Ruth Ellis: Sex, Love, Abuse, and Murder

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

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.

Ruth Ellis in a photo probably taken in the flat above The Little Club  (Hutton Archive)
Ruth Ellis in a photo probably taken in the flat above The Little Club (Hutton Archive)

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.

Ruth Ellis
Ruth Ellis

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.

Racecar driver David Blakely
Racecar driver David Blakely

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.

David Blakely
David Blakely

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.

Ruth and David Blakely at The Little Club in 1955
Ruth and David Blakely at The Little Club in 1955

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.

The Magdala Pub in 2008 (Steve Bowen/Wikipedia)
The Magdala Pub in 2008 (Steve Bowen/Wikipedia)

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.

The Execution

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.

Notice of the hanging of Ruth Ellis posted on the door of Holloway Prison on the day before the execution 1955 (Mirrorpix)
Notice of the hanging of Ruth Ellis posted on the door of Holloway Prison on the day before the execution 1955 (Mirrorpix)

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.”

The crowd gathered outside Holloway Prison at 9:00 a.m. on the morning of the execution (Mirropix)
The crowd gathered outside Holloway Prison at 9:00 a.m. on the morning of the execution (Mirropix)

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.

Epilogue

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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Michael Stone: Hammer Killer Gets Lifetime in Prison

It’s been a while since I featured an English crime. So, this week, we leave murderous doctor Dirk Greineder behind in Massachusetts and travel across the pond to Kent, England. It was there in 1996 that a man wielding a hammer attacked Dr. Lin Russell and her two daughters. Michael Stone was the man convicted of killing Dr. Russell and one of the girls.

Michael Stone

Michael Stone, born in Royal Tunbridge Wells, Kent didn’t have the easiest childhood. For one thing, his paternity was uncertain. Stone’s birth certificate lists Ivor Goodban as his father. But later, he considered Peter Stone, another of his mother’s partners, to be his true father and took his name. However, neither man acknowledged Michael as their son.

Michael Stone after the failure of his 2011 appeal (Reuters)
Michael Stone after the failure of his 2011 appeal (Reuters)

From that shaky start, things got worse. Domestic violence was routine in his family home. But things were no better when he was placed in a care home, as he was abused there. At one point, he suffered beatings with a hammer. He also saw his mother’s former partner attack a man with a meat cleaver. By age nine, Michael started using drugs and committing crimes, and by twelve he had a police record.

Once he left the care system, Stone began using heroin and soon had a £1,500 a week addiction. Like many addicts, he financed his addiction by committing crimes. In the 1980s and 1990s, he served prison sentences for robbery, burglary, and assault. He carried weapons and sometimes attacked victims by squirting ammonia in their faces from a plastic lemon juice bottle. Police considered Stone a suspect in the 1976 murder of former special constable Francis Jegou. Stone was 16 at the time but was already an established and prolific offender.

The Russell Murders

On the summer day of July 9, 1996, Dr. Lin Russell, her two daughters, and their dog walked home from a swim party. Their path took them down a country lane in Chillenden, Kent. When they walked past a parked car, a man jumped out brandishing a claw hammer and demanded money. Told they didn’t have any money with them, the man tied them up and started hitting them with the hammer. Lin urged Josie, then nine, to run home and get help. But the attacker caught the girl, blindfolded her with strips from her swimming towel, and tied her to a tree. He then bludgeoned her until she passed out. After the fifteen-minute attack was over, the man drove off in his car.

The Russell family in happier times (Kent News Pictures)
The Russell family in happier times (Kent News Pictures)

Lin Russell, 45, was dead. So were six-year-old Megan and the family dog, Lucy. Miraculously, Josie survived. The damage to her skull required doctors to insert a metal plate, and they had to remove some of her brain tissue. Josie had to learn to speak all over again after the assault.

Josie (L) and Megan (R) Russell shortly before the murders (Tempest)
Josie (L) and Megan (R) Russell shortly before the murders (Tempest)

Michael Stone Arrested and Convicted

In July 1997, police received several tips after the television program Crimewatch aired an episode on the Russell murders. Those tips led to the arrest of Michael Stone, then 37. Stone couldn’t provide an alibi. He said he couldn’t remember where he was because he was taking so many drugs. Besides, he said, it was a long time ago.

