Bold as Brass
A short life, and a gay one.
—Ruth Ellis, personal motto
Capital punishment has been a hot-button issue for many decades.
There are those who subscribe to the biblical concepts of vengeance, justifying putting a murderer to death as punishment for crimes committed in life. Others believe all life is sacred, even that of a convicted murderer, and capital punishment constitutes a moral and human rights outrage.
Regardless of stance the issue remains a controversial one, but no more controversial than it was in the summer of 1955 in Great Britain. Pending execution was a slightly-built, brassy, brash bleach-blonde named Ruth Neilson Ellis. The crime for which she was sentenced to death was a pedestrian one: she fatally shot her boyfriend.
Ruth admitted to the killing, admitted it was intended, and she made no moves to defend herself or to appeal her conviction. The public outcry, though, grew daily against hanging her. Greater numbers came to sympathize with the promiscuous party girl. If it weren’t for one thing, though, no one would have lifted a finger in protest about Ruth Ellis’ pending execution. And were it not for that one thing her case would have been deservedly forgotten. Instead, she ranks in the pantheon of “classic” criminals.
While Ruth Ellis was the last woman executed in Britain (a dubious honor, but definitely worth a footnote in history) the general populace could not know that at the time. No, the only thing of interest about Ruth Ellis, the only thing that spurred sympathy for her case, was that—like Princess Diana decades later—when compared to the general female British population of her day Ruth Ellis was very attractive.
And pretty people, especially pretty women, should not be hanged.
In Ancient Times . . .
Capital punishment, better known less clinically as “The Death Penalty”, is the state-sanctioned murder of a person. The word “murder” applies—the act is premeditated, not one of happenstance or inflicted in the “heat of the moment”.
The practice dates to antiquity but seems more prevalent in “civilized” societies. Studies of primitive societies indicate the ultimate penalty was rarely applied by the group. Crimes such as murder might be avenged by the victim’s kin. Or they might accept compensation from the wrongdoer’s family. These facets of retribution law prevailed for centuries. On the rare occasions when an individual was put to death by the group it was usually to appease their totemic gods or over some violation of a tribal religious taboo.Babylonian king Hammurabi (died around 1750 BCE) codified existing Babylonian tribal laws, taking disparate ideas from within his kingdom and streamlining them for the masses under his control. His legal decisions were carved into a stele and put in the Temple of Marduk (Babylonia’s main god). The Temple was a public place and the Babylonians living in Babylon were guaranteed to not only be aware of the existence of this stele but in all likelihood had its contents committed to memory.
The Code of Hammurabi comprised 282 legal scenarios and their outcomes. The Code prohibited blood feuds, private retribution, or marriage by capture. There are some references to family solidarity, and prohibitions against trial by ordeal.
The part of the Code of Hammurabi the most casual history student recalls is its lex talionis: the retribution law of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”. Under this part of the Code a convicted criminal was sentenced in kind predicated on the crime of which he had been convicted. If a Babylonian stole his hand was cut off. If he murdered he was put to death.
Though codified only during Hammurabi’s reign many of these laws, such as the vengeance law of the lex talionis, were applied within the kingdom by the people. Certainly, the people of Abraham (those first identified as the tribe of Israel, Babylonian in origin) would have known of these tribal laws (in the times before they were codified and merely orally transmitted). These people would have taken the concepts with them when they first migrated to the land of Canaan (before their enslavement in Egypt). Thus, the tradition of vengeful justice was carried forward with the nascent Jews.
Different eras in history have seen different definitions of what crimes deserved the ultimate penalty. In ancient Babylonia and Egypt, not many crimes qualified. Both civilizations recognized willful homicide (what we today call premeditated or 1st degree murder) as a certainty for death for the offender. Other crimes were scattershot: certain sexual and religious offenses and treason were punishable by death.
This biblical idea of measure-for-measure punishment prevailed for centuries in Britain. However, though initially judiciously and sparingly applied, its use became rampant. In England by the 15th Century there were only 17 capital offenses; by 1780, though, this number had grown to 350 (an increase of over 1,950 %). Most of the additional “crimes” related to offenses against property for which death was the punishment. This was reflective of the snobbery of the British class system—offenses against property, such as shoplifting or highway robbery, were an affront to the upper-crusts’ perceived loftier place in that society. The poor were classless, did not contribute materially, they were a drain on society, and they were morally suspect—killing them was good for England.
Unfortunately, slipshod justice and death sentences for the most picayune of offenses meant vengeance law was harsh and inflexible (a man stealing a loaf of bread to feed a hungry family during a time of famine was just as likely to hang as was a moors’ cutpurse). It did not recognize degrees of criminality: a thief was a thief, whether he stole a loaf of bread or picked travelers’ pockets.
Not a Deterrent
Proponents of the death penalty claim it acts as a deterrent to other criminals. It does not—the only person deterred from future crimes is the person executed. That, of course, does justify the extravagance on occasion, and certainly gives society a sense of closure when a serial killer, such as the Brit John Christie (killer of at least 7 women and an infant, hanged in 1953) or the American Aileen Wuornos (guilty of gunning down 7 men, executed in 2002 by lethal injection) takes his or her final breath. Society needs its blood—certain people do not deserve to draw another breath.
The sadistically imaginative methods of murdering a criminal over the centuries never fails to inspire horror yet fascinate at the same time. People were routinely beheaded, hanged, boiled, broken on the wheel, strangled, suffocated, buried alive, drowned, crushed, pierced, pushed or thrown from a high place, torn apart by animals or humans, and forced into mortal combat in a public arena. This listing is only partial; it does not include those who died under the exquisitely excruciating embraces of various torture devices used to extract “confessions” from the more tight-lipped accused.
Burning at the stake was popular during the Middle Ages. It was the preferred method for disposing of those accused of witchcraft or heresy (such as the teenage Jeanne d’Arc, executed in 1431).
Harsh punishment has proven time and again to do nothing to curtail crime rates. In Britain during the barbaric reign of Henry VIII crime rates continued to rise despite the fantastic rate at which criminals were being executed. Public executions were wildly popular affairs, and they drew throngs. Pickpockets plied their trade in the crowds watching the hanging of fellow pickpockets!
In other parts of Europe the more vengeful methods of killing came to be used less frequently. Entombing and impaling were abolished in Switzerland around the year 1400; the Swiss did away with execution by drowning in 1615. Burning at the stake was not used in Berlin after 1786. In Britain in 1790 boiling a convicted criminal to death was outlawed. However, other equally heinous English methods still were on the books.
Cesare Bonesana, Marchese di Beccaria (1738-1794) was an Italian jurist. He felt capital punishment did nothing to benefit the state nor did it act as a deterrent. He believed more in prevention of crime than in punishing criminal offenders. In a treatise he wrote in 1764 he argued the effectiveness of criminal justice depended more on the certainty of punishment than on its severity.
The Marchese’s ideas made their way to England and were taken up by more enlightened minds there such as the social reformer and philosophically-bent Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). Bentham and others came to believe punishment should be used purely as a deterrent, not for retribution. One of his major philosophical ideas concerned the pursuit of happiness for all. Bentham, also a prison reformer, graded criminal offenses solely by the harm they did to “happiness”. [As a final quirk, Bentham willed that his clothed skeleton be exhibited permanently at University College London, sitting in on meetings, and being counted among those in attendance, though listed as “Present, but not voting” in cases where a board vote was required.]
As time passed in England the wisdom of murdering its citizenry over paltry offenses was recognized for its inanity. By 1861 the 350 capital offenses of the horrid Henry VIII had been reduced to only four. In theory, all four carried death sentences; in practice only one of the four was usually meted out, and that was for murder.
Many developed countries, beginning in the late 19th Century, abolished capital punishment across the board. Britain still hung its killers, though, but in a nod to testing the waters of a death-penalty-free society an experiment was conducted in 1948. From April until November capital punishment was suspended. A review of crime statistics for that period showed no measurable increase in crime during those 7 months. Thus, capital punishment’s absence did not cause the criminal element to rampage.
Britain went back to executions, though, and would pay for it with the hanging of Timothy Evans in 1950 (an innocent man) among others whose cases were either flimsy or unsupported by evidence. Damaged justice gave no hope of rescinding wildly cavalier prosecutions—these men and women were dead.
One person, though, who was definitely guilty of murder and who had to hang (under the law) was Ruth Ellis. There is no doubt she murdered. The only question is whether or not she actually deserved death for her offense, knowing what was then known about her life and the circumstances leading to her crime and execution.
When asking if “prettiness” is an indicator of “likeability” one only has to look at screen actors and actresses. Notice the ones who, while committing crimes (misdemeanors or otherwise), tend to get away with those offenses. Note that the ones who receive judicial slaps-on-the-wrist are considered attractive. Statistically, it can be proven that attractive defendants (e.g., O.J. Simpson, Casey Anthony) stand a greater chance of acquittal or of escaping with light sentences (Paris Hilton, Lindsey Lohan) than do perceived unattractive persons (legendary “Wall of Sound” record producer, Phil Spector, sentenced to 19 years to life in 2009 for the 2003 shooting of a waitress).
