Imagine you’re doing a quiz somewhere, let’s say down the local pub. The Quiz Master asks, ‘Who was the last woman to be executed in Britain?’
Your pen/pencil is poised. That’s easy. It went into human consciousness years ago. It’s like being asked ‘Who won the 1966 World Cup?’, or ‘Who was British Prime Minister between 1979 and 1990?’ It’s a no-brainer really, certainly for people of a certain age. You know that you can afford yourself a self satisfied smile, which passes between you and your team mates, as you smugly supply the answer on your quiz sheet.
I wonder though, if, in that smoke free but boozy bar room, the quiz master asked another question instead. ‘Who was the last person to be executed in Britain?’ There is a silence. You can hear people thinking, a few glasses clink at the bar. People shift buttocks. The teams confer with puzzled expressions. They start to cast surreptitious looks to the other teams and their closely guarded papers. It’s a bit like being at school suddenly. Hmm, you tap the pencil on your knee/chin/beermat/glass. Then the quiz master says something you did not expect, a generous clue. ‘It’s a trick question this one.’
He has further added to the confusion, he said person, not woman, still, same thing isn’t it? Maybe that’s where the trick question is. After all, this is the cliché standard answer to a standard question and there is the scratchy sound of pencil on paper as most people write ‘Ruth Ellis’
Now before we get too bogged down in this mythical pub, we’ll come back to that later, it’s been 50 years, this year, that the Sidney Silverman’s Murder Act was passed, abolishing the death penalty in Britain. The famous Ruth Ellis murder trail and her subsequent execution, played no small part in a social awareness evolution. An evolution that was to eventually end capital punishment in Britain.
Ruth Ellis was brought up in a poverty stricken working class home. Her father abused the female members of the family, resulting in him fathering two children to Ruth’s sister, Muriel.
As soon as she was able, Ruth reinvented herself. She escaped to London and into the sleazy, yet often exciting world, of west end night life. The nerdy, bespectacled and rather mousy young woman hid her inhibitors to glamour (her glasses) in a place where they would not offend her, usually her handbag. Then, she bleached her hair an eye catching platinum blonde. She began taking modelling courses, became a hostess and eventually ran a nightclub herself, turning quite a profit.
In this environment, she met the public school boy educated David Blakely and they had an tempestuous off and on affair.
The rest as they say…is history.
Ruth and David make the future Sid and Nancy look like Andy Pandy and Looby Loo, yet, just like the yet-to-be Sid and Nancy, Ruth and David were lost souls, helplessly gravitating towards each other, drowning in their misery, gasping, as they are grasping, and destroying each other accordingly.
In some of the accounts in the biography, ‘A Fine Day For A Hanging‘ The Real Ruth Ellis Story’ by Carol Ann Lee, it appears Ruth was a victim of domestic violence. Many witnesses in her circle, at the time, spoke of the very many and numerous bruises covering her body on a daily basis. The book talks about one incident where she disrobes in front of a man and he was so shocked and disturbed by what he saw (she was so badly bruised) that their night of sexual congress was aborted.
She was punched in public by her lover, two days before she shot him and was often seen with black eyes. She acquiesced to his need to drink and became a drinker herself. It is alleged that she was drinking a bottle and a half of Pernod a day (after meeting David)
The problem was, like most victims of systemic physical or psychological violence, the victims are ashamed and often believe they are deserving of the treatment and/or do not feel they have the strength to leave, or to end the relationship. They are unsure how to resolve the situation and are unable to see any avenues for a way out.
When Ruth gave her statement to the police, there was no solicitor present and during the trail there was very little reference to any physical violence she may have endured at her lover’s hands. Her defence team were woefully inadequate in that department and so, a plea for manslaughter was never in it. Although, it has to be said, Ruth would not help herself in this matter. She would not ‘accuse’ anybody of anything. Apparently, during the trial, she never had a bad word to say about anyone. Wouldn’t. She thought it was ‘traitorous.’ It was very frustrating for her defence team.
