Ruth as a youngster
9.30pm Easter Sunday, April 10th 1955. Hampstead, London. A tall, dark man leaves the Magdala pub. As he walks to his car, a small slim blonde shouts his name as she takes a .38 Smith and Wesson revolver from her handbag. Her first shot misses, the second brings him down. The blonde walks over to him as he lies on the pavement, she fires three more shots. She then lifts the gun to her head and pulls the trigger.
It jams. As she lowers the gun it discharges, the bullet ricochets and hits a passerby in the hand. The blonde turns to a man in the crowd. “Can you get the police?”
“Madam,” he said, ‘I am the police.’
It’s a famous story, but worth revisiting. The tall, dark man was the would be playboy/racing driver David Blakely. The blonde was Ruth Ellis. She died on the scaffold 13 weeks later, age 28. Her youngest child was only three years old.
Ruth was the last woman to be hanged in Britain and the national outcry contributed to the abolition of capital punishment and led directly to the introduction of the defence ‘diminished responsibility’ in English law.
Her case is intriguing. A simple crime of passion? Or something more worthy of John Le Carre? I've found more than a few references to spies, Philby, McLean, Stephen Ward and Profumo while reading around her life. There is much that does not add up. And so much more that is just wrong.
Ruth Neilson was born in Rhyl, North Wales, her family followed their musician father round the country. It was a tough life. As a child Ruth was rebellious, but never bright. When she was 14, the family moved to London. It was only six years post war, work was scarce but Ruth got a job in a factory. Then the mousey brunette became a platinum blonde and hung about the dance halls of central London with her one good frock, gravy browning and a pencil line on her legs to mimic stockings, pinching her cheeks to redden them instead of blusher. At the dancing she met a Canadian soldier ten years her senior, no doubt he had a wide smile and a full wallet. He wined and dined her, sent her flowers. It was only when Ruth fell pregnant by him that she learned he was married with kids of his own. She was 17.
Leaving her son with her mother, Ruth found work at The Camera Club where ladies posed nude for men to photograph (with cameras that rarely contained film). Ruth was on the slippery slope from naked model, to hostess at the Court Club, then a bit more than a hostess. (To put that in perspective; £2 for a week's work at Woolies. £20 for working at the Court Club.) As a hostess she sold overpriced drink to clientele and made extra money by offering extras. She went on to manage The Little Club in Knightsbridge where she worked hard. After a couple of years and a few illegal abortions she met dentist George Ellis, 21 years older than her. They married, but it lasted less than a year, fuelled by his alcoholism and her pathological jealousy. By the time Ruth walked out, she was pregnant with their daughter Georgina.
Then David Blakely walked into The Little Club. He was everything she wanted in a man; upper class, tall, charming... and he had just come into an inheritance. He had aspirations to be a racing driver but in reality, he was a spendthrift playboy who couldn’t keep a job and was soon dossing in Ruth's flat over the nightclub and drinking most of her profits. His friends thought she was brash and common. Her boss told her to choose Blakely or the job. She chose Blakely, making herself jobless and homeless even though Blakely is on record as punching her in the face in front of his friends....
Then Desmond Cussen came on the scene. He was also older, and seemed to love her. He put a roof over her head but she treated him as badly as Blakely treated her. Cussen and Ellis lived together, with Blakely staying overnight and sharing their bed with Ruth.
In late March 1955, she found she was pregnant with Blakely’s baby. He punched her in the stomach, she miscarried, he walked away. By Easter Ruth was determined to track Blakely down, he had been in hiding. Cussen thought it was a good idea to give Ruth a gun, teach her how to fire it then on Easter Sunday he got her drunk on Pernod, gave her some tranquilizers and drove her to the Magdala pub .... the bullet holes are still visible in the bricks.
After the shooting Ruth was taken to Hampstead, ‘confused’. She admitted it all without mentioning Cussen at all. She was charged with murder and on 20th June she stood trial at the Old Bailey in front of Lord Justice Cecil Havers. She had been told to play down her sexuality but instead she dyed her hair peroxide again and painted her lips red. There is a report that one juror muttered 'tart' as she walked into the dock.
The trial lasted two days.
The evidence not heard is interesting. Had she been of sound mind? The drugs evidence? The alcohol? The hormonal effect of the loss of the child, to say nothing of the emotional impact? How does a novice manage to fire a gun so well? There was little mention of Cussen’s role in the murder. At no point was Cussen asked about his gun or his whereabouts. The conviction is arguably unsafe and the original trial was mismanaged but her statement “I shot him because I wanted to kill him” put the noose round her neck. As the law stood then, she was guilty. The facts were simple, there were no mitigating circumstances. The jury came back in 23 minutes and the judge sentenced her to death by hanging. She was quite calm.
Then the tide seems to have turned. 50,000 people signed a petition. There had been no such reaction to the previous two executions of women: in 1953, middle aged housekeeper Louisa Merrifield was hanged for killing her employer Sarah Ricketts with rat poison, while in 1954 Styllou Christofi strangled her daughter-in-law in a fit of jealousy and set the body on fire in the garden. A week before she died, a reprieve was granted to a 40-year-old woman who had battered her 86-year-old neighbour to death with a shovel after a long-running feud. At the time of these trials, provocation was narrowly interpreted, applying only to killers who reacted "in hot blood" to something happening immediately before the killing. In the 90s, however, judges softened the law on provocation, opening it up to battered women and others whose self-control was affected by despair or depression.
When told about the petition to save her, Ruth is quoted as saying, "I am very grateful to them. But I am quite happy to die."
The day before she died, Ruth did tell her defence counsel about Cussen's role, he tracked down the home secretary, they tried to find Cussen but he had gone into hiding. She was taken, calmly to the gallows. Albert Pierrepoint, the hangman said she was peaceful and polite, she greeted him with a smile. He later said that he felt it was wrong and resigned soon afterwards.
Ruth and Desmond
Cussen went to Australia where he died in his late 60's. Ruth's sister believes that Ruth protected him during the trial because he had promised to look after her family. And he did.
The sister also says that their father had raped her at the age of 14, producing a son who was brought up as her brother, and had probably abused Ellis as well.
The defence counsel today would be spoiled for choice; clinical depression, battered spouse syndrome, post-natal/ post-miscarriage depression. There was only 10 days between the miscarriage and the murder.
Ruth is the subject of more than 17 books and the 1985 film Dance with a Stranger. Her daughter Georgina died of cancer in 2001 and her son Andy committed suicide in 1982.
Her legacy is the defence of diminished responsibility.
In a weird twist, she appears briefly (pregnant) in the film 'Lady Godiva Rides Again' with Diana Dors.
I think she is the second beauty queen to walk out, jet black hair cut in a bob.
There was no film star career for her. But I think she would be pleased that her name still burns bright in legal history.
Caro GB 22nd March 2013