In Britain, attractiveness did not keep Ruth Ellis off the gallows for murder though it did create a cause célèbre.
The future quasi-celebrity was Welsh, born in Rhyl in the county of Flint, on October 9, 1926. The village is on the Irish Sea coast, roughly 20 miles (32 km) southwest and across the Liverpool Bay from the industrial center of Liverpool.
Ruth’s mother, Elisaberta Cothals, was French-Belgian. She had been raised in the care of nuns, and when World War I and the Germans came to Liège in Belgium she and many others evacuated. Elisaberta found passage on a small boat crossing the English Channel—she was shoeless and possessed only the clothes she wore and a blanket in which she was wrapped. She had no money or work experience upon hitting British shores. She found employment as a domestic.
Arthur Neilson led the life of an itinerant musician. In 1933, he found work with a band at Basingstoke (in Hampshire in the south of England). He uprooted his Welsh family and moved to the resort area. His gig was on cruise liners in the Atlantic.
This job proved to be short-lived, lasting only a few months. Arthur was out of work for a time before taking on a job as a hall porter in a mental hospital. Considering his vocation was as a professional musician this had to be a humiliating come-down for him, and he sought solace in alcohol. He became violent during bouts of drunkenness, and was physically and psychically abusive not only to Elisaberta but to his daughters as well. Visitors to the mental hospital and staff members complained about his antagonistic attitude; his desultory and churlish demeanor at work eventually cost him this menial job in 1939.waitress in a café. In 1941, at the peak of Germany’s bombing of London Arthur got a job as a caretaker in Reading (London’s west end) and moved his family there.
That same year, Arthur got a different job, this time as a chauffeur. His base of operations was south of the Thames River (still in the Greater London Metro area). Arthur’s new employer supplied him with a two-bedroom apartment as one of the job’s benefits. Ruth took the chance to leave Basingstoke and moved in with him. As this was war time and many men were off fighting, Ruth had no trouble finding work. In quick succession she worked first at a munitions factory and then for a food processer.
British women were not known globally as great beauties. Certainly there were exceptions, but when creating lists of attractive women by culture or country the British were not near the top. Terms applied when describing their physical beauty often included words like “sturdy” or “handsome”. Sometimes “comely” could be heard.She was petite—her fully-formed adult self only reached 5’2” (roughly 157 cm) and weighed all of 103 pounds (almost 47 kg). She was small-breasted and looked frail with a gracile bone structure. Her broad face sported a strategically placed—and natural—beauty mark on the left cheek. Her facial features were delicate (though made bold by heavy makeup). Put side-by-side with her contemporaries Ruth was a ravishing beauty.
She was diagnosed with rheumatic fever in March 1942. She spent two months convalescing in the hospital. Upon her release it was suggested she take up dancing as a good way to gain her strength back and to speed up her recovery. She became enthusiastic about dancing, and her presence at the Lyceum Ballroom (in London’s West End) led to her getting a job as a photographer’s assistant there.
Taking a cue from Hollywood, the teen Ruth Neilson peroxided her hair the luminous blonde of movie icons Jean Harlow (the original “Platinum Blonde”) and Carole Lombard. Her attractiveness was noted by many men, and she cultivated a sexy image while still in her mid teens.
Her connection to a married French-Canadian soldier named Clare might not have been her first sexual experience but it disastrously produced a pregnancy. In 1944 the 17-year-old Ruth gave birth to a boy whom she gave two feminized names: Clare Andrea Neilson (named for the father). The Canadian absconded to his homeland. He sent money for his son for the first year, and then dropped off afterward. The boy was called “Andy” by Ruth and others, and he eventually ended up living mostly with Elisaberta Neilson, Ruth’s mother.
The Hostess with the Most-est
The platinum blonde Ruth used her looks early to get minor modeling jobs for amateur photographers. Posing for photos was certainly less taxing than working in a factory.
Photography clubs were established (in the US, England, and elsewhere) as thinly-veiled excuses for voyeurs and pornographers to take pictures of scantily clad or totally nude women. These groups got around pornography laws by claiming a legitimate artistic pursuit in their shutter-bugging. And in an age when titillation for the naïve male of Britain might mean a glimpse of a woman’s garters (or “suspender belt”) such images didn’t always have to be graphic in content (though many were). She posed in various stages of undress and also nude, making more money than she had at any previous job. [Many of the men who came to these photo shoots only showed up to ogle the models—their cameras weren’t even loaded with film though they would go through the pretense of clicking away like lunatics.]
Ruth, in a very short span, gained a reputation as an easy mark for men thanks in some small part to her work as a nude model. Sometimes after her modeling sessions she would be taken out for drinks by one or more of the photographers. The nightclubs they frequented brought her into contact with the man that a newspaper reporter (in 1956) would call “Britain’s Biggest Vice Boss”.
She drew the attention of this disgusting slug, Morris Conley. Conley was a small time con man and fraud. In 1936 he’d worked a personal business bankruptcy in his favor, pocketing £10,000 in profit (at a time in Britain when a new family home could be bought for £500). He spent two years in prison for the fraud. He later worked small-time operations featuring rigged slot-machines (which he sold, leased, or used in his own establishments). He was nabbed for this as well.
Conley was no Adonis. He was a short, overweight, jowly man, with thick, slavering lips. A contemporary described him as “ugly as a toad”. What he lacked in physical beauty, though, he made up for in charisma and an affable demeanor. And he was, after all, a nightclub impresario.
He was 44 when he met Ruth Neilson (newly relieved of her pregnancy) in one of his clubs, the Court Club. Though underage, Ruth looked mature. Conley had seen her photos and recognized her. Ruth was chatty, dumping her woes about her alcoholic, frequently out-of-work father and her general listlessness in Conley’s lap. The flighty girl was taken in by his empty flattery and his attentions, and as he plied her with booze he talked her into working for his club as a hostess. Ruth was ecstatic as his job offer. To her, working as a nightclub hostess meant glamour—she would get to hobnob with a “good” class of people for a change instead of the working class drudges that generally surrounded her.
“Hostess” in Conley’s world did not only entail greeting and seating club goers. Ruth was one of six hostesses at Conley’s Court Club, and the girls were given a weekly salary beyond what any of them could ever attain in life, a clothing allowance, and free drinks. Some, like Ruth, were given places to live for either little rent or no rent at all. In exchange for this graciousness, Conley expected his hostesses to treat his male patrons very well indeed.
Pimping his female employees was one thing, but the smarmy Conley also made it a condition of their employment that the girls had to service him whenever he felt the urge. Failure to submit meant termination (in an age that had yet to hear the phrase “sexual harassment”). For Ruth (who would work for Conley for nine years) she seemed to take this caveat in stride though he was wont to physically abuse her when he was drunk.
Part-time prostitution with the club’s male customers also seemed to suit her better than expected. She made money doing it though never saving any, frittering it away, and allowing it to run through her hands on what she thought of as living the good life of a party girl (who was also a party favor for anyone her boss saw fit). Among the men the compliant club hostess bedded were many of what Ruth thought of as having substance and high social standing (though it begs the question what man of “substance” and “high social standing” used prostitutes like Ruth).
She did, however, accept a small degree of financial responsibility for others, if not herself. She gave money to her parents to help them out. She also sent money along to use on her son Andy since the primary care of the boy was in the hands of her mother and, increasingly, her older sister, Muriel. Ruth tried to see him at least once a week on Sundays but her busy socializing made that increasingly rare.
Ruth was impregnated in early 1950 by one of her regular johns from the nightclub. Britain had a strict prohibition against abortion, but Ruth managed to secure one when she was three months along.
That same year she met a dentist, an older man who seemed very fatherly in his attentions to the needy, child-like party girl Ruth Neilson.
Mrs. Ruth Ellis
George Johnson Ellis (b: 1909), like Ruth’s father, had been born in Manchester, England. He and his brother both trained to become dentists, and George was a naturally gifted piano player.
For want of anything better to do the 41-year-old, newly-single George began haunting the nightclubs of London. He spotted a gregarious, brassy bleach-blonde at the Court Club on one of his visits. He was also a braggart; his favorite topic of conversation was himself, and he regaled the unsophisticated girls of the Court Club with talks of his exploits (and one can only imagine how conflated these had to be—the man was, after all, a dentist). Other hostesses there had met George Ellis before and referred to him, perhaps only mildly affectionately, as “The Mad Dentist”. His visits to the club, though, meant largesse for the working girls—George threw money around, buying drinks and giving gifts of cash.
One night in June 1950, George—having taken a fancy to Ruth over the course of several visits to the Court Club—badgered her incessantly about possibly meeting him off-site. Ruth and another hostess had planned on pub crawling that night to find a particular American sergeant; to placate George, Ruth said she’d meet him later at a different club owned by the small-time vice king, Conley.
Ruth, of course, had no intention of meeting George Ellis that night, and she was a no-show. She found out the next day that he had gone ahead to the other club and had gotten into an altercation over a woman there. Some of her male friends pounded George; one of them slashed his face with a straight razor and George was rushed to a hospital.
