LONDON, ENGLAND — On July 13, 1955, nightclub hostess Ruth Ellis was executed by hanging at Holloway Prison in London, and ended up being the last woman in Great Britain to be put to death.
Ellis had been convicted of the murder of her race-car driver boyfriend, David Blakely, whom she shot in cold blood outside a pub after he failed to answer her calls while partying with his wealthy racing friends.
Ellis’ London nightlife and chaotic relationships were a stark contrast to her everyday, working class childhood. She was born in Rhyl, Wales, in 1926. While her upbringing had a relatively normal facade, and she was much loved by her mother, it’s said she was physically and sexually abused by her father. She left school as a young teenager, had a child with a serviceman who was soon after sent to France — and he never came back. Ellis discovered that he actually already had a wife and children in Quebec, and this betrayal soured her trust in men for the rest of her life.
Needing to support herself, she found work as a nightclub hostess at the Court Club in Duke Street. She soon found herself sucked in to the vice underworld, as her boss blackmailed his hostess employees into sleeping with him. During this time she also took up prostitution, and became pregnant by one of her regular customers. She reportedly had this pregnancy terminated and went back to work.
On November 8, 1950, she married 41-year-old George Ellis, a divorced dentist with two sons. But the marriage fell apart due to his drinking problem and repeated abuse of Ellis, and she went back to working in clubs, although she always kept his last name.
In 1953, Ellis become the manager of The Little Club. It was frequented by celebrity guests and men with money. It was during this time she became involved with Blakely, who came from a wealthy, good family and had a private school eduction. But, like her, he was a heavy drinker. But both she and her boyfriend continued to play the field — and he was reportedly even engaged to another woman. Ellis also had at least one other lover, a former bomber pilot named Desmond Cussen. Interestingly, Cussen, who was reportedly jealous of Blakely, supplied Ellis with the gun she used in the murder. Cussen also taught Ellis how to shoot the gun, and even drove her to the scene of her crime. None of these facts involving Cullen came up during Ellis’ trial, and some believe their inclusion could have saved her from the gallows.
The bizarre love triangle led to fierce fights. After Ellis became pregnant again, Blakely allegedly hit her in the stomach, causing her to miscarry. Eventually, as their relationship became more strained, Blakely began to avoid her phone calls.
This only made Ellis grow more obsessed with him — and, on Easter Sunday in April, Ellis stalked Blakely while he was at the Magdala pub. After looking through the windows to make sure he was there, she waited until he came out and fired two shots at him with a revolver, then shot him twice more as he lay dying on the pavement. She then calmly told the bystanders to call the police and surrendered to an off-duty policeman.
Ellis stated at her trial in June 1955:
“It was obvious that when I shot him I intended to kill him.”
This admission was key, due to the fact that British law required demonstration of clear intent in order to convict someone of murder. Her lawyer, John Bickford, had urged Ellis to plead insanity, but she refused, saying to him, “I took David’s life and I don’t ask you to save mine.”
Portrayed as a “brassy blonde,” throughout her trial, Ellis lived up to this by insisting she be able to bleach her roots before her court appearances. Her lawyers tried to dissuade her, thinking her bleached hair might prejudice the jury against her. She went ahead and touched up her platinum locks, and was led into court to someone in the public gallery yelling “blonde tart” at her.
None of the facts about Blakely’s abuse of Ellis were considered in her trial, not even the fact that he’d beat her to the point of miscarriage just two weeks before. The judge specifically instructed the jury to disregard any information of that kind, saying that Ellis was:
“A young woman, you may think, badly treated by the deceased man. Nothing of that sort must enter into your consideration . . . according to our law it is no defence . . . to prove that she was a jealous woman and had been badly treated by her lover and was in ill-health.”
She was sentenced to death by hanging on July 13, 1955. Albert Pierrepoint, the hangman, reported that Ruth met her death courageously. “I have seen some brave men die, but nobody braver than her,” he said.
Apart from a single screaming fit, Ellis reportedly remained calm while she waited to die. She passed the time before her execution reading the Bible, doing crossword puzzles, and making dolls.
On August 13, 1964, Peter Anthony Allen and John Alan West became the last people to be executed for murder in England. In 1965, the death penalty for murder was banned in England, Scotland, and Wales.
In 1985, a movie titled Dance With a Stranger chronicled Ellis’ life.
Main photo: Ruth Ellis [Wikimedia Commons]