Stone went on trial in 1998. Investigators had collected some items of physical evidence from the crime scene. These included bloody towels, a black shoelace, and a hammer. Given the scientific capabilities of the time, police were unable to link any of this evidence to Stone. There were also eyewitnesses who testified to seeing a man in the vicinity of the murders. But it was uncertain that the man the witnesses had seen was the attacker.

The main evidence against Michael Stone came from a man named Damien Daley. Daley was in jail at the same time as Stone. He testified that Stone confessed to the Russell murders during a conversation they had through a heating pipe. Two other prisoners, Mark Jennings and Barry Thompson, testified that Stone suggested his involvement in the murders to them.

The jury deliberated for nearly fifteen hours over two days before returning a guilty verdict. Mr. Justice Poole sentenced Stone to three life sentences with a tariff of 25 years. The tariff meant he would have to spend at least 25 years in prison before he could be considered for release.

The Michael Stone Trial Round Two

In February 2001, the Court of Appeals granted Stone a new trial. Within 24 hours of the first trial’s conclusion, Barry Thompson admitted he’d lied about Stone confessing to him. Later, it emerged that The Sun newspaper had paid Mark Jennings £5,000 and promised him a further £10,000. The court therefore deemed his evidence unreliable.

A second trial didn’t bring a different result, however. In less time than it took the first jury, the jury Stone’s second trial returned a guilty verdict. His sentence was the same: three life sentences with a tariff of 25 years. The judge opined that a whole-life order was appropriate, but 25 years was the maximum tariff he could legally impose.

Josie Russell survived Michael Stone's brutal hammer attack and is now a successful textile artist (PA)
Josie Russell survived Michael Stone’s brutal hammer attack and is now a successful textile artist (PA)

Epilogue

In 2013, criminologist David Wilson suggested serial killer Levi Bellfield as the possible perpetrator in the Russell murders. But Bellfield’s girlfriend at the time, Johanna Collings maintained that he was with her all day that July 9. Although he harbors doubts about Stone’s conviction, Wilson eventually concluded that Bellfield probably did not kill Lin and Megan Russell.

Levi Bellfield (PA)
Levi Bellfield (PA)

Michael Stone remains in prison and continues to maintain his innocence. All appeals of his second conviction to date have all failed.

Michael Stone (Stephen Hird/Reuters)
Michael Stone (Stephen Hird/Reuters)

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John Christie: Hidden Secrets of a Serial Killer

Last week we covered the case of Timothy Evans. Evans, you may recall, was hanged in 1950 for killing is infant daughter. But the real murderer was the man we discuss today, John Christie.

John Christie

John Reginald Halliday Christie (“Reg” to friends and family) was born in 1899 in Yorkshire, in northern England. The sixth of seven children, he had a troubled relationship with his father. Also, his mother and older sisters alternately coddled or bullied young Reg, so his childhood couldn’t have been very happy.

John Reginald Halliday Christie
John Reginald Halliday Christie

Christie served as a signalman in the British Army during World War I. During June 1918, he was wounded in a mustard gas attack and convalesced in a hospital in Calais. He later claimed that the attack left him blind and mute for three years but there is no historical evidence for this. His inability to speak much above a whisper was likely a psychological reaction to the gassing, not a physical one.

John Reginald Christie and his wife Ethel
John Reginald Christie and his wife Ethel

Christie married Ethel Simpson on May 10, 1920. The separated after four years, likely because of his habit of visiting prostitutes and his criminal activities.

Christie’s Criminal Career

Beginning shortly after his marriage, John Christie had run-ins with the law that sent him to prison several times. His first conviction was in 1921 for stealing postal orders (he worked as a postman). Other convictions were for obtaining money under false pretenses, larceny, and assaulting a woman with a cricket bat.

Police outside the flat at10 Rillington Place
Police outside 10 the flat at Rillington Place

After his release from H.M. Prison Wandsworth in 1934. Christie abandoned his career of petty crimes. He and Ethel reunited and moved to the top floor flat at 10 Rillington Place in the Notting Hill section of London. At the time, Rillington Place consisted of houses cheaply built in the 1870s that had deteriorated from poor upkeep. By the 1940s, they had become multi-tenant rentals. There was no indoor toilet and the street was close to an above-ground section of the Metropolitan rail line. The squalor is evident from photographs taken in 1953 after Christie’s murders came to light.