At his next appearance at the Court Club George sported dark glasses and several stitches on his face from the beating and slashing he’d taken. Ruth felt sorry for him and agreed to go out to dinner with the man (who, seventeen years her senior, was almost fatherly to her).
He impressed Ruth by having them chauffeured to his golf club for dinner. After spending a few hours eating and drinking George took her back to his place in Sanderstead. The expectation of sex after such a night was no different than the prostitution in which she routinely engaged—better, really, since she’d gone to a swank golf club and been properly squired—so “putting out” at the end of the date would have presented no moral dilemma for her. She woke up the next morning in his bed.
For the ill-used Ruth, George presented the path to the good things in life she felt she deserved. He showered her with expensive gifts, and they ate at the best restaurants. He was also intelligent, had musical talent (as her father did), he was humorous and warm (when he wanted to be), and he held a private pilot’s license.
Ruth thought this man could provide her and son Andy (who was now six and living mostly with his grandparents in Brixton or with her sister Muriel) with a good home life. George’s biggest black mark was his drinking. Ruth believed if she could get him off the sauce he would be the ideal mate for her, giving her the respectability and security she craved.
Perhaps to seal the deal, she agreed to go with George on an extended stay in Cornwall (at England’s far western shore). There, away from the influence of London and its seedy night life she and George forged a relationship. They stayed for three months before going back to London.
The idyll ended soon enough though—upon their return George moved Ruth into his place in Sanderstead, but he also continued drinking heavily. After many violent arguments about his drinking George finally agreed to enter a treatment program for alcoholics. He emerged sober, and the couple decided to marry, tying the knot at a registry office on November 8, 1950.
Ruth Neilson was now Ruth Ellis.
George Ellis got dentistry work at a practice in Southampton (on the Hampshire coast). The new family headed south in early 1951 and moved to the quaint village of Warash. Within a few weeks, though, George was back boozing, hanging in the local pubs till closing time, getting blind stinking drunk. Ruth and he had many violent arguments over the issue, both in private but more nastily in public. Finally, Ruth packed up and retreated to her parents’ house. Two days later, the vacillating Ruth went back to George, probably realizing despite his flaws he was the best she could hope to do.
In addition to his drinking problem, Ruth became convinced (perhaps projecting her own past promiscuity on him) that George was cheating on her with other women. In one particularly brutal fight over this newer accusation George beat his tiny wife badly. She left and came back multiple times, and finally the police became frequent visitors to their unquiet home.
George’s drinking had not gone unnoticed by his employer, and he lost his place as a dentist in May 1951. George and Ruth went to stay at George’s mother’s house in Wales while he decided what to do next.
George then managed to find a dentistry slot in a place in Cornwall—he went ahead to start work while Ruth, still smarting over their recent fighting, headed back to her mother and father. A horrified Ruth Ellis, trying perhaps to sever her relationship from an abusive alcoholic, discovered she was pregnant about the time she settled back in with her parents. Resignedly, she decided to reconcile with her husband and traveled to Torquay (in Cornwall) where he was now working and living.
Any happy reunion was short-lived—George turned back to the booze with gusto, and during their arguments over his drinking he accused Ruth of being unfaithful to him, going so far as to claim the baby she carried was not his. Finally he relented and admitted himself into another hospital for further treatment for his drinking problem.
Ruth was a frequent visitor while he was in treatment. Her belief he was interested in other women flared up on these visits. She read things in his behaviors toward female staff members and female patients that caused her to again accuse him of infidelity. This led to one incident in which her hysterical ranting was so uncontrolled (with her shouting profanities at George) that she was hustled away and sedated. The psychiatrist handling George’s case, Dr. Rees, prescribed tranquilizers for Ruth (she would continue to see him professionally throughout the rest of her life, obtaining prescription medications from him).
During all this back-and-forth Ruth Ellis found time to get a small role in a movie. When she was four months pregnant she got a bit part (uncredited) playing a beauty queen in a film called Lady Godiva Rides Again.
She gave birth on October 2, 1951, and named the newborn girl Georgina. George Ellis refused to acknowledge paternity of the infant. The couple separated in the wake of this divisive issue; George moved off north to Warrington in Lancashire. He got a job with the local Health Authority as a school dentist. He also filed for divorce (he and Ruth had yet to be married a year). Bizarrely, he claimed cruelty from Ruth as his grounds for filing.
Ruth and baby Georgina moved back in with her parents. She returned to the club scene as a hostess.
Ruth returned to the Court Club, now called Carroll’s, and Morris Conley’s employ. Conley owned a block of apartments nearby (though the property was listed legally in his wife’s name), and he set Ruth up in one of those as part of her employment benefits.
The new format of Carroll’s featured a remodeled restaurant, cabaret entertainment, and dancing. It was open until 3 AM, thus giving night crawlers a place to hang out after regular pubs closed. Ruth was soon back in the party circuit, garnering a fresh cadre of admirers who gave her gifts of cash and trinkets.
One of them also gave Ruth an unwanted pregnancy. In December 1952 she fell ill but fought through it for some time rather than seek medical help. In early 1953, not being able to shake whatever was wrong, she was hospitalized; it was discovered she had an ectopic pregnancy. [This is a condition in which a fertilized ovum implants itself outside the uterus, usually “sticking” in a Fallopian tube or, more rarely, on the ovary. In many women the out-of-place embryo is recognized by the body as a foreign object and is absorbed. However, ectopic pregnancies may last up to two months before the Fallopian tube holding it bursts. If untreated, the condition can kill the mother.] Surgery removed the wrongly-placed embryo (on her left side), and Ruth stayed in the hospital for two weeks.
By April 1953 she was back on the job. Cheesecake shots of the party girl were snapped in the club with her surrounded by admirers and other customers. The clientele she cultivated at Carroll’s allowed her to earn extra money thorough part-time prostitution—one apparently satisfied customer gave her a check for £400 in the wake of a vacation she took with him (this was a huge sum, equivalent to nearly $14,000 US today).
Among the newer bunch that started drifting in to Carroll’s were some men who associated themselves with the sport of auto racing. This crew was younger, more brash and boisterous, and far more exciting to Ruth than the tired old out-of-shape business types that usually frequented Carroll’s. This clique was led by a 23-year-old racer named Mike Hawthorne; their normal watering hole was another joint called The Steering Wheel Club, though they tended to patronize Carroll’s starting in late afternoons.
Around late September to early October 1953, another racing enthusiast began showing up with Hawthorne’s group. He was an arrogant git named David Drummond Moffat Blakely, three years Ruth’s junior. At 24 years old, he was not a successful racer though he was gamely trying it on.
He was of the privileged British middle-class, having gone to public school (in reality, these are private educational institutions unlike what public schools are in the United States). His parents had divorced in 1940 and his mother remarried almost immediately in 1941. He did his mandatory two-year hitch in the British Army; after he got out his stepfather got him a menial job as a management trainee at London’s upscale Hyde Park Hotel.
His stepfather fed his racing habit; his mother also provided him with an allowance. When Blakely’s biological father (a doctor) died in February 1952, he received a substantial inheritance—£7,000—which allowed him to indulge his growing passion for race car driving. He was a shirker at work, and in October 1952 he was fired after getting into an argument with the hotel’s banquet manager.
It mattered little to Blakely. He carried himself with the smug disdain of the British upper crust, feeling he was owed something by the world and the people around him. His air of entitlement was almost palpable: one of his friends called him a sponger and a “ponce” (a heavy drinker who cadged his drinks off his friends’ good will). This same friend also referred to Blakely as “a supercilious shit”.
Ruth recalled her first exposure to Blakely with disdain:
“He strolled in wearing an old coat and flannel trousers. He greeted the other lads in a condescending manner . . . I thought he was too hoity-toity by far.”
She was off-duty that particular day but was at Carroll’s socializing when Blakely came in. He spent most of his time within earshot of Ruth, making fun of Carroll’s, its staff, and the people who came in there. Ruth asked one of her friends, loud enough for Blakely to hear, “Who is that pompous little ass?”
As well as “ass”, “pompous” and “little” accurately described Blakely. He was 5’9” tall and weighed a bit over 150 pounds. He had dark, slicked-back hair, and brown eyes. However, Ruth would make the mistake of finding him attractive despite his myriad flaws.
In October 1953, Ruth Ellis became a manager of another of Conley’s night spots, The Little Club. The place lived up to its name as “little”: only three people were on staff there. Overhead was a two-room apartment that Conley let Ruth have for free. She brought Andy there (baby Georgina was in the care of her sister, Muriel) and seemed ready to be happy as the overseer of her own little club, living right upstairs.
This club offered membership, and David Blakely was already a cardholder when Ruth took over. He showed up there soon after, and he was taken aback by her presence in this tiny club—he remembered her from Carroll’s as the woman he’d had a verbal altercation with. Ruth served him a drink (she claimed he was the first person she’d served in her new position as manager), and from that moment they were hooked on each other. And once the gregarious Ruth Ellis was in the house others of the racing set began to frequent the club as well as Blakely.