Perhaps it was a kind of honour. Certainly, where I come from, there’s a culture where people don’t ‘grass’, don’t tell on other people, even if those other people are to blame and even if it might save our skins. S.O.S. Maybe it’s a foolish kind of honour, but there it is. It’s better to save our souls than save our skins.
However, a plea of provocation was introduced.
Her legal team, credit where credit’s due, did make a concerted effort to make a plea of ‘slow burn’ provocation, but it was not a term recognised either in America or Britain at the time, and this was obviously the case here.
‘Provocation- defined as an act that might reasonably cause a person of sound mind to suffer a sudden and temporary loss of self control, rendering the accused so subject to passion as to make him or her not master of his mind.’
‘With diminished responsibility not yet a legal term, it may be this is why David’s violence over the past eighteen months, together with his persistent infidelity and emotional abuse, were deemed irrelevant in court.’
From ‘Eve Was Framed‘- Helena Kennedy
And then there’s the other angle. The angle of the gun. Desmond Cussen was the other man in the love triangle. He adored Ruth and disliked his love rival, David Blakely. Cussen did seem like a decent guy, but the theory was, he had not only provided Ruth with the murder weapon, he reputed to have regularly oiled it, loaded it, taught Ruth how to shoot and goaded her into shooting David, when she was drunk and deeply emotionally disturbed. There were even accusations that he had been the one to drive her to the scene of the crime. None of this stuck however, as Cussens was never fully cross examined in the witness box and certainly not on this issue. He did perspire in that box however, unnaturally and profusely, like a stuck pig.
Less than twenty four hours before she was due to hang, part of Ruth’s defence team, Mishcon and Simmons, questioned her once more about how she obtained the gun. There was still a slim chance that she could escape the noose. She was keeping it zipped until one of them mentioned how her children would feel if the truth didn’t come out. Then she started to talk about how she had indeed been taught how to shoot by Cussens and more. She had been drinking on the night of the murder. Indeed, so had Cussens. She mentioned how jealous he was of Blakely and how they despised each other. She said he gave her the loaded gun and drove her to the scene of the crime. Mischons and Simmons took her new statement to Whitehall. The person they really needed to speak to wasn’t there, so the information was passed on to somebody else. The Home Office did not delay the execution in the light of new information.
And now back briefly to our mythical pub, when the quiz master gives out the answers. ‘Question 18, ‘Who was the last person to be executed in Britain?’ The answer is ‘Gwynne Evans and Peter Allan. Two men from Preston who had killed a man in a botched robbery.
But does anyone remember them? And do we know who was the last of these men to be hanged? Was it Evans or was it Allan? Indeed, it was a trick question. It wasn’t Ruth Ellis at all. She was the last woman and not the last person, and it wasn’t one person at all. It was two. Two men.
Why then, was Ruth Ellis the one who provoked such incredible feelings from the public? Did it resonate somehow, this crime of passion? Was it because her defence was so abysmally weak? Did we feel it wasn’t a fair trail? We are sticklers for fairness in Britain, are we not?
Or was it because she wouldn’t save her skin? Or was it down to the polite and utterly dignified composure she exhibited during her trial from start to finish? Did her calm resignedness strike a nerve with the stiff upper lips of the nation?
Or was it simply that we, as a nation, had reached an evolution, a certain perception and outlook regarding capital punishment? Britain was getting queasy, squeamish, soft, or maybe just more humane?
‘This was a crime of passion under considerable provocation.’
‘I pray to Almighty God to cause this disgraceful sin (execution) to pass from among us and to cleanse our land of blood.’
‘I reject the death penalty because of its absolute nature, it’s questionable nature and its revolting nature.’
Bishop Of Stepney, who visited Ruth Ellis shortly before her death.
‘Executions are unnatural crimes.’
Ruth Ellis wanted to die. She wanted to be with the man she had killed. She believed she deserved to die. And for that, I think she deserved to live.
‘An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,’ said Ruth. ‘A life for a life. I took David’s life and I don’t ask you to save mine. I don’t want to live.’ And for once, in her short and turbulent life, Ruth finally got what she wanted.