Christie and Ethel moved to 10 Rillington Place’s ground floor flat in 1938.

The Murders Begin

John Christie committed his first murder (at least the first he admitted) on August 24, 1943. He lured Ruth Fuerst, an Austrian munitions worker and sometimes prostitute back to his home for sex and strangled her afterwards with a rope. He initially hid her body under the floorboards of his living room, later burying her in the back garden.

The back garden at 10 Rillington Place where Christie buried his first two victims
The back garden at 10 Rillington Place where Christie buried his first two victims

Christie’s next victim was Muriel Amelia Eady, a coworker at the Acton radio factory where he was a clerk. Promising to cure her bronchitis with a “special mixture,” he instead had her breathe domestic gas, which soon rendered her unconscious. He then raped and strangled her. (Note that domestic gas in the 1940s was coal gas, which is 15 percent carbon monoxide). He buried Eady beside Fuerst.

John Christie Murders Beryl Evans

In 1948, Timothy Evans and his wife, Beryl moved into the top-floor flat at 10 Rillington Place. When Evans went to the police in late 1949 and told them his wife was dead, he blamed Christie, saying it was a botched abortion.

When police found Beryl’s and daughter Geraldine’s bodies in a detached washhouse, they extracted a confession from Evans. Charged with murdering his daughter, Evans recanted his confession, but a jury convicted him anyway. He was hanged at H.M. Prison Pentonville on March 9, 1950.

After the discovery that John Christie was a serial killer, he confessed to murdering Beryl Evans. Although he didn’t confess to strangling Geraldine, authorities assumed he killed them both and most historians agree.

John Christie is a Serial Killer

On December 14, 1952, Ethel Christie became John’s next victim when he strangled her in bed. He placed her body under the floorboards of the front room of the flat. Since he had quit his job, he sold Ethel’s wedding ring and clothes as well as some furniture to support himself.

Between January 19 and March 6, 1953, Christie lured three more women to 10 Rillington Place. There he gassed them with carbon monoxide-laden domestic gas before raping and strangling them. He then placed the bodies in a small alcove behind the back kitchen wall. He later papered over the entrance to the alcove.

The kitchen alcove where the last three bodies were discovered
The kitchen alcove where the last three bodies were discovered

Discovery

John Christie fraudulently sublet his flat to a couple on March 20, 1953 and moved out. That same evening, the landlord popped in and, discovering the couple and not Christie, demanded that they leave the next day. He also gave the tenant of the kitchen-less top floor flat, Beresford Brown, permission to use Christie’s kitchen. Brown found the alcove when he went to hang brackets for a radio. Peeling back the wallpaper, he saw the bodies. He informed police and a manhunt for Christie began.

Meanwhile, Christie had booked in at an inexpensive hotel. He’d booked seven nights but left after staying only four when news of the Rillington Place murders broke. He wandered London until March 31, when police arrested him near Putney Bridge. He was virtually penniless.

John Christie under arrest
John Christie under arrest

Trial and Conviction

John Christie went on trial for the murder of his wife on June 22, 1953. He sat in the same courtroom where, three years earlier, he had testified against Timothy Evans. Christy pled insanity and claimed to have a poor memory of events. A Dr. Matheson from H.M. Prison Brixton testified that Christie had a “hysterical personality” but wasn’t insane. The jury rejected the insanity plea, taking only 85 minutes to return a guilty verdict.

A police van delivers John Christie to court for trial
A police van delivers John Christie to court for trial

Home Secretary David Maxwell Fyfe said that he couldn’t find any grounds to reprieve Christie. He went to the gallows at H.M. Prison Pentonville—as did Evans—on July 15, 1953. Evans’ executioner, Albert Pierrepoint, also did the honors for Christie.

A crowd outside H.M. Prison Pentonville awaits news of Christie's execution
A crowd outside H.M. Prison Pentonville awaits news of Christie’s execution

Epilogue

There has been speculation that Christie may have had more victims than the seven women and one child attributed to him. No attempt was made at the time to link him to other missing women. However, historian Jonathan Oates considers it unlikely Christie would have deviated from his standard method of killing in his residence.