A month after meeting Ruth, David Blakely got engaged to a woman he’d met some time before at the Hyde Park Hotel when he’d been employed there. The engagement appeared in the November 11, 1953, edition of London’s Times. Blakely, however, thought nothing of continuing with the low-rent Ruth Ellis (her divorce not finalized yet) while being engaged. He slept over in Ruth’s crummy little two-room flat above the club she was managing. He would stay overnight during the week, then decamp to his mother’s and stepfather’s house in Penn for the weekends, leaving Ruth and Andy in the city.
Blakely was trying to build his own race car with the financial and mechanical support of personal friends, among them a good auto mechanic named Anthony Findlater. Blakely had shtupped Findlater’s wife, Carole, over a period starting in 1951, but apparently bygones were bygones as Anthony Findlater stayed friendly with Blakely and continued to work on his prototype race car.
Blakely’s frustrations in the racing world—he was not one of the winners—consumed him. And just like George Ellis, Blakely was a boozer and he was violent toward Ruth. Unlike George Ellis, though, Blakely was a rutting womanizer who sought his pleasures everywhere he could find them. Ruth’s heart was broken by his transgressions, but she always forgave him.
He beat her on many occasions, yet she stayed steady with him. She never filed any criminal charges, and he continued to use her and abuse her as he saw fit, taking money from her, crashing at her small apartment (having sex with her while her son was present), and drinking.
She, however, let Blakely get away with all this. It is likely she felt she deserved no better. Amusingly, Blakely, despite his known carousing and sexual liaisons, was insanely jealous over any attentions Ruth might receive from other men (projecting, as Ruth had done to the blameless George Ellis).
Desmond Edward Cussen was born in 1921, only a few years before Ruth, and he was 32 when he first met her while she still worked at Carroll’s before moving on to The Little Club. He had dark hair, receding in the front into a widow’s peak. He had bushy eyebrows and a mustache, and he was short, tending toward chunky. Unlike the wishful thinking of her husband, George Ellis, Cussen had lived a life filled with some adventure.
His family, however, had a name for themselves, a terribly important thing in British society. The Cussens owned and operated a respected tobacconists operation—both wholesale and retail—called Cussen & Company. Cussen was made director of the business, and he lived in a fashionable district in an upscale apartment.
Though interested in cars and racing he never actively took it up, preferring to watch the action from the sidelines. He hung out with the more serious racers at The Steering Wheel Club. He was a quiet, shy man, given to moments of introspection and broodiness. He was also described as polite, never using foul language. Insiders of the racing crowd felt he did not belong in the social groups he chose to ingratiate himself with—he was older, more refined, and less gregarious. A former colleague of Cussen’s once referred to him as “a bit of a drip.”
Desmond Cussen had first made Ruth’s acquaintance at Carroll’s before she met David Blakely (though he already knew, and disliked, Blakely having suffered his presence at The Steering Wheel Club). And almost from their first meeting Cussen was crazy about Ruth. He marveled at her joie de vivre, and he chuckled over her handling of the club’s clientele, at how she squared off with them in their low-brow, bawdy banter, peppering her speech with profanities.
He also watched as she became involved with the smug prat, David Blakely, and it ate at him. He could not hope to compete for Ruth’s affections with this younger, more volatile—and to Ruth—more attractive man. Cussen had to content himself with being her father confessor, listening to her woes as needed, providing the occasional shoulder to cry on as things continued to decline in her horrible relationship with Blakely.
In April 1954, the Findlaters (Carole, Blakely’s former fling and Anthony, his current mechanic) invited Ruth to Anthony Findlater’s birthday party which Blakely also attended. This was the first time Carole Findlater met Blakely’s newest flame, Ruth. Carole, perhaps still cattily jealous over David Blakely, notably took a dislike to Ruth. She claimed Ruth’s plunging-neck black dress combined with her small breasts and thin wrists and ankles made her look “shrimp-like”. Ruth, knowing of Blakely’s past relationship with Carole, was similarly unimpressed, only saying a dismissive “hello” to her hostess and then ignoring Carole the rest of the night.
George Ellis, Ruth’s husband, suddenly began dropping into The Little Club where Ruth worked in the spring of 1954. Their divorce was stalled; George wanted it to move forward. Ruth, on the other hand, was fighting it for as long as she could—George was paying her maintenance while the divorce was pending.
In discussions, though, one agreement was reached: Ruth’s party-girl lifestyle and her cramped two-room flat (which she shared with son, Andy, and Blakely whenever he decided to hang around) was no good for their 3-year-old daughter. George took the toddler back to Warrington with him in May 1954.
After Blakely came back to England in July she hoped Cussen would spill the beans about their sexual encounter to Blakely to make him jealous. It didn’t work—either Cussen never crowed to Blakely about his liaison with Ruth or, having heard the news, Blakely simply didn’t care. She was, after all, little better than a whore to him.
Ruth hosted a belated 25th birthday party for Blakely (whose June birthday he celebrated in Europe at LeMans) when he came back. He showed up late at The Little Club. He claimed he had been across the street at the Hyde Park Hotel, breaking off his official engagement to the woman he’d been stringing along since he met Ruth. He then asked Ruth to marry him, and she decided then to stop fighting George Ellis on their divorce.
Ruth bundled 10-year-old Andy off to boarding school in August 1954. The tuition and other fees and the boy’s school uniform were paid for by Desmond Cussen. Blakely was off racing in Holland then, and in his spare time he worked on his custom racing car with Anthony Findlater. The cost of building his racer chewed into the inheritance he’d received in early 1952. Though he had gotten a job at a piston factory (and his mommy still gave him an allowance) Blakely was going broke in a big hurry.
Ruth was also giving him money, and after giving her a sob story he convinced her to let him move into her grubby flat permanently. Needing his drinks he wheedled her into letting him run a tab at The Little Club. Though he was only supposed to add to the tab while she was on-duty he started coming in whenever he felt like it treating himself and his cronies on the house. Ruth tried to pay as much as she could on the growing bar debt. [Though it seems Ruth, as a manager, was now above having to prostitute at Conley’s direction she likely still serviced him on occasion. Had he learned her boyfriend had run up a large tab at one of his clubs, he might have taken it out on her.]
When Ruth’s 28th birthday came round in October 1954 she threw herself a party—Blakely was off at his parents’ house in Penn and couldn’t be bothered to attend. He did send her a card, though, with an admonition whose underlying message was for her not to have sex with anyone else in his absence.
Both Ruth and Blakely grew increasingly jealous and possessive of the other. Ruth had learned of his affair with Carole Findlater (which was over before Ruth met Blakely) and didn’t want him staying over at the Findlaters’ house. Blakely was irritated by the amount of time she spent socializing and flirting with the patrons in “her” club.
They both drank very heavily by this time. Their drunken rows fueled by alcohol—and in Ruth’s case, also with prescription sedatives she maintained through the good offices of Dr. Rees—disintegrated into violence more often than not.
Business was dropping off at The Little Club, and Morris Conley had noticed. Because of her obsession with Blakely she had neglected to properly look after the business, spending much time away from it, chasing after Blakely, pining for him, or arguing with him. Conley goaded Ruth into doing more to promote the business (as in, perhaps, she should be offering herself as one of the club’s attractions). Blakely’s bar tab was outrageous. The Little Club’s revenue had dropped from £200 per week when Ruth had taken over to under £80 by the end of 1954.
In early December, with no regrets or remorse, Conley terminated her. She had to vacate the company apartment, and she went to live with Cussen, an arrangement Blakely loathed but made no move to rectify.
Ruth presented Cussen and Blakely with identical silver cigarette cases as Christmas presents. On Christmas Day she threw a party at Cussen’s apartment—the man was away attending an office party and did not get home till later in the evening. Blakely was there railing at Ruth over having left her son alone in Cussen’s apartment while she and other partygoers had left and gone pub crawling. [A complete put-on performance—Blakely cared nothing for Andy or any children for that matter. His only interest was in controlling Ruth.] He then shouted at her, calling her a tart and accusing her of sleeping with Cussen. Ruth countered with an accusation that Blakely was still having sex with Carole Findlater.
That night she and Blakely took off together and found where the Findlaters were staying over the Christmas holiday. She and Blakely crashed there together, leaving the sorry Desmond Cussen back at his flat to take care of her son, Andy, and the remaining guests she had abandoned.
Life with Father
Cussen was being made a chump of by Ruth. Blakely had elicited a promise from her that she would not have sex with Cussen while she lived under his roof. It is unlikely she kept this promise (probably feeling some sense of obligation to the man), but Ruth and Blakely sneaked off many times and checked in to a hotel for overnight conjugal visits (they always registered as “Mr. and Mrs. Blakely”). Whenever she knew she would be off with Blakely she told Cussen she was visiting her girlfriends or her daughter Georgina (in George Ellis’ care beause of Ruth’s instability).
