*Trigger warning for mentions of domestic violence.
“Six revolver shots shattered the Easter Sunday calm of Hampstead and a beautiful platinum blonde stood with her back to the wall. In her hand was a revolver…” -The Daily Mail.
This is how the Daily Mail reported the murder of David Blakely by his lover Ruth Ellis on Easter Sunday 1955. For her crime, Ruth was hung on July 31st, 1955. Her case captured the attention of the country and continues to fascinate today. But, who was Ruth Ellis? What drove her to kill the man she loved? And, why did she not do more to help her defence? Those are the questions this post is going to explore.
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Ruth was born on the 9th of October, 1926, in Rhyl, Wales. She was one of six children born to Elisaberta Goethals, a First World War refugee from Belgium, and Arthur Hornby, a cellist, who earned a good living playing in cinemas at a time of silent movies. When Ruth was seven, the family moved to Basingstoke, where she attended Fairfields Senior Girls’ school. In 1941, the family moved to London, and three years later, Ruth, now aged seventeen fell in love with a Canadian soldier and fell pregnant, giving birth to a son named; Clare Andrea Neilson, known as Andre. After the war, the soldier returned to Canada and after a year stopped sending money, and Ruth sent her son to her mother.
After school Ruth had multiple jobs including; waitress, factory worker, photographer’s assistant, and nude model. Ruth adopted a ‘clipped London accent’ which helped her get a job as a nightclub hostess, for which she was paid well. There have been some accounts that suggest she also worked as a prostitute, however, there is no definitive proof either way, but in 1950 Ruth became pregnant and chose to have an abortion which was dangerous and illegal at the time.
In 1950, Ruth met dental surgeon, George Johnson Ellis, at the Court Club where she was working as a hostess. Despite being older than Ruth and having already been divorced, the two began a relationship and were married at Tonbridge Registry office, on November 8th 1950. Their relationship was not a happy one. George was an alcoholic who was jealous and often violent, Ruth left him several times but always returned. In 1951, she became pregnant and gave birth to a daughter, Georgina, however, the two separated soon after and later divorced. Ruth left her daughter with George, whilst she and Andre moved in with her mother and she returned to nightclub work to support her family.
In 1953, Ruth became the manager of the Little Club, in Knightsbridge a popular venue with the motor racing crowd and it was there that she met David Drummond Moffat Blakely. David was a 25 years old ex-public schoolboy who was trying to build a motor racing career. Despite David being engaged to another woman, the two were soon living together in Ruth’s flat above the club. Their relationship was fraught and often violent, pictures of the two together showed bruises on Ruth’s arms, and Ruth herself said that David had caused her to miscarry by hitting her in the stomach. David never introduced Ruth to his family, and his friends would make Ruth aware that they believed she was not good enough for David. When Ruth fell pregnant, she chose to have an abortion.
As well as seeing David, Ruth began a relationship with Desmond Cussen, who was four years her senior. Desmond had been an RAF pilot based in South Africa during WW2. Upon leaving the service in 1964, he was appointed director of his family business Cussen & Co. a wholesale and retail tobacconists with outlets in London and South Wales. When Ruth left (some suggest she was fired) her job at the Little Club she and Andre stayed with Desmond. Reports of the time said, Desmond was in love with Ruth and would have done anything for her.
Despite her relationship with Desmond, Ruth continued to see David. Their relationship became increasingly bitter and violent with jealousy on both sides. During an altercation in January, 1955, David allegedly punched Ruth in the stomach causing her to miscarry. Around the same time police were called by David to Desmond’s house where he reported Ruth had tried to stab him. The police took no action. This shows that the two men knew about each other.
Things came to a tragic head on Easter Sunday, 10th April, 1955.
David had gone to Hampstead to stay with his friends, the Findlaters with whom he was building a race car. Despite Ruth making several phone calls David refused to speak to her. On the Saturday, Ruth had Desmond drive her to Hampstead, but they were unable to find David so returned to London. The following day, Ruth returned to Hampstead. There are differing accounts of how she got there, Ruth initially said she took a taxi, but later it was reported that Desmond drove her back to Hampstead. This time Ruth was armed with a 38 calibre Smith and Wesson revolver. She waited for David outside the Magdala public house in South Hill Park. David and his friend, exited the pub at around 9:30 PM and made their way towards their car. Ruth called out to David, but he ignored her. Ruth fired two shots from where she stood, then once David was on the ground she stood over him and emptied the remaining four bullets into him, with at least one bullet being fired at point blank range, leaving powder burns on his skin. One bullet ricocheted and injured a Mrs. Gladys Yule in the thumb.
