspaper reported called Tim Leuty.

On May 11th, Ruth was arraigned at the Central Criminal Court before Mr. Justice Barrie. After considering the evidence and police reports, he remanded her for trial at the next session.

On Monday, June 20th, 1955, Ruth appeared in the Number One Court at the Old Bailey in London before Mr. Justice Havers, resplendent in scarlet robes and a white wig. For the prosecution, the Crown led with the uncommonly named Mr. Christmas Humphrey, aided by two other lawyers. Three lawyers defended Ruth -- Melford Stevenson QC leading, along with Sebag Shaw and Peter Rawlinson.

Ruth was dressed in a smart, well-cut black suit trimmed with astrakhan collar and cuffs, over a white silk blouse. Her hair was freshly bleached and coiffured, her face, pale but composed. Her lawyers had tried to get her to play down her appearance, but Ruth was determined to have her moment of stardom. To many in the courthouse, probably including the jury, she came across as a hard-faced tart. The defence had desperately wanted a very different impression to be created: a bewildered, emotionally crippled victim.

The trial would last a mere day and a half; the evidence against Ruth was so overwhelming. She had a gun; she shot her lover dead in cold blood. End of story.

Mr. Humphreys asked Ruth, "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 is obvious that when I shot him, I intended to kill him."

The jury retired at 11.52 a.m. on the second day. They returned to the court within only twenty-three minutes. It appears that most of the jury members spent most of their time visiting the rest rooms.  They came back with a verdict of guilty. They really had no other option. Although her lawyers had tried to create a novel defence, that Ruth was so overwhelmed by her jealousy that she was incapable of forming a premeditated intention to murder, the judge had ruled against this. He briefed the jury thoroughly on the differences between murder and manslaughter. It all hinged quite simply on whether or not Ruth fired deliberately into David Blakelys body. The jury decided she did.

As Ruth heard the verdict, she simply said, "Thanks," accepting the sentence as conventionally as the foreman of the jury had given it.

Mr. Justice Havers handed down the only sentence he could, committing Ruth to "a lawful prison, and thence to a place of execution, and that there you be hanged by the neck until you be dead."

Ruth smiled faintly at her family -- mother, father, brother Granville and sister Muriel -- who were weeping quietly at the back of the court building and then she walked briskly, high heels clicking, down the stairs to the cells.

Ruth was remanded to Holloway Prison to await her sentence. She had twenty-four days to live. It seemed obvious to the people who visited her and spoke with her in prison before her death, that she was shielding someone, but she would say nothing. There were many attempts to get her a reprieve. Member of Parliament, George Rogers, persuaded her to let him ask for clemency on her behalf. His description of Ruth in prison, awaiting her execution, cuts through to the tragic core of the sad and sorry story:

"Here she was, facing death, and this had stripped her of all her feminine vanity and behaviour. She was dressed in a grey dress, with her brassy, yellow hair, done up into a ponytail. She was rather thin and very pale. A rather fragile sort of person, her eyes were rather shallow, not much depth." He remembered that she had a powder compact that, when opened, played La vie en rose.

Fifty thousand signatures on a petition for mercy were sent to the Home Office. But quite possibly Ruth was ill-served by all the furore and publicity that her case created; for this may well have persuaded the Home Secretary that if he spared her, he would seem to be giving in to pressure and to be betraying the principal of capital punishment -- a principle to which his government was firmly committed. One of Britains leading newspaper columnists William Connor, writing under his pen name Cassandra, argued forcibly for clemency. On June 30th, he wrote:

"Its a fine day for hay-making. A fine day for fishing. A fine day for lolling around in the sunshine. And if you feel that way -- a fine day for a hanging...In human nature where passion is involved, love and hate walk hand in hand and side be side...Ruth Ellis does not matterBut what we do to her -- you and I -- matters very much. And if we do it, and we continue to do it to her successors, then we all bear the guilt of savagery, untinged with mercy."

Mrs Gladys Yule
Mrs Gladys Yule

However, the anti-abolitionists had an eloquent witness in Mrs. Gladys Kensington Yule, the bankers wife who was shot in the hand by one of Ruths stray bullets, while walking to the Magdala for a quiet Sunday drink. She wrote in the London Evening Standard, "Dont let us turn Ruth Ellis into a national heroine. I stood petrified and watched her kill David Blakely in cold blooddo these people realise Ruth Ellis shot Blakely to the danger of the publicshe might easily have killed me, an innocent passer-by, a complete stranger. let us remain a law-abiding country where citizens can live and walk about in peace and safety."