Ruth’s divorce from George Ellis came through on January 14, 1955 (though the final order wouldn’t be processed for another six weeks). Feeling perhaps more insecure than usual she pressed Blakely for a commitment in the wake of this news. He, of course, put her off—he had been having an affair with an older married woman (about which Ruth knew) and they had fought about this in their usual hotel love nest just the week before. In the wake of that last fight, Blakely had confessed to his mechanic, Anthony Findlater, he wanted to get away from Ruth but he was afraid she might send one of her gangster friends from her club contacts after him. Marrying Ruth was not in his future.
Cussen watched all this without interference. It can only be presumed he waited in hopes Ruth would grow tired of Blakely’s abuse and philandering and finally come around to him. He continued to be financially and emotionally supportive of her.
Guns in a country with very strict laws against anyone’s having them (except for certain law enforcement personnel) had become readily obtainable during and after the years of World War II. American GIs lost them (either accidentally or to pay off gambling debts). Cussen, as an ex-RAF pilot, had weapons. Among them was a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson six-shot revolver (a Victory model). He taught Ruth how to use the gun (whether at her request is unknown), perhaps for the simple sport of it but more likely for other reasons. He took her out to wooded areas for target practice.
Ruth was increasingly erratic, drinking absinthe under one of its better known brands, Pernod™. Blakely was also consuming large volumes of the green liqueur, and it was expensive (which had led to his ridiculously high tab at The Little Club). The liqueur contains the dark green, bitter oil of wormwood (artemisia), an aromatic plant with silvery silky-haired leaves and drooping yellow nearly globular flowers. [The same plant family contains sagebrush and tarragon.] Wormwood oil was used as an exotic flavoring in vermouth and absinthe. The absinthe containing it is not poisonous nor does it promote mental instability (despite a decades’ old myth stemming from an insidious public campaign by competitors in the wine industry).
Blakely spent more time ignoring Ruth than he did with her after February 1955. Cussen used this disquiet to his advantage, billing and cooing over her and wheedling her to break completely with Blakely. The agitated Ruth still lived in Cussen’s apartment, though still seeing Blakely occasionally.
Cussen had had enough of Blakely’s showing up his apartment (with Ruth’s consent, of course) when he was off at work. He got Ruth to leave. By March 1955 she was living in her own place (which Cussen helped her cover) and was pregnant. [Though likely Blakely’s baby, there exists the possibility it could have been Cussen’s.] Carole and Anthony Findlater sided with Blakely and decided the baby she carried was not his. Blakely and Ruth got into yet another of their famously violent fights toward the end of March. He beat Ruth badly, punching her in the face and pummelling her in the abdomen. She miscarried and had to go into the hospital for a dilation and curettage.
As proof of just how pathetic Ruth Ellis had become, still feeling unwell days after this horror (on March 31) she accompanied Blakely and the Findlaters to a racing meet out of town. She and Blakely checked into a hotel as “Mr. & Mrs. Blakely”—David Blakely should have been in jail before then, not headed to bed with the woman whose unborn baby he had beaten out of her.
Blakely’s car, the one he and Anthony Findlater had labored over, failed to make the race—it broke down in a practice run. He blamed Ruth for the mechanical problem. He railed at her in the presence of the Findlaters. He claimed she had jinxed him. Ruth, perhaps prophetically, said, “I’ll stand so much from you David; you cannot go on walking over me forever.” Smugly, he retorted, “You’ll stand it because you love me.”
The group came back to London on Sunday night, April 3. Ruth was ill with a cold and she still suffered the after-effects of her miscarriage and resultant medical procedure. By Monday she was running a high fever (104°F)—Desmond Cussen came to see her and insisted she remain on bed rest. The Easter holiday was coming up: Cussen told Ruth he would go pick up her son Andy from his boarding school and bring him to London. Andy slept on a camping cot in her bedroom when he came home.
Ruth tended herself that day. Blakely dropped in late in the evening. He was out all the next day, popping in again late while Ruth suffered through her cold and post-operative woes. He claimed he’d been out hustling interest in his custom race car. On Wednesday, April 6, he came by earlier in the day and presented Ruth with an autographed promotional photo of himself. He had also learned he’d garnered an invitation to race in that year’s Le Mans rally (scheduled for June 9, 1955). Earlier in January Ruth had taken French lessons with a tutor (that were conducted in Cussen’s home and paid for by him) in the hopes that Blakely (who had promised her a trip to Paris he had never made good on) would take her along. Thursday, the couple went to a movie —they had planned on seeing a live stage performance but Blakely was late in arriving at Ruth’s.
Ruth’s paranoia about David’s infidelities heightened on Friday, April 8 when he left early in the morning and failed to return. Because she and Blakely had argued about his visiting the Findlaters—Ruth was still very jealous of Carole—he was not supposed to go to their home without telling her first.
Blakely had met the Findlaters for drinks that day around noon. Bemoaning his relationship with Ruth he confided, “I’m supposed to be calling for Ruth at eight tonight. I can’t stand it any longer; I want to get away from her.” Anthony and Carole talked him into staying with them over the upcoming Easter weekend, and he went off with the couple.
When he hadn’t shown up at a time Ruth expected she increasingly suspected he had gone to the Findlaters’. She called their house at 9:30 PM and was told Blakely wasn’t there. She called back later, and Anthony told her the same—Ruth, however, thought this was a lie. She badgered the Findlaters, continually calling and asking for Blakely. Finally, someone took the phone off the hook—all Ruth got afterward was a busy signal.
She called on Desmond Cussen around midnight. He drove her to the Findlaters’ house—Blakely’s regular vehicle was parked nearby, thus confirming her earlier suspicions he was there. She rang the bell and pounded on the door; no one answered. Crazed, she started breaking the glass out of Blakely’s parked vehicle. The police were called; it was about 2 AM.
With police present the Findlaters and David Blakely were rousted from the house. Ruth was nearly apoplectic, hurling profanities at Blakely as well as the Findlaters, making little sense. The police calmed the group down and left. Ruth was far from placated. Blakely had slipped off during the shouting, leaving the Findlaters to bear the brunt of Ruth’s wrath. They had to call the police on her again—before they arrived, though, Desmond Cussen had talked her into leaving with him.
Still seething later on Saturday morning Ruth called the Findlaters’ house. The phone was answered and clicked back into place with no one’s speaking to her. She took a taxi to the neighborhood and hid out, watching the Findlaters’ house. At about 10 AM she saw Blakely and Anthony Findlater come out and look at the damage Ruth had done to Blakely’s vehicle. The two drove off (to a garage, she later learned, one owned by a friend of Blakely’s). Calling the Findlater residence from a public phone shortly afterward only netted another hang up.
Ruth went back to her place and made lunch for Andy (who had been home alone while she stalked David Blakely). She then dressed the boy, gave him a few pence, and sent him off on his own to spend the day at the London Zoo. That afternoon, while Andy was still out, she had Desmond Cussen drive her back to the Findlaters’ neighborhood where he dropped her off.
In May 1954 Carole Findlater had given birth and had hired a nanny. The current model was a 19-year-old that while typically “handsome” was also described as “stout”. Although Ruth was certain this girl was not Blakely’s type her mental state was such that she convinced herself he was having a sexual relationship with her as well as with Carole and other women. She loitered around the Findlater residence hoping to catch Blakely. He emerged around 4:30 PM with the nanny (who carried the Findlater baby), and they drove off together. Apparently, Desmond Cussen had remained close by—he picked Ruth up and took her back to her flat.
Andy had come back from his zoo outing and was waiting for Ruth. She fed him his supper and put him to bed. She called Desmond Cussen again to take her out to the Findlaters’. A party was in progress in the Findlaters’ second-floor flat. The windows were open and Ruth could hear the merriment from the street below. She prowled around for hours, chain smoking while hoping to see David Blakely.
The masochistic Desmond Cussen (and he can only be described as masochistic considering his helping Ruth—a woman he clearly loved—to finding her way into another man’s arms) maintained a vigil over Ruth as she paced the sidewalks, muttering to herself, and increasingly agitated. He talked her into finally getting in his car and going home in the early morning hours of Sunday, April 10, 1955.
Ruth had not slept in nearly 48 hours, fuelled instead by booze and her pills. At dawn of Easter Sunday 1955 she had not calmed down—she was jealous and filled with the hurt of Blakely’s obvious rejection of her.
On Easter Sunday, at about 9:00 AM, Ruth called the Findlater residence. Anthony answered the phone; Ruth opened with sarcasm: “I hope you are having an enjoyable holiday because you have ruined mine.” He hung up on her without saying a word.
The Findlater contingent had arisen, made breakfast, and then later had gone out for drinks around lunchtime at a nearby public house, The Magdala Tavern. In consideration of Ruth’s behavior over the last two days and her phone call of that morning the three discussed how to avoid her. They met a mutual friend, Clive Gunnell, at the Magdala, and the Findlaters (with the baby, Francesca), Blakely, and Gunnell all took off for the afternoon to a fairground (open in celebration of Easter). They went back to the Findlaters’ later—it was agreed Blakely would spend the night with them—and sat around quietly listening to records, drinking, and smoking cigarettes. Around 8:45 PM Carole ran out of cigarettes and asked Blakely to run out to the Magdala (about a mile away) and picked her up a pack. He and Gunnell hopped in Blakely’s vehicle and headed to the pub.
