Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

RUTH ELLIS: THE LAST TO HANG

Conundrum

Life being what it is, we dream of revenge.

Paul Gaugin.

There were too many loose ends. 

.38 Smith & Wesson revolver (Scotland Yard Black Museum)
.38 Smith & Wesson
revolver
(Scotland Yard Black
Museum)

Where did the gun come from? How could she use it with such lethal effect? How did Ruth get to Hampstead that fateful night? What was her emotional and mental state when she fired the deadly shots into David Blakely? Did her lawyers do everything to save her?  Why did she not give thought to what would happen to Andy? Was Ruth really trying to attain what in America is called "consensual execution," a form of institutional suicide?

Ruth had told the police that she had acquired the revolver three years earlier in payment for a drinking debt at the club. Some sources claim it came from an American soldier. The gun itself probably found its way into England during the war -- the bullets had been manufactured in 1941.  Yet none of Ruths friends could recall her with the weapon, particularly her best friend Jacqueline Dryer. She had helped Ruth move a number of times, including the shift from the flat above the Little Club to Goodwood Court. She would certainly have noticed something as foreign an object as a revolver as she helped Ruth pack her belongings.

Andy later said that he had seen Cussen oil and clean the gun and give it to Ruth when he was with his mother that Sunday afternoon they had visited Desmond at Goodwood Court. For some reason, the police failed to follow up on this, and another lead.

In January, Ruth had started to take French lessons, coached by a senior teacher from the French Institute, Madame Mare-Therese Harris. Ruth had wanted to surprise David with her linguistic skills, when she accompanied him to the Le Mans 24-hour race in June. On one of her visits to Goodwood Court, (Desmond Cussen was of course paying the bill,) the tutor had seen Andy open a drawer of a writing desk to reveal two handguns. When the police investigated her report on this, Cussen had showed them an air-pistol and a starting-gun that fired only blanks. Although the police showed these to Madame Harris, which she did not identify, incredibly they did not allow her to see the murder weapon. Equally incredibly, the police did not interview Andy.

How was Ruth able to fire four, possibly five shots into her target? Even at a distance of a few feet, handguns are notoriously unreliable. Here, was a small, frail, emotionally distraught woman, wielding a heavy, cumbersome, double-action revolver that needed to be cocked each time it was discharged. The recoil alone would have been enough to throw her aim off target. Remember Carole Findlaters description at their first meeting,". small wrists, small ankles, almost shrimp like." Ruths hands were tiny, and they had to contain a large, cumbersome, bucking weapon, recoiling each time she pulled the trigger.

She must have had prior shooting experience. Two different sources claim that Desmond Cussen had taken her for target practice and shown her how to use the gun: once to a wood near Gerrards Cross, and once into Epping Forrest. In fact Cussen had himself admitted to John Bickford, Ruths solicitor at her trial, that he had driven her to a wood and shown her how to fire the gun into a tree.

Ruth had insisted that she had taken a taxi to Hampstead the night of the shooting. The police never followed this lead up either. The trip from Knightsbridge to Hampstead is over ten miles and on a quiet Easter Sunday, a cab driver would surely have remembered someone as distinctive and as disturbed as Ruth obviously was that night.

Duncan Webb, the famous English journalist, claimed in an article in the People that Ruth had made a pact with the man who supplied the gun and the transportation to Hampstead, not to reveal his name, provided he safeguarded the future of her son.

In fact, Ruth made a last minute statement, signed and dated 12.30pm, on the afternoon of July 12th, implicating Desmond Cussen. Ruths lawyers started a feverish attempt to get a delay on the execution based on this fresh evidence, but it was to no avail. Cussen could not be tracked down for further questioning and both the police and Home Office dropped the search. 

The night that she shot Blakely, Ruth Ellis was undoubtedly in a highly unstable condition. It is obvious that she was temporarily insane with jealousy and humiliation, and the effects of alcohol destroyed her sense of responsibility. In the months leading up to that Easter week-end, she was clearly an alcoholic and even a few drinks would have induced her into a sense of self-righteous belief that she was unquestionably right in what she was doing.

Melford Stevenson QC, her leading lawyer at the trial, summed up all the agony and conflict in her tortured relationship with David. Addressing the jury, he said,

"The fact stands out like a beacon that this young man became an absolute necessity to this young woman. However brutally he behaved, and however much he spent of her money on various entertainments of his own, and however much he consorted with other people, he ultimately came back to her, and always she forgave him. She found herself in something like an emotional prison guarded by this young man, from which there seemed to be no escape."

Ruths execution made news around the world. One Paris newspaper remarked editorially, that it symbolised "a pitiless legal system which, alone in the world, refuses to recognise the human sentiments of life." In America, there was unanimous agreement that Ruth should not have hung. In Australia, a newspaper in Melbourne carried an article "Hanging shames Britain in the eyes of the civilised world." The Aftonbladget in Sweden thundered: "The continuance of the death sentence in England is a burden for Englands good name in the world."

On Sunday July 17th, the London Observer in its leader said, "Consider the task of explaining to the late Ruth Ellis ten-year old son what has happened. This boy, who is fatherless, has had something done to him that is so brutal it is difficult to imagine. We should realise that it is we who have done it."

The concept of the crime passionnel seems foreign to the British, foreign newspapers observed. One French reporter wrote: "Passion in England, except for cricket and betting, is always regarded as a shameful disease."

With the execution, the story was now told.

To paraphrase the famous quotation from Winstone Churchill, when he was trying to describe Russia, the relationship between Ruth Ellis, David Blakely and Desmond Cussen was "A riddle, wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma."

Then again, perhaps it was just a simple love story gone wrong.

In 1933, another lonely, disturbed and emotionally damaged woman died. She committed suicide and left the man who deserted her, a final message. She was an American poet called Sarah Teasdale, and this is what she wrote:

When I am dead, and over me bright April
Shakes out her rain drenched hair,
Tho you should lean above me broken- hearted,
I shall not care.
I shall have peace as leafy trees are peaceful
When rain bends down the bough.
And I shall be more silent and cold- hearted
Than you are now
.

I wonder at times, maybe Ruth would have liked that as an epitaph.

 

 

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