Ruth Ellis - hanged for murdering her lover
Life in London in the 1950s was very different to today. Certainly, the war had ended in 1945, but London still showed scars from the Blitz - the immensely powerful bombing attacks from the German Luftwaffe. The economy was still poor and some foods were still rationed.
People had to make a living and survive as best they could and Ruth Ellis was a typical example.She had been born in a small, sleepy seaside town in Wales and then her family had moved to the almost as sleepy Basingstoke in Hampshire.
By the time the war ended she was twenty years old. She took various menial jobs but by now lived in London - where the opportunities for attractive young women were many; if not exactly respectable.She had an eventful - and tempestuous - life until she was hanged in 1955 for shooting her racing driver lover, David Blakely.
She was twenty-eight when she died.Her story has always resonated with me because she was just an ordinary girl, wrapped up in her love life.
London in the 1950s - This is the London that she knew.Click thumbnail to view full-size
The life of a nightclub hostess
Ruth had left school when she was only fourteen years old. She worked initially as a waitress and then in various office jobs. When she moved to London, her blonde good looks helped her to get work as a nightclub hostess (via a more dubious 'profession'.)
By the time she became the manager of the club, she had already been married twice and had given birth to two children.Now, as the manager of a London nightclub, she was getting to know various people and one of these was David Blakely. David was three years younger than her and was well-educated, well-spoken and good looking. What's more, he was a racing driver giving him the extra appeal of a daredevil adventurer.
Soon, the two were living together but before long, their relationship became tempestuous.She started seeing another man. Desmond Cussen was a few years older than Ruth but also had a daredevil streak that appealed to her - he had been a fighter pilot in the recent war. Soon, she had left David and was living with Cussen but she couldn't let go of her former relationship.
Neither could David and their relationship continued, despite them both being involved with other people.David wanted to marry Ruth but she wouldn't accept him, partly due to his violent temper.
In April 1955, she went looking for David and found his car parked outside a London pub. She waited until David and a friend of his, Clive, appeared. He ignored her when she greeted him. She called his name but he continued to ignore her. She fumbled in her handbag and drew out a gun.Ruth Ellis fired a shot at David Blakely.
The first shot she fired missed and David started to run and she fired until the gun was empty. She turned to his companion, Clive, and calmly asked him to call the police. An off-duty policeman who had been drinking in the pub heard the gunshots and rushed out and arrested her at once. Ruth Ellis made a full confession.
Arrested and tried for murder
David Blakely did not survive the gunshot wounds and Ruth Ellis was charged with his murder. When she appeared in court, her legal representation had advised her to play down her appearance, suggesting that she might adopt a more demure look, but she took no notice.
The jury saw an attractive blonde with newly-done, bleached hair and her usual makeup.When the jury retired, they quickly returned the verdict of 'guilty'.She was sentenced to death by hanging.The population were already questioning the death penalty in Britain and the possibility of this attractive young woman being hanged for what was seen as a crime of passion inflamed public opinion even further.Ruth Ellis was the last woman to be hanged in Britain - on 13th July, 1955.
She was twenty eight.
This book looks back in detail at the case from the perspective of today. It explains how the trial took place in an astonishingly short period of time and suggests that today, the verdict may have been manslaughter.
It also makes the point that the 'establishment', the staid judges , experts and lawyers, were more than likely prejudiced against her because of her less-than-demure appearance and demeanor.
It was too late for 'the murderess' but after the hanging, many questions were asked. For a start, where did she get the gun she used to kill David? A close friend, who had spent a great deal of time with her in her home, was certain that Ruth didn't own such a weapon.
Ruth's own son claimed that he had seen Cussen give her the gun on the afternoon of the shooting. Another witness claimed to have seen two guns in Cussen's home.She was a tiny woman who weighed just over a hundred pounds and not much over five feet tall.
People speculated how she, with her delicate wrists and hands, could have had so much accuracy with a heavy handgun. Some said that Cussen must have taught her how to shoot. Cussen later revealed that he had. People wondered why.
Certainly, life in London nightclubs in those days wasn't exactly law-abiding but was there really a need for her to learn to shoot?She had always maintained that it was a taxi that took her to find David that fateful night, although no taxi driver could be found who had had this striking and attractive woman as his fare. Considering the publicity the case received, this in itself was seen as strange. Everyone thought that a cab driver would eventually come forward but it never happened...
At the last minute she had made a statement implicating Cussens in the death of David Blakely. He was nowhere to be found to be questioned.Less than two years after Ruth died, the law was changed. Under the new law, she would not have been hanged for her crime of passion.
The case brought the situation about capital punishment to the forefront of the public's mind. This crime was what the French legal system would call a crime passionnel - in other words, not a premeditation crime but one that was brought about by jealousy or anger; usually directed at a spouse, lover or partner. In France, and other countries, this is of course an offence but sentences can be much lighter. This is because of the belief that the perpetrator would not have committed that crime without the passionnel factor. In most cases, these are not violent people and acted in the heat of the moment. This leads courts to believe that they are not a danger to the public.So why was she hanged? There is a wealth of information that will help you find out more.
Who knew Ruth better than her own family? The newspapers - naturally - printed their versions and these were passed down into history as fact.
But were they? Ruth will always be remembered as the last woman to hang - see the memories of people who knew her too.
Video - crowds await the execution
Do watch this video because of the questions it asks. Not just the questions you would expect such as 'is it right that the law can legally take a life?' But the final question of 'should women be exempt?' From a twenty-first century perspective, that seems as archaic as hanging itself. See too the trailer for the film.
As a book about Ruth, you'd imagine that this one - written by her daughter - would be accurate. However, it has to be remembered that Georgie Ellis was only three when her mother was hanged.
Nevertheless, this is a fascinating book and is an intriguing read for anyone who would like to know more about Ruth's curious life.
Dance with a Stranger
Ruth's story was made into a feature film. You can see a clip below. Note that the last few seconds shows the shooting.
Scroll down and you'll see that the movie is available at Amazon. I highly recommend it- see how atmospheric it is in the clip.
This is a fabulous film and a great way to learn about the life of Ruth Ellis. It stars top actors and is beautifully filmed.
It's hard for us today to imagine what life was like in post-war London - this film shows beautifully what life was like in those days.
All photographs courtesy of Wikipedia Commons. Please note that the photograph alongside the paragraph entitled 'Arrested and tried for murder' is not Ruth Ellis but is authentic to the period and was added only to add atmosphere to the piece.
© 2013 Jackie Jackson