Ruth, meanwhile, had spent most of her morning “redecorating” her apartment—she took down any photos she had of David Blakely and replaced them with ones featuring only her. She swilled Pernod™ on top of her pills. She tended to the boy Andy only minimally during the day. Later in the afternoon she and Andy were at Desmond Cussen’s flat. He spent time listening to her travails as she drank, smoked cigarette after cigarette, and popped her pills. Ruth made Andy go to bed around 7:30 PM; she and Cussen sat and talked.
In consideration of Ruth’s physical condition—very frail, sickly of late, not eating, and with no sleep—her alcohol and pill consumption that day probably affected her more than it might ordinarily have. She thought about the physical abuse Blakely had heaped upon her. She considered his callous disregard for her feelings. The distraction of him in her life had cost her the manager’s job at The Little Club. Because of him she had had to move out of Cussen’s upscale apartment. Blakely had also cost her a lot of money—her bank account was empty. Whether inspired or through goading from Cussen (unlikely, but it is almost certain he did not dissuade her) she plotted revenge on Blakely.
Cussen, as Ruth’s enabler, cleaned and oiled the .38 Smith & Wesson revolver with which she had learned to shoot and handed it to her (Andy witnessed the cleaning and transfer of the weapon). She dropped it into her purse and with Cussen in the driver’s seat they went in search of David Blakely.
Their first stop was at the Findlaters’: Blakely’s vehicle was not there. Ruth, knowing Blakely’s habits, suggested they check the Magdala just a couple minutes away by car. They stopped across the street from The Magdala Tavern about 9 PM and spotted Blakely’s vehicle parked outside. Ruth had no idea who, if anybody, was with him inside the pub.
Apparently having made a rash decision she turned to Cussen, lightly kissed his cheek, and thanked him for “being there when I needed you, and looking after me and Andy, and being patient and kind and everything”. Cussen made no move to ask her what she was going to do or to stop her. In a very rare display of necessity over vanity Ruth reached into her purse, took her black-rimmed eyeglasses from their case, and put them on. She got out of Cussen’s car and crossed the street to the Magdala. Cussen, perhaps knowing what was coming, started his car and drove off. [Exactly how far away he drove remains debatable. Another witness puts him at the scene standing on the pavement after the shooting but the identification is suspect. It seems likely, however, that Cussen (perhaps from the safety of his car) would have hung around close enough to watch Ruth dispose of his rival, Blakely.]
Ruth approached the Magdala and through a window saw Blakely with Clive Gunnell both with drinks in front of them standing at the bar. She watched as the pair ordered three quart bottles of beer to go, and Blakely remembered to ask for Carole’s cigarettes, his whole reason for coming in the first place. Ruth ducked into a dark doorway of a news agency next to the Magdala and waited for Blakely to come out.
Two other men exited shortly and stood smoking and talking on the sidewalk in front of the pub and only a few feet from Ruth’s ambush spot. Clive Gunnell and Blakely came out next. Gunnell had a quart of bottled beer under each arm and he entered the street toward the passenger side of Blakely’s vehicle (the car was parked facing the wrong way on the street). Blakely made for the driver’s door, a quart of beer in hand as he fumbled with his car keys.
Ruth chose that moment to step out of her shadowy doorway and shouted Blakely’s name. He either didn’t hear her or chose to ignore her as he did not turn toward the sound of her voice. Instead he still fussed with his car’s keys. She strode toward the car, shouted his name “David!” again as she pulled the revolver from her black purse. She pointed the weapon at him.
Panicked, Blakely dropped the quart of beer he held and ran around to the back of his vehicle. Ruth was positioned between him and the car’s rear, and she fired off two rounds as he ran past her. The first shot missed but the second found its mark. His blood spurted onto the car as he pirouetted around it.
Though hit, Blakely managed to stumble around the car. Gunnell, terrified, stood immobilized. Ruth told him to get out of her way as she advanced on the bleeding man. Blakely lamely staggered to the front of his vehicle and then hoped to get away by running up the street. Ruth fired again and he fell face first to the ground. He rested on his left cheek, blood draining from his bodily wounds. She triggered another round, hitting Blakely. By this time she was standing over the fallen man. Placing the gun’s muzzle about three inches from his left shoulder she plugged him, point blank, with her fifth round.
The four shots that Ruth sent home had churned Blakely’s intestines, and clipped his liver, lung, aorta, and windpipe. She looked down at his broken form and put the gun to her head. She squeezed the trigger—nothing. In a rare malfunction (revolvers are generally reliable) the weapon seemed to jam. She pointed the gun at the pavement and squeezed the trigger again—this time, the round fired. Unfortunately, it ricocheted and hit a woman who had been out walking with her husband en route to the Magdala for a drink (the bullet struck the base of the woman’s thumb and passed through before slamming into the Magdala’s wall).
Perhaps not knowing she had expended all six rounds the revolver held, Ruth stood over Blakely and dry-fired the weapon at least twice more, receiving only the unsatisfactory “click” of the hammer dropping onto a spent shell casing.
Ruth turned to the petrified Clive Gunnell and told him to call the police. Someone outside the Magdala rushed in and gave the alert instead. An off-duty Metro police officer was inside and walked out to see what the ruckus was about.
The tiny Ruth Ellis, wearing her glasses, a green sweater with a grey jacket over it, and a matching grey skirt stood leaning against the wall smoking a cigarette someone had given her as the officer tried to suss out what happened. A bystander approached Blakely’s prone form in the street, knelt down, and lifted one of his arms. After checking for a pulse—and finding none—he let the limp arm drop back onto the pavement and pronounced to the gathered crowd, “He’s gone.” Clive Gunnell broke into hysterics, screaming at Ruth and incessantly asking her why she had killed Blakely.
Police units and an ambulance arrived within minutes. Blakely was taken away where he was officially pronounced DOA; Clive Gunnell had ridden with the body in the back of the ambulance. The woman shot accidentally through the thumb went to a hospital in a taxi her husband hailed, not wanting to wait for a second ambulance to arrive.
Ruth was hustled off to the nearest police station where she was identified, interrogated, and gave a statement admitting to shooting David Blakely. She was charged with murder. Though she had been drinking earlier that day, had taken some pills, and had not slept in over 48 hours police determined she did not appear to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs. [They were wrong on both counts—Ruth’s calmness was likely due to a stimulating adrenaline surge during the shooting and the resultant slight shock in the aftermath over what she had done.] On April 12, after an incidental appearance in a magistrate’s court she was remanded to Holloway Prison pending trial.
Hang Her High
Ruth appeared two more times in magistrate’s court, on April 20 and April 28. George Ellis, Ruth’s ex-husband, showed up sloppily drunk and made a scene in the court’s foyer. He howled that the proceedings be stopped; he was commandeered by a savvy newspaper reporter and steered toward the nearest bar for an exclusive.
While in custody at Holloway Prison Ruth was examined twice on May 3 by the prison’s principal medical officer. In typical psychiatric evaluation sessions she talked about the events leading up to the murder and her state of mind at the time of the shooting. This was required by law to ensure she was fit for trial and not mentally incompetent. No signs of delusions, hallucinations, or any form of mental illness were noted. Furthermore, she was subjected to an electroencephalogram (EEG); no brain anomalies were discovered. She was deemed fit to plead and stand trial. Ruth was properly arraigned in the higher courts on May 11, 1955.
Her trial started on Monday, June 20, 1955. Ruth, though not compelled to do so, took the stand. She had entering a plea of “not guilty”, not so much because she was innocent but without such a plea she would not be able to tell her side of her story in court. She held out little hope for an acquittal and, going, in she believed she would be easily convicted.
Her courtroom decorum and appearance did not win her any friends on the jury hearing the case. Ruth Ellis, in reality, was a truly sympathetic woman. Abused, misused, debased, and with her self-esteem shattered time and again, she could have used the details of her pathetic life as not only background to create pathos but she might have gotten away with a lesser charge (or an acquittal) to boot. Instead, Ruth entered the courtroom looking and acting every bit as brash and surly as any flighty party girl might be expected to look and act.
She refused to look anything less than her idea of glamorous despite attempts by her counsel to insure she looked conservative. She wore a closely tailored, smart-looking black suit, trimmed at the jacket’s collar and cuffs with astrakhan (a wooly material) over a sparkling white silk blouse. The suit may not have been enough to put the jury off but her hair did the trick—the head of Holloway Prison (at Ruth’s request) had allowed her to get a bright dye job, bleaching her hair to nearly white, and done up in a fresh hairstyle. The overall affect was one of sleaze to the jury.
The facts in evidence in the case were few but meaningfully damning. She was seen shooting Blakely by several witnesses, an off-duty cop took the still-smoking gun from her hand afterward, and she admitted the act.
The case on its surface looked cut-and-dry. Despite the glum outlook, Ruth could have done something to turn the tide somewhat in her favor, but she did not help herself in any way under questioning. She was clearly matter-of-fact about shooting Blakely. A critical issue, though, might have been undermined had she taken some time to think about one particular answer.