With the gun still in her hand, she was arrested at the scene by Alan Thompson, an off duty policeman and taken to Hampstead police station where she calmly gave Detective Inspector Lindsay Davis a three page confession. In her confession Ruth said the gun had been given to her by a customer when she worked in the club and she had kept it for three years as a ‘curiosity’. During her interview Ruth did not mention that David had been violent. DCI Davis, came to the conclusion that David was a ‘step up’ for Ruth and when he began to slip away she murdered him in cold blood. She was charged with murder and the following morning appeared at Hampstead Magistrates Court and was remanded to Holloway Prison, where she was held under 24 hour observation.
Whilst at Holloway, Ruth was interviewed again and recounted the details of the shooting. She was twice examined by Dr. Mervyn Ralph Penry Williams, the Principal Medical Officer who found no evidence Ruth was suffering from any mental illness. On the 3rd of May, Ruth underwent an electro-encephalograph examination, which measures the electrical impulses in the brain to identify any disease which could impact a person’s behaviour, this also failed to find any evidence of mental illness. As required by the Trial of Lunatics Act of 1883, Ruth had to be proven sane, and was examined by Dr. D. Whittaker, a psychiatrist for the defence, on June the 4th and by Dr. A. Dalzell on behalf of the Home Office, on the 9th of June. Neither found evidence of insanity or evidence of delusions, hallucinations or other forms of mental illness and was therefore sane and ready for trial. Their reports did mention the violence Ruth suffered at David’s hands, the miscarriage and a bout of temporary deafness caused by David hitting her in the head.
When Desmond was questioned by the police he claimed that he had spent Saturday with Ruth and Andre, but not seen Ruth on the Sunday. Andre, who had been with his mother that weekend, was never interviewed by the police. Desmond later gave a different account to Ruth’s solicitor Mr. Aubrey Melford Stevenson. To Stevenson he said that he had given Ruth the gun, and that he had cleaned and loaded it and taken her into the woods to practice firing it. Andre, later confirmed to relatives that they had fired a gun in the woods and that his mother was not a very good shot. Further support that the gun was Desmond’s was that the gun was part of a consignment of 2000 sent to troops based in South Africa at the same time as Desmond. The defence chose not to use his stamens and did not call Desmond as a witness, perhaps to try and make the murder look less premeditated. He was a witness for the prosecution and did nothing to help Ruth’s case, he spoke about her abortions, drinking and their relationship, all of which was against the morals of the time. The defence did not cross examine him.
Ruth’s trial opened on Monday, 20th of June 1955 in the Old Bailey’s No. 1 Court, with Mr Justice Havers presiding. The prosecution was led by Mr. Christmas Humphries, assisted by Mervyn Griffith Jones and Miss Jean Southworth, whilst the defence was led by Mr. Aubrey Melford Stevenson, assisted by Mr. Sebag Shaw and Mr. Peter Rawlinson. Ruth was dressed in a smart black two piece suit and white blouse. Holloway’s governor, Dr. Charity Taylor, had given permission for Ruth’s hair to be re-dyed to her preferred platinum blonde, this worried her defence council as it didn’t fit with the image of a ‘downtrodden woman’, perhaps they were right to worry as someone from the public gallery called her a ‘blonde tart’. Ruth pled not guilty, Richard Clark suggests her reason for doing so was, “…so that her side of the story could be told, rather than in any hope of acquittal. She particularly wanted to disclose the involvement of the Findlaters in what she saw as a conspiracy to keep David away from her.”
Throughout the trial and even during her testimony Ruth was described as “…calm and resigned…” In her testimony, Ruth spoke about the violence in their relationship, but downplayed the severity. “He (David) only hit me with his fist or hands, “I bruise easily.” And described her recent miscarriage: “A few weeks or days previously, I do not know which, David got very violent. I do not know whether that caused the miscarriage or not. He thumped me in the tummy.” This likely gained her some sympathy with those in the galley and more importantly those on the jury, however, this evaporated prosecuting counsel, Mr. Christmas Humphreys asked her, “Mrs. Ellis, when you fired that revolver at close range into the body of David Blakely what did you intend to do?” And she replied, “It was obvious that when I shot him I intended to kill him.” With this statement Ruth not only admitted to the killing but also her intent to kill. As such, Mr Justice Havers instructed the jury they could not consider a verdict of manslaughter, guaranteeing she would be found guilty.
