Ruth Ellis was the last woman hanged for murder in Britain. She was executed on July 13th, 1955.
Ruth Ellis was the last woman to be hanged in Britain — an execution that appalled the world. On Saturday we told how she was beaten and abused by the men in her life before finally snapping and shooting dead her faithless, violent lover David Blakely. Today, in our final gripping extract from a forensically researched new book, we reveal how vital evidence that would have saved her from the gallows was ignored . . .
Two hours after the shooting, while David Blakely’s body was lying in the mortuary, Ruth Ellis was questioned by three detectives in Hampstead police station. It was 11.30pm. One of the detectives recalled: ‘She had a cigarette and she was completely calm . . . she really couldn’t care less what was going to happen to her.’
She was cautioned: ‘You are not obliged to say anything at all about this unless you wish to do so, but whatever you say will be taken down in writing and may be given in evidence.’
‘I am guilty,’ Ruth said decisively. Then she hesitated: ‘I am rather confused.
She began answering the questions, which then became her statement. She was asked where she got the gun. She explained that it had been given to her as security for money about three years ago in a club by a man whose name she did not remember.
Then she uttered the crucial words: ‘When I put the gun in my bag, I intended to find David and shoot him.’
The police were puzzled. Ruth seemed fragile, only 5ft 2in and less than 7st, and calm and quiet rather than driven by raging emotions. Moreover, her story about the gun did not add up: it was too well-oiled to have been left in a drawer for three years.
The following day Ruth was told she would be driven to nearby Hampstead magistrates’ court to be formally charged with Blakely’s murder.
She nodded, and then remarked: ‘An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. I will hang.’
That same day Desmond Cussen gave a statement to police. He described the past two years, his relationship with Ruth and admitted to competing for Ruth with Blakely.
The other man: Ruth Ellis and her lover Desmond Cullen
Other man: Ruth Ellis and her lover Desmond Cullen
He also discussed his part as her unofficial chauffeur and the beatings Ruth had received from Blakely.
But while he admitted to having spent Easter Sunday with Ruth and her ten-year-old son Andre, he claimed to have dropped her off at her rented room at 7.30pm and said he hadn’t seen her since.
What he did not say was that he had not only given Ruth the gun, but had also taught her how to use it — and had driven her to the Hampstead street where she later killed Blakely.
Though he did eventually confess all this to Ruth’s solicitor, John Bickford, it was never brought up at her trial — because Bickford thought it would affect the chances of achieving a verdict of manslaughter rather than murder.
It was Bickford’s job to defend Ruth, but she did not make it easy. She was determined to shield Cussen and was vehement that she did not want her life to be spared.
She firmly rejected his request that she plead insanity. ‘I took David’s life and I don’t ask you to save mine,’ she told him. ‘I don’t want to live.’
As she waited in Holloway for her trial, warders noted she was extremely quiet and co-operative. With visitors she made bright small talk — ‘almost as though we were at a tea party,’ noted one in bewilderment — and spent her days reading.
She put on several pounds, probably because she was eating a proper diet for the first time in her life, and wrote polite letters thanking friends and well-wishers.
She cried only once — when she asked for, and was given, photographs of Blakely’s corpse.
Today it seems clear that, driven to the edge of madness by her ill- treatment at the hands of Blakely, she was suffering from post- traumatic stress.
But in 1955 the term did not exist. Nor did the defence of diminished responsibility, which would almost certainly have saved her from the gallows.
She had been abused all her life. She had just lost her baby after being viciously beaten by the man she loved, and was desperately unwell.
Because of her relationship with him she had lost her job, and with it her flat. She had given him most of the money she’d earned.
She was also feeling humiliated because, having asked her to marry him, he had then abandoned her for a weekend of partying with the Findlaters, middle-class friends in Hampstead who despised her and thought she was common.
She had been given refuge by Desmond Cussen, who wanted Blakely out of the way so he could have Ruth to himself.
He had given her a gun, taught her how to use it and had then driven her, three nights in a row, to the street in Hampstead where Blakely was staying with the Findlaters.
It was only to expose the part the Findlaters had played in Blakely’s ill-treatment of Ruth that weekend that she agreed to plead not guilty. She thought they were malicious snobs who she felt were to blame for his refusing to see her, driving her to breaking point. She even wrote to Blakely’s mother to explain this, and to apologise for killing her son:
‘The two people I blame for David’s death, and my own, are the Findlayters (sic). No dought (sic) you will not understand this, but perhaps before I hang you will know what I mean. Please excuse my writing, but the pen is shocking.
‘I implore you to try to forgive David for living with me, but we were very much in love with one and other (sic). Unfortunately, David was not satisfied with one woman in his life. I have forgiven David, I only wish I could have found it in my heart to have forgiven when he was alive.
‘Once again, I say I am very sorry to have caused you this misery and heartache. I shall die loving your son. And you should feel content that his death has been repaid.
‘Goodbye. Ruth Ellis.’
Mishcon immediately told the Home Office. He was sure it offered hope for Ruth, and hoped at the very least for a stay of execution while the police tracked down Cussen to corroborate the statement.
A desperate hunt around London ensued, but Cussen could not be found. The Home Secretary refused to delay the execution, privately noting: ‘If she isn’t hanged tomorrow, she never will be.’
Meanwhile, Ruth had received her last visit from her parents and brother. They spent much of the 30 minutes in silence, not knowing what to say. Ruth, who knew her daughter Georgina by ex-husband George Ellis was being well looked after by a wealthy childless couple, was worried about her son Andre, conceived during an affair with a married Canadian serviceman.
She asked them to look after him and added: ‘When he grows up, see that he understands about me and try to show him that, whatever I did, I loved him all the time.’
Shortly after 2am on July 13, the Home Office rang Mishcon: the new evidence changed nothing. Ruth would be executed in seven hours.
The hangman, Albert Pierrepoint, recalled that Ruth met her death courageously. ‘I have seen some brave men die, but nobody braver than her,’ he said.
The world’s Press reacted to Ruth’s execution with disgust. It was seen as bringing shame on Britain. The campaign to abolish capital punishment drew 33,000 members in its first few months.
Just two years later, in March 1957, the Homicide Act was introduced allowing the defence of diminished responsibility.
More than half of the 65 people condemned to death after the introduction of the Homicide Act were reprieved.
Ten years after Ruth’s execution, on November 8, 1965, the Murder (Abolition Of The Death Penalty) Act was passed, suspending capital punishment, and in December 1969 it was permanently abolished.
Almost everyone connected with Ruth’s case was profoundly affected by it for the rest of their lives.
Her daughter Georgina grew up to attain notoriety, dying her hair blonde like her mother and having high-profile affairs. She died of cancer aged 50. Andre was looked after by her parents, but became a schizophrenic and drug addict, and committed suicide in 1982.
His funeral was paid for by Christmas Humphreys, the prosecuting lawyer at Ruth’s trial — and it has always been said Mr Justice Havers had sent Andre money every year at Christmas.
Ruth’s former husband George Ellis committed suicide in 1958. Desmond Cussen died a lonely alcoholic, as did her solicitor John Bickford, who remained haunted by the case for the rest of his life.
Years later, asked in a TV documentary whether he could have done more to help Ruth, he replied: ‘If I’d been a stronger man or a more determined fellow, or didn’t mind making a spectacle of myself, perhaps.’ His eyes welled with tears. ‘Sorry.’