In my last blog, I wrote about Della Sorensen, a Nebraska housewife who poisoned eight members of her own family. This week’s case takes us to London where, in 1955, Ruth Ellis shot and killed her racecar driver lover.
Ruth Ellis was born Ruth Neilson on October 9, 1926 in Rhyl, Denbighshire, Wales. Her childhood was anything but idyllic. When Ruth was age two, her father, Arthur’s, brother died when his bicycle collided with a steam wagon. Soon afterward, Arthur became physically and sexually abusive toward his two daughters, Muriel and Ruth.
In 1941 when Ruth was 15, she became friends with her brother’s girlfriend, Enda Turvey. Muriel later said that Edna introduced Ruth to “the fast life.” The two moved to London and lodged with Ruth’s father, who had moved there earlier. Arthur continued to abuse Ruth while at the same time carrying on an affair with Edna. It was a pitiful environment for a teenager to grow into a young woman.
By the end of the late 1940s, Ruth had engaged in nude modelling. Through those jobs, she became a nightclub hostess at the Court Club. The sexual abuse continued, as the manager of the club, Morris Conley, blackmailed his hostesses into sleeping with him. By the start of the new decade, Ruth was working full-time as an escort.
On November 5, 1950, Ruth married George Johnston Ellis, a divorced dentist and a regular at the Court Club. He was 41 and Ruth was 23. Ellis was an abusive, possessive alcoholic who convinced himself that his new wife was having an affair. When she gave birth to a daughter, Georgina, in 1951, Ellis refused to acknowledge paternity. The couple separated soon after and later divorced.
Ruth Ellis and David Blakely
Ruth Ellis became the manager of The Little Club in Knightsbridge in 1953. In that role, she had many admirers and was friends with more than a few celebrities. And it was at The Little Club that she met David Blakely, a hard-drinking playboy and racecar driver. Within a few weeks, he moved into Ruth’s flat above the nightclub, despite being engaged to another woman. Ruth became pregnant but terminated the pregnancy.
Ruth then began seeing Desmond Cussen, a former bomber pilot who was now an accountant and a director in his family’s tobacco business. She soon moved in with Cussen. However, she continued to see David Blakely. That relationship grew increasingly violent as both Ruth and Blakely continued to see other people. On New Year’s Day 1955, the couple agreed to marry. But then Ruth, pregnant again, suffered a miscarriage after Blakely punched her in the stomach.
The Murder of David Blakely
On Easter Sunday, April 10, 1955, Ruth took a taxi to the flat of friends where she thought Blakely might be. She arrived only to see his car drive off. Walking to a nearby pub, the Magdala, she saw Blakely’s car parked outside.
About 9:30 p.m., Blakely and his friend, Clive Gunnell, came out of the pub. As Blakely walked by, Ruth emerged from the doorway of the newsagent next door. When he reached for his car keys, she took a .38 caliber revolve out of her purse and fired. The first shot missed. As Blakely ran around to the other side of the car, a second shot caused him to collapse to the pavement. She then stood over him and fired three more bullets into the prostrate Blakely. The last one was so close it left power burns on his skin. She tried several times to fire the sixth bullet in the revolver’s chamber, finally succeeding in firing it into the ground. That shot ricocheted and injured a bystander who lost the use of her right thumb.
Ruth Ellis on Trial
Taken to the Hampstead police station, Ruth appeared calm and sober. At a magistrate’s court hearing on April 11, the court ordered her held on remand (i.e., without bail). Examinations by the Principal Medical Officer and two psychiatrists found no evidence of mental illness or insanity.
On June 20, 1955, Ruth appeared before Mr. Justice Havers in London’s Old Bailey. In court, she wore fashionable clothes and sported freshly bleached and styled hair. Her defense counsel, Aubrey Stevenson, expressed concern about her appearance but she declined to change it to be less striking.
Christmas Humphreys for the prosecution asked Ruth only one question. “When you fired the revolver at close range into the body of David Blakely, what did you intend to do?” She replied, “It’s obvious when I shot him I intended to kill him.” That answer guaranteed a guilty verdict and a sentence of death. It took the jury only 20 minutes to convict her.
Ruth Ellis awaited execution at Holloway Prison. She told her mother she didn’t want a reprieve and refused to be part of the campaign. Her solicitor, John Bickford, did, however, send a seven-page letter to Home Secretary Gwilym Lloyd George. In it, he outlined grounds for a reprieve. Lloyd George (son of the World War I Prime Minister) denied the request.
The day before her scheduled hanging, Ruth revealed that Desmond Cussen had given her the murder gun. She also revealed that Cussen and not a taxi drove her to the murder scene. Lloyd George, however, saw this added information as further evidence of premeditation. He also said the injury to the bystander was a decisive point in his refusal to grant a reprieve.
While in prison awaiting her date with the hangman, Ruth wrote a letter to Blakely’s parents. In it she said, “I have always loved your son, and I shall die still loving him.”
Just before 9:00 a.m. on July 13, 1955, executioner Albert Pierrepoint and his assistant removed Ruth from her cell. They then took her to the death chamber where she was hanged. As was customary, she was buried in an unmarked grave inside the walls of Holloway Prison. In the early 1970s, the government exhumed the remains of executed women for reburial elsewhere. Ruth was reburied in the churchyard of St. Mary’s Church in Amersham, Buckinghamshire.
Ruth Ellis was the last woman to be hanged in Britain. Her case ignited widespread controversy, garnering exceptionally intense interest from the press and public. The public as a whole supported the death sentence, but the case was a significant factor in gathering support for the abolition of capital punishment. Britain ended capital punishment in 1964.
Today, Ruth would most likely be seen as a battered woman. It is improbable that she would be convicted of first-degree murder and virtually certain she would not have been executed.
For more information about Ruth Ellis and her controversial case, there are several books you can read. Before her own death from cancer in 2001, Ruth’s daughter, Georgina, wrote Ruth Ellis, My Mother. Her sister, Muriel, also wrote a book, Ruth Ellis: My Sister’s Secret Life. Both of these are older and may be harder to find. Two more recent books are A Fine Day for a Hanging by Carol Ann Lee, Robert Hancock’s The Last Woman Hanged, and Crime of Passion by Tracey James.
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