In Britain, premeditated or capital murder carried a mandatory death sentence. Premeditation (or intent) differentiated an act committed in the heat of the moment (the misleadingly romantic sounding “crime of passion” or, as the French liberally used in their literature, crime passionel) from the cold-blooded killing of another human. The prosecution asked, “Mrs. Ellis [the error in referring to her as “Mrs. Ellis” when she was clearly no longer married to George Ellis is not understood; it can only be presumed she had not reverted to her maiden name yet], when you fired that revolver at close range into the body of David Blakely, what did you intend to do?” Ruth’s reply, whether flippant sounding or not, was the truth and it condemned her to death under British law: “It is obvious that when I shot him, I intended to kill him.” This indicates premeditation and meant an automatic death sentence.
There was certainly more to her testimony but the damage in that one exchange was done. The trial only lasted a day and a half. Shortly before noon of Day 2 the jury (with an instruction from the judge about the difference between murder and manslaughter) retired to deliberate and came back with a verdict in 23 minutes. Ruth had given them nothing to work with—the jury found her guilty. Ruth’s response to hearing this led her to simply say, “Thanks,” fatalistically accepting everything that had led her to this time in her life.
The judge proclaimed the only sentence available to him under such restricted conditions. She was formally remanded “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 Ellis’ Last Stand
A key element that also stood in the way of Ruth being found guilty of a lesser charge was the fact a bystander had been injured during the shooting. Perhaps if the stray bullet had not injured someone else a jury could have seen her more as the long-suffering woman she really was. However, the exacerbation of the additional injured person only exacerbated sentiments against her.
She received the pronouncement of death with equanimity; she stayed calm and smiled wanly at her friends in the gallery before being led away. Ruth, while resolute in her desire to kill Blakely, was repentant and felt she deserved to die for what she had done. A provisional execution date was set for Wednesday, July 13, 1955, subject to change, of course, if Ruth filed any appeals or other motions. She made no requests for a judicial review (there can be no quibble over her trial—it was conducted properly) or reprieve.
She did not divulge Cussen’s part in this tragedy, though he was clearly complicit. He knew her state of mind that day, he had shown her how to shoot and later had given her the gun, and he had driven her to the tavern. He clearly knew what she was going to do.
Ruth, wanting to keep Cussen’s name out of investigators’ hands, said she had taken a taxi to the Findlaters’ neighborhood that night and had walked the rest of the way to The Magdala Tavern. [Apparently the taxi angle was never explored. Fare records could have proved or disproved this part of her story, but it seems no one checked. It appears authorities took her word for the events as she described them.] When asked where she had gotten the gun she claimed it had been given to her in 1952 by someone bartering it to clear a bar tab. [Friends of hers, including those who had helped her move her things from place to place, had never known of her to carry a weapon nor had they ever seen one among her belongings when helping her pack.]
The gun itself was not traceable in any meaningful way; it was surmised it had been brought to Britain during World War II. The bullets Ruth had used were determined (from the spent casings) to have been manufactured in 1941 (which might explain why the sixth round required two successive hammer drops to make it fire—the percussion cap could have been slightly worse for age, though still lethal had it found a target other than a stranger’s thumb.]
Ruth, who had been rootless most of her life, was afforded a relatively nice set-up awaiting execution at Holloway Prison. Though within fifteen feet of the execution chamber her suite was private and segregated from the general population. There was a sizeable living area containing a bed, table, and a wardrobe. She had a private bathroom with toilet, sink, and bathtub. A visitor’s area opened up through a private door leading from the bathroom—though Ruth was separated by a glass partition from them she was allowed many visitors.public interest in her case developed quickly. Many well-placed and well-intentioned people began petitioning for a commutation of her sentence or for a reprieve. The issue was taken up by many both public and private. Ruth’s father even wrote a rambling letter to the Home Secretary:
“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.”
The “three bad men” to whom Arthur Hornby Neilson referred are likely George Ellis (or possibly Morris Conley), David Blakely, and Desmond Cussen.
Some opposed granting her a reprieve, most notably the 53-year-old woman who’d taken a slug to the thumb from Ruth’s last shot. She wrote a vehement letter to the London Evening Standard that begged, “Don’t let us turn Ruth Ellis into a national heroine. I stood petrified and watched her kill David Blakely in cold blood. Do these people realize Ruth Ellis shot Blakely to the danger of the public? She 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.”
Mostly, though, public sentiment was positive. The one person who did not come to Ruth Ellis’ aid was Ruth Ellis. Any suggestions of pressing a clemency claim were rebuffed by her. And petitions submitted on her behalf were roundly dismissed—the law was clear and it had been cleanly applied. Even Ruth recognized this. No changes in her status or any stays of execution were pending—she was to die on the original scheduled date.
On Tuesday, July 12, 1955, at a bit after noon Ruth Ellis wrote up a statement in which she implicated Desmond Cussen as an accomplice (driving her to the scene, etc.). This was ignored as the claims could not be substantiated in a timely manner and the Home Office thought it might have been merely a ploy for a stay of execution.
She was weighed and her height measured (103 pounds and 5’2” respectively). This was so the hangman could calculate the correct rope length through which she should fall to be properly hanged (death was supposed to come from a snapped neck). Too short a drop and she would strangle to death slowly; too great a drop and her head could be torn off her neck. The gallows equipment was tested that day and found to be in good working order.
There were no public executions by this time in London but that evening an estimated 500 people milled around outside Holloway Prison’s walls. Many were supporters of hers, some were anti-capital punishment demonstrators, but others were merely curiosity-seekers. The prison administration had to call for extra police to keep the mob orderly—despite their presence several broke through the police line and banged on the prison’s gates, calling out to Ruth.
On her last day of life, Wednesday, July 13, 1955, Ruth Ellis was up early (by 6:30 AM). She wrote letters to people, one of whom was a professional who had assisted during her divorce from George Ellis. Her letter to this man confirms her desire to meet Death head on and an acceptance of her responsibility to society:
“Dear Mr. Simmons,
The time is seven o’clock a.m.—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 David’s mother. [In an earlier letter to Blakely's mother Ruth had said she was resigned to dying so Blakely’s death could be repaid in some way. She acknowledged the “eye-for-an-eye” of Babylonian King Hammurabi’s lex talionis.] Well Mr. Simmons, I have told the truth, and that’s all I can do. Thanks once again,
Ruth’s oldest brother, Julian, stood with the throng outside the prison—no other members of her family put in an appearance. Her parents, Elisaberta and Arthur Neilson, were at home with some of Ruth’s siblings. Clare Andrea Neilson (Ruth’s forgotten son, Andy) stayed with a woman of no relation—he somehow believed Ruth was away in Italy on a swimwear modeling assignment.
Ruth was given a snort of brandy and the prison chaplain was on hand to pray with her and give her communion.
Starting in 1923 and the hanging of Britain’s Edith Thompson all female capital offenders before mounting the gallows were required to wear a bulky pair of underwear (supplied by the prison) to cover their nether regions. As Edith died, she hemorrhaged from her uterus (leading, at the time, to the horrific conclusion she might have been pregnant—her autopsy showed she was not). The practical reason was to contain bowel and bladder evacuations at the time of death—men would be wearing pants, not prison gowns, and thus their excretions could be better held in check. Under observation of a female guard, Ruth put this garment on in her private bathroom. Done with that task she took off her eyeglasses and set them on her cell’s table. With no trace of intended irony, Ruth sighed, “I won’t be needing these anymore.”
Veteran executioner, Albert Pierrepoint (who had hanged some of Britain’s nastiest killers, including John Reginald Halliday Christie in July 1953) and an assistant came into Ruth’s cell just shy of 9 AM. Her wrists were bound behind her back with straps, and she was led to the gallows near her condemned cell. On the decking she was stood over the trap. Pierrepoint snugged the noose around her neck, and lowered a white hood over her head as his assistant bound her ankles together. Pierrepoint then pulled the trap lever. About 12 seconds after Ruth Ellis entered the chamber she was dead.
Per British law her body was left hanging at the end of the rope for one hour. Her autopsy afterward showed she had been hanged properly—her neck was dislocated leaving a 2” gap between vertebrae. Her post-mortem also gave her a clean bill of health, otherwise; she had no disease or defects in her organs or noted elsewhere on her body.
Ruth was buried on the prison grounds; when Holloway Prison was demolished years later, her son Andy (a young man of 26 by then) was granted permission to remove her remains to a church cemetery. Her new stone was simply inscribed “Ruth Hornby 1926–1955”. [He did this to promote anonymity for her—the average souvenir seeker is unaware of the Hornby family name.]
Hue & Cry
Ruth’s case judicially was one of an unbiased application of existing sentencing laws. She murdered David Blakely with malice aforethought, and she admitted this premeditation in open court. Had, for example, Blakely just beaten her and she shot him, an argument could have been made that he provoked her. However, at the time of her act he was doing nothing untoward. Thus, there were no grounds for the jury to consider manslaughter or for the judge to reconsider her sentence.