It took the jury just 23 minutes to return a guilty verdict, leaving Mr. Justice Havers had no alternative but to sentence her to death, Ruth remained silent and impassive as he sentenced her to be returned to Holloway to await her execution by hanging. To which she replied, “Thank you” before smiling at her friends in the public gallery and calmly walked from the courtroom. She was returned to Holloway and placed in the Condemned Suite where she was guarded around the clock by female warders.
As with all condemned prisoners Ruth was allowed visitors, she was visited by Joost de Blank, the Bishop of Stepney, as well as her friends and family. Ruth told her mother she did not want a petition to reprieve her death sentence and took no part in the campaign. Whilst Ruth may have been resigned to her fate, her family and members of the public continued to try and save her. Petitions with several thousand signatures were sent to the Home Office, however, the Home Secretary, Major Gwilym Lloyd George, did not grant Ruth a reprieve. Ruth was told of his decision by Governor Dr. Taylor on the 11th of July, she reportedly received the news in a calm manner. The only account of Ruth being emotional was when Labour MP, George Rogers, who had taken up the case at the behest of Jacqueline Dyer a friend of Ruth’s, persuaded her into seeking clemency. Dr. Charity Taylor, recalled, “I have never seen Ruth Ellis so distressed, and the officers reported that for the first time she had cried. She told me she supposed it was too late to change her mind as he was going to the Home Secretary in the morning.” Adding, “I (Taylor) did not ask her, but I formed the strong impression she did not wish Mr. Rogers to pursue the subject of a reprieve.”
When Ruth requested a meeting with Leon Simmons, who had represented her in her divorce from George, there was one last attempt to save her. Ruth’s trial solicitor, John Bickford, asked them to find out from Ruth where she got the gun. Simmons and Victor Mishcon visited Ruth in her cell at 11.15 AM on Tuesday morning. In his account of their meeting, Victor Mishcon recalled that Ruth was calm and greeted him saying, “How kind of you to come. I wanted Mr. Simmons to know certain facts which I think may have some bearing on my will.” Mishcon asked her about the gun and she told him that, “I am now completely composed. I know that I am going to die, and I’m ready to do so. You won’t hear anything from me that says I didn’t kill David. I did kill him. And whatever the circumstances you as a lawyer will appreciate that it’s a life for a life. Isn’t that just?” On the promise he would not use the information to try and save her, Ruth told him that she had spent the weekend drinking with Desmond and told him that if she had a gun she would shoot David. He told her that he did indeed have a gun and showed her how to use it. This matched the statement Desmond had given. Having made a written account of their meeting, Mishcon, got Ruth to grudgingly allow him to take it to the Home Office.
The police checked Ruth’s statement but it did nothing to help Ruth, as it showed evidence of planning and her intent to murder David. However, when her statement appeared in the evening papers the public support for a reprieve increased.
Ruth’s father, Arthur Neilson, wrote to the Home Secretary, pleading for a reprieve for his daughter;
“I respectfully beg of you to use your great influence to spare my poor daughter’s life. This terrible tragedy has been a terrible shock to me. I was injured in the Blitz of May 10th 1941. I received a blow on the head which paralysed me down the left side of my body and Sir you will understand my nerves have gone to pieces under the strain. My daughter I would have thought to be the last person to become involved in such a crime as a child. She was shy and reserved and never gave me any cause for anxiety and later on she was a devoted mother to her two children. I blame the whole sequence of events to the fact of such an unhappy experience of three bad men, the details of which you will know. I ask you as a distraught father to show her mercy.Yours respectfully . . .”
There was to be no reprieve, and Ruth spent Tuesday afternoon meeting with her parents and brother. As they were leaving the prison at around 5.15 PM, her brother, Granville, told waiting reporters that “(Ruth) seemed absolutely calm and unafraid of what was going to happen to her.” After her family left, Ruth did a crossword and wrote farewell letters including one to Leon Simmons, in which she wrote, “I did not defend myself. I say a life for a life.” And another to David’s mother, in which she apologised for killing him and wrote, “I have always loved your son, and I shall die still loving him.”
That evening, the Governor had to call for police reinforcements because a crowd of over 500 had gathered outside the prison’s gates singing and chanting in support for Ruth, some managed to break through the police cordon and began to bang on the prison gates, calling for Ruth to pray with them.
