Nightclub hostess Ruth Ellis was executed 65 years ago this July, but her story still shows how women are unfairly treated by the criminal justice system
CN: child sexual abuse, violence
The subject of women who kill their abusers has been much in the headlines recently. Sally Challen received a life sentence for the murder of her husband in August 2010, but the conviction was quashed when fresh evidence was brought forward about her fragile mental state at the time of the killing and the decades she had spent as a victim of her husband’s coercive and controlling behaviour.
This kind of reprieve was impossible for Ruth Ellis, hanged for the murder of David Blakely in July 1955. 16 women were hanged in the UK between 1900 and 1955 for the crime of murder. The best known of these is Ruth Ellis. How does one account for this enduring notoriety?
The fact that her sad story reads like a sensational crime novel certainly helps: glamorous blonde nightclub hostess endures abusive relationship with hard-living upper-class playboy, then shoots him dead. Add to this the fact that she was the last woman to be executed in Britain – the public outcry following her hanging was so great that it led eventually to the abolition of capital punishment in the UK – and you can see why the name Ruth Ellis still lives on, 65 years after her death.
But perhaps most importantly, for many people Ellis is a sympathetic character who was only driven to commit murder after prolonged abuse. Ruth had known violence at the hands of men her whole life, beginning with her sexually abusive father.
At the appeal brought by Ellis’s sister in 2003, Michael Mansfield QC argued that Ruth was a victim of ‘battered woman syndrome’, and that the cumulative provocation she had suffered from her violent lover David Blakely should have been considered as a defence. But the judge ruled that Ellis had been fairly judged according to the law as it stood in 1955.
Two years after her death, partly in response to her case, the plea of ‘diminished responsibility’ entered the legal system and women like her, who had suffered years of physical abuse, were given a lifeline. But for Ellis it came too late.
She lived at a time when women were expected to be nothing more than good wives and mothers. ‘Ladies of the night’ such as her – with her bleached hair, heavy makeup and supposedly immoral ways – were frowned upon. But at the same time, it was well-known that many high-profile gentlemen visited the clubs where Ellis and her fellow hostesses plied their trade.
The victim, David Blakely, was a handsome, upper-class racing driver. He and Ellis met at the Little Club in Knightsbridge and began a stormy affair, fuelled by drink, drugs, jealousy and (on Blakely’s part) abuse. Events spiralled to a tragic climax when Blakely’s violence caused Ellis to miscarry. Driven to the edge, she shot him dead outside a Hampstead pub on Easter Sunday, 1955.
Her trial at the Old Bailey, a lamentably mismanaged affair, lasted just one and a half days. The jury of ten men and two women took a mere 23 minutes to bring in their verdict of ‘Guilty’. The judge had no choice but to hand down the death sentence, which was mandatory at the time.
Ellis herself did nothing to sway the outcome, believing that she deserved to die. It was only at the 11th hour that she was persuaded to divulge that it was her occasional lover and benefactor Desmond Cussen who had given her the gun and taught her how to use it. He had also driven her to Hampstead on the night of the murder, knowing she was pumped full of drink and drugs, dropped her off there and driven away.
A last-minute police search for Cussen yielded no results. The Home Secretary, rather than postponing the execution, decided to proceed. Ruth went to her death on 13 July, 1955. She was just 28 years old.
How much did Ruth’s situation in life – her humble background, her job as a sex worker, the perception of her as a woman with low morals – determine her fate? You only have to read some of the letters sent to the Home Office at the time (quoted in Carol Ann Lee’s excellent book A Fine Day For A Hanging) to find the likely answer:
I am married to a woman similar in nature to Ruth Ellis … eaten up with jealousy … I greatly fear that my future personal safety would be at stake if you granted a reprieve.
Some of the most judgmental letters were from women:
The fate of this openly immoral and shameless woman will, I feel, prove a deterrent to many who might otherwise have been tempted to let lust rule their lives. Such women are a menace to our national standards, and there is now one such less to corrupt others by her example.
I expect you have had a lot of appeals from sentimental crackpots and people themselves living immoral lives asking for the reprieve of that murdering trollop Ruth Ellis … I hope it may never happen that either my husband or my son may fall for a foul harpy.
Add to this the patriarchal view of women prevalent in the 1950s and it’s no wonder Ellis met such a fate. Her own defence barrister, Aubrey Melford Stevenson, stated at her trial: “You will hear … that the effect of jealousy upon a feminine mind can so work as to unseat the reason and can operate to a degree in which a male mind is quite incapable of operating.”
The psychiatrist for the defence, Dr Duncan Whittaker, added to this patronizing view: “Woman are more prone to hysterical reactions than men. They are inclined to lose some of their inhibitory capacity and solve their problems on a more primitive level.”
Ellis certainly did not fit the public’s idea of a ‘wronged woman’. With her peroxide-blonde hair and fur-trimmed suit, she was one of the most glamorous defendants ever to appear in the dock at the Old Bailey. She was composed throughout the trial and disarmingly open about her sexual relationships. This honesty hindered rather than helped her defence.
It is a widely held view that the criminal justice system in the UK today is still failing women (and, it has to be said, men too). Some recent statistics put the issue in perspective. There are currently around 4,000 women in prison in England and Wales. They are more likely to have been imprisoned for non-violent offences. They are likely to have been victims as well as offenders. Over 50% of women in prison say they have suffered domestic violence. Plus ça change.
The story of Ruth Ellis is a gift for any writer. It was the operatic quality of her tragic tale that inspired me to write RUTH, a musical based on her life. I’ve been fortunate to work with composers John Cameron (orchestrator of Les Miserables), Francis Rockliff and James Reader, and director Andy Morahan. Together, we’ve created a piece of musical theatre that hints at the inner darkness that permeated Ellis’s life and drove her to commit murder.
With the groundswell of the #MeToo movement, it feels like the right time to be bringing Ruth Ellis’s story back into the public gaze. And perhaps, in 2020, the glamorous nightclub hostess – who was only driven to commit a terrible crime after prolonged abuse – will be more kindly judged.
The feature image is from a concert performance of RUTH and is by Konrad Bartelski. It shows the performer playing Ellis singing into a microphone in front of a black and white photo of the read Ruth Ellis. The performer wears a red dress, has blonde hair in a 1950s style and red lipstick.
The picture in the text a different black and white photograph of Ruth Ellis. She has a scarf tied around her neck and looks directly into the camera. She has blonde hair and dark lipstick.