Mrs. Yule was a strong and dynamic radical for capital punishment; her near brush with death outside the Magdala encouraged her to actively fight any movement to reprieve Ruth and in this she was extremely successful.

On July 11th, Ruth received the news that the British Home Secretary, Major Gwilym Lloyd George, had ruled against a reprieve. It was always Ruths fate throughout her life that men who cared less for her, than themselves, or their own timetables, controlled her destiny. Her death would be no exception. The British public had gone to a general election on May 26th. Had the ruling Conservative party been defeated, it was forecast that a Labour Home Secretary would have undoubtedly commuted her sentence to life imprisonment, which usually meant a maximum of twelve years. It was not to be. 

On the last morning of her life, Ruth was up early, about 6.30 am. She wrote letters of farewell, including one to Leon Simmons, the solicitors clerk who had represented her in her divorce proceedings. She had in fact made an appointment to see him on the Tuesday after Easter to discuss matters relating to her daughter Georginas welfare.  He was the only one among all the lawyers who attended her that she really trusted. He, in turn, became so distressed by her case that it destroyed his faith in the British judicial system and he never practised law again.

Ruth wrote,

"Dear Mr Simmons,

The time is seven oclock am -- everyone is simply wonderful in Holloway. This is just for you to console my family with the thought that I did not change my way of thinking at the last moment. Or break my promise to Davids mother (in a previous letter to Mrs Cook, Ruth had confirmed her acceptance of an eye-for-an-eye, and was resigned to die so that his death could be repaid in some way). Well Mr Simmons, I have told the truth, and thats all I can do. Thanks once again,

Goodbye,

Ruth."

Outside Holloway Prison, hundreds of people had gathered, many of them supporters of Mrs Van Der Elst, a staunch abolitionist, who had protested outside British prisons on execution days for over twenty years. In Hemel Hempstead, north of London, at Granvilles house, Ruths mother prayed in a bedroom, as her husband Arthur played softly on his cello. Elizabeth, the youngest of the family, quietly sobbed her heart out as Muriel ran from room to room, crying, "No! No! No!" Andy was staying with Mr. George Rogers; he believed his mother had gone to Italy to model swimwear.

Among the crowd outside the prison, Ruths oldest brother, Julian, was standing, listening as a street musician played Bachs Be though with me when I die. Inside, Ruth was preparing for the last moments of her life. She was given a large tot of brandy and then knelt in prayer before a crucifix on the cell wall, as the prison chaplain served her with communion.

Albert Pierrepoint (Hilton Deutsch Collection Ltd.)
Albert Pierrepoint
(Hilton Deutsch Collection
Ltd.)

Thirty seconds before 9am on Wednesday July 13th, the official hangman, Albert Pierrepoint, entered the condemned cell. Quickly and without fuss, he escorted Ruth out of her room and next door to the execution room. Here, she may well have noticed the Maltese Cross on the wall, placed there at the request of Mrs. Styllou Christofi, who had been hanged here on December 13th, 1954.

Pierrepoint was an expert in his trade, having hung more than four hundred men and women over a 25-year period. Ruth, her wrists strapped behind her back and her ankles shackled, was placed over the gallows trapdoor. The hangman then placed a white hood over her head, securing the hood with a noose. He tightened the rope around her neck, adjusting the ropes suspension point about one inch in front of her lower left jaw. He pulled a lever, the doors opened with a bang, and in less than ten seconds after entering the execution chamber, Ruth Ellis was dead.

An hour after her body was removed from the pit under the gallows, an autopsy was carried out. The next day, after an inquest, chaired by H. Milner-Helme, the coroner for the City of London, Doris L. Stanley officially registered her death, Register in the Registration District of Islington, sub-district of Tufnell. All the is were dotted and the ts crossed according to the bureaucracy of the system of retribution. 

She was buried within the grounds of the prison. Many years later, when Holloway was demolished, her 26-year-old son, Andy, received permission to have her remains removed and re-buried at St. Marys Parish Church in Amersham, a village in the Chiltern Hills in Buckinghamshire. To preserve her anonymity, she now rests under a simple headstone bearing the name "Ruth Hornby." Four miles to the south, David Blakely lies buried in the grounds of a church at Penn. The peace and contentment they never found in life will be with them for eternity, as they lie so close together in the tranquility of these two English burial grounds.

Graveyard of Ruth Ellis
Graveyard of Ruth Ellis

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