Whilst outside crowds gathered, inside preparations for Ruth’s execution were underway; Ruth was weighed, and the correct drop was set, a sandbag weighing the same as Ruth was tied to the rope and left overnight to remove any stretch. At around 7 AM on the morning of the execution the trap was reset and a cross placed in the execution room at Ruth’s request. In her cell, Ruth was dressed in canvas pants, and just before 9AM she was given a glass of brandy to ‘settle her nerves’. At around 8.55 AM, a telephone call was received at Holloway from a Miss or Mrs. Holmes claimed to be the private secretary to the Home Secretary, and said that a stay of execution was on its way. When Dr. Taylor, telephoned the Home Office to confirm he discovered that the call was a hoax and after consulting with Mr. Gedge, the Under Sheriff of London, decided to proceed with the execution. This caused the execution to be delayed for around 1 minute. James Clark describes how the last minute of Ruth’s life would have unfolded:
“Albert Pierrepoint entered her cell, pinioned her hands behind her back with his special soft calf leather strap and led her the 15 feet to the gallows, accompanied by a male warder from Pentonville holding her elbows on either side….When she reached the trap, a white cotton hood was drawn over her head and the noose adjusted round her neck. His assistant, Royston Rickard, pinioned her legs with a leather strap 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 she now plummeted. The whole process would have occupied no more than 12 or 15 seconds…”
Ruth’s body would have been examined by the prison doctor, Dr Ralph Penry Williams, before the execution room was locked and Ruth’s body was left to hang for the regulation one hour. As required by the law, a female governor or deputy governor was required to be present at the execution of a female prisoner, in Ruth’s case that was Dr. Charity Taylor. Ruth’s body was taken down at 10 AM and formally identified by her brother later that morning, a scarf was placed around her neck to hide the rope burns. An autopsy was performed by, Dr. Keith Simpson, it showed that Ruth died virtually instantaneously, and gave her cause of Death as “Injuries to the central nervous system consequent upon judicial hanging.” She was buried within Holloway prison but later disinterred and reburied in the churchyard of St Mary’s Church in Amersham Buckinghamshire when Holloway was rebuilt in the 1970’s.
Ruth was survived by her parents, siblings, ex-husband and two children, 10 year old Andre and three year old Georgina. In 1958, George Ellis committed suicide. In 1969 Ellis’s mother, Berta Neilson, was found unconscious in a gas filled room in her flat, she would never fully recover. In 1982, Andre desecrated his mother’s grave and then took his own life. Georgina, who was fostered after her father’s death, died of cancer aged 50.
The public interest in Ruth’s case has not dissipated overtime, in 2003 it was referred back to the Court of Appeal by the Criminal Cases Review Commission. They firmly rejected the appeal, although it made clear that it could rule only on the conviction based on the law as it stood in 1955, and not on whether she should have been executed. In July 2007 a petition was published asking the Prime Minister Gordon Brown to grant Ruth a pardon in the light of new evidence that the jury in 1955 was not asked to consider. It expired on 4 July 2008.
Ruth had many qualities that captured the public’s imagination; she was young and attractive, had two small children, and her victim was not sympathetic and as Clark writes, “She also behaved with great courage at all times, which no doubt, earned her considerable respect.” That Ruth never received a reprieve is still questioned today, at the time others, both men and women whose crimes were similar to that which Ruth committed had been reprieved. In fact 90% of the 145 women sentenced to death in the 20th century were reprieved. James Clark suggests there were three factors that went against Ruth, preventing her from being granted a reprieve; “1) She used a gun to kill David and in doing so 2) injured an innocent passer-by in the street. Where a murder was committed using a firearm or poison there was an un-written rule at the Home Office that the killer must hang. 3) Ruth had, by the standards of the day, very dubious sexual morals.” Furthermore, Ruth did little to save herself, leading some to suggest that she saw her execution as a way of being reunited with David. There is suggestion that she intended to shoot herself immediately after shooting David, but in the heat of the moment, either did not count the shots or lost her nerve and thus, saw her execution as “… a form of state-assisted suicide”
It is easy to see why Ruth’s case still captures our interest, and why her execution is so divisive. Ruth’s guilt isn’t in question, she took the gun and shot David dead and for that she should have been punished. It‘s what drove her to that action that makes her execution seem brutal. Ruth had been physically abused not only by David but by her first husband, George and as we now know years of abuse take a toll on a person’s mental health. Was Ruth suffering from Battered Woman’s Syndrome or PTSD? We’ll never know because mental health exams did not look for those in the 1950s. Why did Ruth, who had two young children not fight to save herself from execution? Others in her position who had reprieve only served 10-20 years, Ruth could have had a chance at a life. Was this further proof of an underlying mental illness? And what of Desmond’s role? Both Desmond and Ruth said he gave her the gun and showed her how to use it, and drove her to look for David on the Saturday and possibly on the Sunday. Would she have killed David had Desmond not given her a gun? Did he encourage her anger in his jealousy of David? He certainly didn’t help Ruth at her trial. So many questions still remain, and sadly they will never be answered.