Ruth Ellis Sought Attention and Got It on the Gallows

by Jay Robert Nash

The murder tragedy of Ruth Ellis was a hallmark in British homicide. Hers was what the French called a crime passionel (a crime of passion), which they understood well. The British understood such a crime not at all. Ellis shot and killed her lover out of jealousy, she later admitted, after she learned that he was seeing another woman. This sensually attractive but failed showgirl had become a nightclub shill and pub hostess. She had sought attention from dozens of men. She got the attention of the nation, however, by going to the scaffold as the last woman to be hanged in England.

Born Ruth Neilson in the small Welsh town of Rhyl on October 9, 1926, she was the daughter of poor parents, the third of six children. At fourteen, she left school and began working as a waitress in London. At seventeen, she took up with a married Canadian soldier and had an illegitimate child by him. The soldier supported the boy for about a year and then stopped payments.

Blonde pub hostess Ruth Ellis, who shot and killed her lover over jeal
Blonde pub hostess Ruth Ellis, who shot and killed her lover over jealousy and became the last woman executed in England. (image from the Jay Robert Nash Collection)

Following WWII, Ellis worked as a shill in lowlife pubs, and even turned to prostitution, having another illegitimate child. In 1950, she married George Ellis, a dentist, but was divorced within a year. Three years later, she got a good job as the manager of an upscale club in London. There Ruth met the love of her life, sports car driver David Blakely.

In 1954, Ellis met a friend of Blakely's named Desmond Edward Cussen and became infatuated with him. For nearly a year she saw both men. Blakely at first accepted the situation, but there were frequent quarrels between him and Ellis, which often resulted in violence. Blakely began seeing younger women, and Ruth retaliated by drawing closer to Cussen, which angered Blakely. On Christmas Eve 1954, Blakely caught Ellis and Cussen together in Cussen's apartment. During the argument that followed, Ellis swore she would never see Blakely again.

The tortuous relationship continued, however, for a few more months until Blakely announced, on April 6, 1955, that he was going to Hampstead, a suburb of London, to see a mechanic about a race car. Suspecting him of meeting someone else, Ellis went to his apartment and knocked. There was no answer, but Ellis would later swear she heard a woman's laughter through the door. The next day she saw Blakely and a woman together. "I had a peculiar idea that I wanted to kill him," she admitted. Ellis took a taxi to the Magdala Pub in Hampstead on the evening of April 10, 1955. As she left the cab, Blakely emerged from the pub with his friend Bertram Clive Gunnell, a car salesman.

When seeing Ellis, Blakely darted to the other side of the car in an apparent attempt to hide. Ellis produced a .38-caliber pistol from her purse and began firing at him. She fired all six bullets into her lover, killing him. Staring at Gunnell, she coolly said, "Now call the police."

Taken to a police station, Ruth freely confessed her guilt. "I am guilty," she said. "I am rather confused."

Ellis' trial began at the Old Bailey on June 20, 1955. Christmas Humphreys, representing the Crown, asked Ellis directly, "When you fired that revolver at close range into the body of David Blakely, what did you intend to do?"

Without a moment's hesitation, she replied, "It was obvious that when I shot him I intended to kill him."

A jury of ten men and two women deliberated for fourteen minutes before returning a verdict of guilty. Justice Cecil Havers passed the death sentence. Ruth Ellis was to hang on July 13, 1955, at the Holloway Women's Prison in North London.

Before the execution, opponents of capital punishment collected and delivered some 50,000 signatures on appeals for clemency to the Home Office, but all were turned down. On the day of her execution, more than a thousand protestors gathered outside the prison. Many waved French newspapers that condemned the British authorities for taking the life of a woman, who had been helplessly bound up in a crime passionel, papers that branded British justice "barbaric."

At a little after 9 a.m., Ellis was brought into a room where the scaffold waited. Her executioner was Albert Pierrepont, a Lancashire pub owner, who made money on the side as England's executioner. Ruth was given a glass of brandy, which she drank down rapidly. She was led to the rope and white hood was placed about her head. Minutes later, Ruth Ellis was dead, the last woman hanged in England. She had gone to her death stoically, without a word of protest. Her last written words were to the parents of David Blakely: "I have always loved your son and I shall die still loving him."

The public uproar about this execution continued over the years and contributed to the decision to halt capital punishment in the country ten years later. The irony of Ruth Ellis' terrible demise is that she had sought widespread recognition since childhood. A habitual movie-goer in her teens, she once hoped to break into that business.

Her good friend and film actress Diana Dors had gotten Ellis a bit part in the 1951 film Lady Godiva Rides Again, but she failed to land any other film roles. Posthumously, however, she saw celluloid success, her life story told in the 1985 film, Dance with a Stranger, with Miranda Richardson portraying Ellis. She was also profiled in the 2006 film Pierrepont, portrayed by Mary Stockley.

In real life, Ruth Ellis had tried to become a showgirl and singer and failed in both attempts. In order to get attention, she had dyed her hair peroxide blonde and had become "that smashing blonde" pub hostess, finally attracting scores of young men. "Her starring role was on the gallows," one of those admirers cynically pointed out after her execution, "but it was a one-time performance."