Some key problems for Ruth Ellis were both legal and a matter of perception. In a country that severely restricted access to firearms and frowned upon offenses involving them Ruth had used a gun. In doing so she had also injured an innocent bystander, an event that weighed heavily on the jury’s mind. Those are the black-and-white facts.
But the biggest problem was one of perception—by the standards of her day, Ruth’s morality had been put into consideration as an intangible by the jury. She was promiscuous. She had at least one known abortion. She had one illegitimate child (Andy) and one (Georgina) whose paternity was questioned by her husband. She was not a good or caring parent, leaving her children in the care of others or, as in Andy’s case, alone much of the time. She drank too much and used drugs. She was narcissistic (as evidenced by her splashy appearance in court knowing such flash would probably not sit well with the conservatives sitting in judgment of her). In short, Ruth Ellis was a horribly flawed woman. The judge, knowing how unsavory she appeared, had admonished the jury to not take her relatively loose lifestyle into the deliberating room. Though such morality issues had no place in court there is no way that no one on her jury did not sit in moral judgment of her.
After death, Ruth’s “cause” (though she had none) was carried forward by many. She became a poster-child for those against Britain’s death penalty laws.
Part of the outcry was legitimized by several legal precedents set well before her trial. In the 20th Century in Britain 90% of the 145 women sentenced to death were reprieved. And in the nearly 30-year span between 1926 and 1954, though 677 men and 60 women were sentenced, only 375 men and 7 women were executed (slightly over half). Britain’s last execution was in 1964.
Many British killers before Ruth Ellis had been granted stays of execution and later reprieves. [Three other murderers, all committing crimes more heinous than Ruth’s, were reprieved early the same year she was executed.] On average, for those with sentences commuted to life in prison, time served ranged between 10 and 12 years. Thus, it seems Ruth might have had a chance at life had she chosen it; based on British inmate statistics she might have been a free woman as early as 1965.
David Blakely was not a sympathetic victim. He was arrogant and criminally abusive and while Ruth’s killing him was all out of proportion to any crimes he committed against her the world lost little with his demise. Ruth’s crime was also based on flightiness, and she acted out of revenge. It seems unlikely that she would ever have been a public menace had she merely served a decade or so in prison and been paroled.
The public felt she needn’t have been put to death. After all, she was a mother of two small children (an immaterial and unimportant fact). She had been wronged by Blakely, abused by him, and humiliated by him (also not material—her lethal force response to his accumulated outrages was unlawful). But more than anything else (again, as compared with the average British woman of the day) Ruth Ellis was pretty. She was sexy. And pretty, sexy women shouldn’t hang.
Not surprisingly one of the first people to see the real truth behind Ruth’s becoming a cause célèbre was none other than her executioner, Albert Pierrepoint. The press had given much lurid coverage of Ruth after her arrest and in the wake of her short trial, most of which focused on her physical attractiveness and the titillation provided by her sleeping around with no one knew how many men.
The last woman hanged in England before Ruth was Styllou Christofi (a Greek Cypriot living in England). Pierrepoint had carried out the Crown’s sentence on her eight months before hanging Ruth. Christofi’s crime was particularly heinous. In midsummer 1954 she bashed her daughter-in-law, Hella, in the head, then strangled her, and dragged her body outside and immolated it with paraffin to cover the crime. Her reason for killing Hella (a German woman) had to do with some rustic Greek idea about family and honor. She looked like a hatchet-faced Mediterranean peasant, and the middle-aged Christofi had garnered almost no press, at least not of the sympathetic kind Ruth generated. No one publicly called for her reprieve at the time.
The hangman Pierrepoint (who retired in a dispute over his fees in 1956) had a career total of 433 men and 17 women to his credit when he gave it up. News people harangued him mercilessly before and after Ruth’s execution. All wanted to know his feelings about Ruth, and asking how he could justify putting such a woman on the gallows, etc. Pierrepoint saw through all this and bluntly made his suspicions known to the press. He cut to the chase—he pointedly asked those reporters so keen on Ruth’s “plight” why they had not taken such an intense interest in Styllou Christofi less than a year before.
And Pierrepoint’s take on his chosen life’s work was not without its irony. In 1974, reflecting on his years as an executioner (and responsible for the deaths of 450 people) he wrote:
“I have come to the conclusion that executions solve nothing. It is said to be a deterrent. If death were a deterrent, I might be expected to know. It is I who have faced them last, young lads and girls, working men and grandmothers. It did not deter them. All the men and women who I have faced at that final moment convince me that in what I have done I have not prevented a single murder.”
In the annals of crime Ruth Ellis is not that interesting. Her life was a circus of flaky and abusive men, booze, and drugs; in that, she is not unique. Her crime is not that out of the ordinary, either—the plebeian shooting of her abusive and unfaithful lover is hackneyed. It is only her perceived prettiness that generates sympathy and has kept Ruth Ellis on the A-list of amateur historians and criminologists. Characterizations of her have appeared in pop culture; she has been fictionalized in a few movies, novels, and a couple of stage plays.
Albert Pierrepoint, Ruth’s executioner, died at age 87, coincidentally, on July 13, 1992, the 37th anniversary day of her death.
George Ellis, Ruth’s ex-husband, hanged himself in the summer of 1958. His boozing led to misdemeanor convictions for public drunkenness and for disturbing the peace. He had also lost his latest job in Warrington. He checked into a hotel on the Channel Island of Jersey (very near the French coast line). On August 2, 1958, apparently despairing over his life and having no money to pay his hotel bill (£37) he looped a rope around the bed’s headboard and managed to strangle himself to death.
Georgina, the baby George Ellis had denied fathering, had been in his care at the time of his suicide. She was adopted out later, and she died of cancer at the age of 50.
Clare Andrea Neilson, “Andy”, having no good parental influence in his life turned into a pathetic wastrel. Most of his early childhood was spent in the care of his grandmother and Ruth’s sister, Muriel. Blakely did not like children, so he made the boy uncomfortable whenever he popped in to Ruth’s apartment and Andy was there. Desmond Cussen (keeping a promise he had made to Ruth) paid for Andy’s schooling but made no attempt to properly look after the boy, never contacting him. Andy ended up leaving school and going to live with his grandmother, Elisaberta (by then working again as a domestic). He seemed afflicted with some emotional and mental health problems as he grew into a young adult; much of his time was spent aimlessly riding trains. He had handled the transfer of Ruth’s remains from the old Holloway Prison grounds (c. 1970) to the churchyard she currently lies in. In 1982, the disturbed son of Ruth Ellis went out to her grave and damaged her headstone. In August of that year he killed himself with a combination of alcohol and drugs.
Desmond Cussen, the man who pined for Ruth while she chased after another man, sold his interest in his family’s business and migrated to Australia in 1964. He failed at multiple business ventures on Australia’s east coast before crossing the continent to Perth on the west coast. His business acumen was no better there. A British television producer in June 1977 ran Cussen to ground Down Under. He granted an interview which shed little light on his involvement in Ruth’s case. He denied he had driven Ruth to The Magdala Tavern (though a witness had noted his presence on the scene) or supplied her with the murder weapon (though Andy, a 10-year-old boy with no ax to grind, told police he had seen Cussen give her the gun, and they chose not to follow up on that lead).
In June 1977, Peter Williams, a British television producer, tracked Cussen down and interviewed him. He mentioned his special friendship with Ruth—and, he spoke well of Blakely (his clear rival for her affections). He also pointed out that she was apparently someone who reveled in her minor celebrity. He said that when he visited her in prison while she awaited execution she complained about not being given uncensored newspapers (articles about her and the current state of her “celebrity” were excised before she received any print media). Cussen was quoted as saying she had wanted to read about herself and was disappointed that she could not: “She loved the headlines she was making. She always wanted to be a star. She achieved that, didn’t she?”
Cussen was a drunkard by that time, making his own booze at home to avoid having to go out and get it. On April 24, 1991, he injured himself badly in his home, dislocating his neck. A neighbor found him lying there; he was taken to a hospital where he died on May 8 from complications of his injury compounded with a case of pneumonia.
Elisaberta, Ruth’s mother, did not fare well after Ruth’s execution. While she tried to keep Andy she was having her own personal problems and her mental health deteriorated. She worked as a domestic, but in 1969 she was found lying unconscious in her apartment. The room in which she lay was filled with gas, and while it is unclear if she meant to commit suicide or this was an accident she never fully regained her faculties. She was left unable to speak coherently.
Ruth Ellis’ legacy is a miserable one. She was a good-time girl and very self-centered. Her crime was not particularly noteworthy but she has achieved a level of dubious immortality. In a recollection after she was arrested she said, “I used to be good company and fun to be with. David had turned me into a surly, miserable woman. I was growing to loathe him, he was so conceited and said all women loved him. He was so much in love with himself.”
What an ironic statement. Ruth Ellis had two children whom she foisted off on her older sister, her mother, and her ex-husband so she could not only pursue her party-girl lifestyle but also be free to carouse with David Blakely. She used the besotted Desmond Cussen for financial and emotional support, throwing him occasional sex with her as a part-payment while she pursued Blakely. It seems, then, that Ruth Ellis, like David Blakely, was also very much in love with herself.
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