As mentioned last week, several books discuss the crimes at 10 Rillington Place. The classic work on the case is Ludovic Kennedy’s Ten Rillington Place, but it appears to be out of print.

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Timothy Evans: A Murder Case Hangs the Wrong Man

From last week’s tale of an Old West badman, we go to postwar England. There we meet Timothy Evans, a man who—spoiler alert—went to the gallows for a murder he didn’t commit.

Timothy Evans

Timothy Evans was born in Wales in 1924. His childhood was nothing to envy. His father abandoned the family even before young Timothy’s birth. As a boy, Timothy had difficulty learning to speak and didn’t do well at school. An ailment that caused him to miss a lot of school, which further impeded his education. He also had a habit of making up boastful stories as a means of boosting his self-image.

Timothy Evans
Timothy Evans

Evans married Beryl Thorley in the fall of 1947. They initially lived with his family but moved when Beryl found out she was pregnant. They rented the top-floor flat at 10 Rillington place in the Notting Hill District of West London. Their downstairs neighbors were postal clerk John Christie and his wife, Ethel.

Evans and Beryl fought a lot. He claimed she was a lousy housekeeper and unable to manage the family finances. For his part, Evans spent much of the family income on liquor, which made his already short temper even worse. That was the situation when Beryl turned up pregnant again in 1949. Already struggling financially, Beryl decided to have an abortion (illegal in Britain at the time).

Timothy and Beryl Evans
Timothy and Beryl Evans

Beryl Evans Disappears

On November 30, 1949, Evans reported to police that his wife had died under unusual circumstances. At first, he said he’d accidentally killed her when he gave her a bottle of a supposed abortifacient. Police examined the sewer drain where he claimed to have stashed the body. They concluded he was lying when they found nothing and discovered it took three officers to lift the manhole cover.

When questioned again, Evans claimed his downstairs neighbor, John Christie, had agreed to perform an abortion on Beryl. Evans said he returned home from work only to have Christie tell him the operation was a failure and Beryl was dead.

On hearing this second story, police made a preliminary search of 10 Rillington Place, finding nothing. However, a second search on December 2 uncovered the body of Beryl Evans. She had been wrapped in a tablecloth and placed in a small outbuilding on the property. Beside her was the body of the Evans’ infant daughter, Geraldine.

Timothy Evans on Trial

In an investigation that was later to come under much criticism, police extracted a confession from Evans. Writers after the fact have accused the police of feeding Evans details for his confession. Some believe police also edited the confession after the fact to make it more incriminating. Evans himself said he feared violence at the hands of the police if he didn’t confess. Furthermore, there was a shocking lack of forensic investigation.

Timothy Evans (center), being escorted by police from Paddington Station to Notting Hill Police Station, December 1949
The photograph was obtained from the online version of the Camden New Journal, www.camdennewjournal.co.uk, the specific article from where the photo came from being http://www.camdennewjournal.co.uk/archive/r100703_6.htm. Copyright lies with the press agency who employed the photographer who took the photograph, which was Associated News according to Ludovic Kennedy's Ten Rillington Place (Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1961)., Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24197378
Timothy Evans (center), being escorted by police from Paddington Station to Notting Hill Police Station, December 1949

Evans went on trial on January 11, 1950, charged with the murder of his daughter, Geraldine. He recanted his confession and blamed his neighbor, John Christie for the murders. Christine and his wife, Ethel, appeared as witness against Evans. Christie denied having anything to do with an abortion and described in detail the quarrels between Evans and Beryl. After a three-day trial, it took the jury only 40 minutes to return with a conviction for murder. After a failed appeal, he went to the gallows at H.M. Prison Pentonville on March 9, 1950.

Epilogue

Several books discuss the crimes at 10 Rillington Place. One of these is a short treatise called A House to Remember by Edna Gammon. Another is John Eddowes’ The Two Killers of Rillington Place. Of course, the classic work on the case is Ludovic Kennedy’s 10 Rillington Place, but it appears to be out of print.

In the event, it turned out the Evans’ claim that Christie committed the murders was true. Three years after Evans’ execution, the discovery of three bodies inside 10 Rillington Place revealed John Christie to be a serial killer. We’ll discuss Christie in more detail in next week’s blog.

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