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Has anything really changed?

If she were alive today, and once out of prison, she might be using her notoriety to her advantage. She could well have become a D list celebrity. Instead, not least because she lived in 1955, she was hanged by the neck until she was dead.

Ruth Ellis was the last woman to be hanged in England. She was 28 years old. After suffering persistent violence and humiliation, she shot her lover, David Blakely, outside the Magdala public house on Easter Sunday in 1955.

Ruth Ellis died nearly sixty years ago – fifty-eight years ago this month, to be precise. Yet she is still the subject of enormous interest, prurience even. There have been documentaries, academic studies, books, an over glamourised feature film – Dance with a Stranger – and, as recently as this Spring, ‘The Thrill of Love’, a play about her life, has been running in the West End.

So what is it about this case that so fascinates us? After all she’s not the only woman in history to have shot her lover? She is not the only woman to have suffered capital punishment in Britain, albeit the last one. Nevertheless hardly anyone has ever heard of Styllou Christofi who was hanged seven months to the day before Ruth. And who, coincidentally, murdered her daughter in law in South Hill Park, the very street where Ellis shot Blakely.

The similarities and contrasts between the two cases are extraordinary but here I’m concentrating on Ruth. Who was she? What drove her to kill? What was it about her that caused the establishment to crash down on her where it had been lenient with others? (Three people were reprieved from the death sentence in the months before Ruth hanged, one of them only five days before.)

Social mores and psychology are enormously complex and I won’t attempt to unravel all the threads. Suffice to say, for now, that it was a different era, with different mores and attitudes. Attitudes that, tragically, did not work in Ruth’s favour.  She was a nightclub hostess, who had been abused as a child – though this was not something spoken about or even recognised in her day or for some long time. Witness the Jimmy Saville case, to take just one example. A sexy peroxide blonde, with a chaotic lifestyle, was not looked on with favour in by the establishment of her times. The more so because Ruth was also the ‘unmarried mother’ of two young children.

Her lover, David Blakeley, on the other hand was a spoilt, handsome and superficially charming young man, from a good middle class family and had an aura of glamour because he was an aspiring racing driver. He was, by the standards of the day respectable, a sort of hero. He was also weak, a hanger on, a serial philanderer and a violent alcoholic.

Neither of them were angels, that’s obvious; Ruth could give as good as she got. But there’s also no doubt that she was very badly treated by David Blakeley, with whom she was in love. Some would say obsessively so, although at the time of the murder she was living with another man, Desmond Cusson.

Shortly before the murder, Ruth Ellis had been beaten up by David Blakely, not the first time. This time however she was pregnant – a blow to the stomach brought on a miscarriage. On that that fatal weekend, she was distraught and irrational. Desmond Cusson, intensely jealous of David, fed her anger. It was he who gave her drugs, and the gun and taught her how to shoot it. He who drove her up to Hampstead, time and time again, that weekend, to look for David. And who left the scene immediately, coward that he was.

None of this was put to the jury. Neither the beatings nor the miscarriage were mentioned. Vital witnesses were not called so the jury could not even attempt a verdict of manslaughter. On the case presented to them the jury had no option but to find her guilty of murder. Her action didn’t fit the legal definition of provocation and since the death sentence was mandatory, the judge had absolutely no choice.

Tragically Desmond Cusson’s part in the case did not come up until 24 hours before Ruth was due to hang. He had promised her that if she kept his name out of it, he would look after her children after her death. A promise he broke almost immediately. It wasn’t a member of her legal team to whom she confided on that last day. It was to Leon Simmons, a lawyer she trusted and who had acted for her in her divorce.  It was he who got the truth out of her. Too late. Cusson had gone to ground and the Home Secretary, who was the only person who could have ordered a reprieve, had made himself scarce. Leon Simmons was so badly affected by the case that he never practiced law again.

The press fell on the story with alacrity. Not all the coverage was negative. Indeed she engendered a great deal of sympathy and in fact her case was instrumental in the eventual abolition of the death penalty.  However, while her courage and sad story evoked compassion in many quarters, it was her very courage and determination that turned others against her. She came over as cold and manipulative and her desire to pay for what she had done gave her a steely determination that was misinterpreted. Add to that her refusal to tone down her look – to the horror of her legal team she insisted on having her hair re-dyed her favourite platinum and wore a business like suit and refused to play victim.

Suppose we fast-forward 58 years. What would happen to Ruth had she shot Blakely today? Certainly she wouldn’t have been hanged, not in the UK anyway although she would still meet that fate and worse in some parts of the world. And for crimes far less grave than murder. But with regard to women and violence, has anything really changed here in the UK? We have, thankfully, moved away from some of the attitudes of the nineteen fifties. In recent years domestic violence is rightly seen as abhorrent but believing something and acting on it are two different things.

Some statistics show that one in four women in the UK will suffer physical or mental violence at least once during their life. Two women are killed every week by partners or ex partners. In 30% of all the domestic violence incidents reported to the police no action is taken. A warning only is given in a further 38% cases. Only 4% of reported incidents results in a conviction. Nevertheless, when these women (and they are mostly women1) flip and kill their tormentors, there is often just as little sympathy as there was for Ellis.

Sara Thornton suffered years of abuse. In 1989 she finally snapped and stabbed her husband. She was given a life sentence. The judge said she could simply have ‘gone upstairs’. The case was taken up by women’s groups and became a cause célèbre but did nothing to change the law. Sara Thornton remained in prison for ten years before being released after the jury in a retrial found her guilty of manslaughter.

Like most women jailed for murder, Kirsty Scamp says she loved Jason Bull, the man she killed. She had tried to help him break out of his increasingly frightening behaviour – high on cocaine and drugs he frequently attacked her. Kirsty Scamp worked in a care home looking after adults with learning disabilities and mental health problems. The judge took into account the strong character references from her employees but turned them against her saying – and I quote – “Her care skills should have made her better equipped to tolerate Jason’s violent and erratic behaviour.” She was convicted of murder in 2007. Released on appeal in 2010 after her sentence was reduced to manslaughter. The two cases I have cited resulted in reduced sentences and release from prison. However, there are many more instances where that is not the case.

What about Ruth Ellis? Would she get similar treatment were she to have committed her crime today? The Coroners and Justice Act 2009, replaced the controversial defence of ‘provocation’ with the defence of ‘loss of control’. Nevertheless there’s no guarantee that this would have succeeded. It would be hard to equate loss of control with Ruth’s apparent coolness at the scene and her steely courage in the dock, whatever the reasons given for her demeanour. Her state of mind would certainly have been taken into account, particularly in view of the miscarriage. However, Ruth used a firearm. This went against her in the original case only because a bystander suffered a minor injury, but an injury nonetheless. However today we do take a much more serious view of gun crime. That alone would probably be enough to ensure a long prison sentence.

So in spite of our changing attitudes and the rather slower changes in the law, I doubt that Ruth today would have been free to enjoy her notoriety, had she wanted to. But at least she would have been alive.


1 This post is about Ruth Ellis and the way attitudes and the law have changed, or otherwise, towards violence against women. If I had examined the whole subject of violence in general and the fact that men also suffer domestic violence, it would have been twice as long. Violence against men certainly exists but that fact does not negate the facts relating to domestic violence against women, nor the appalling treatment they suffer in other cultures. In the interests of balance I have included two links that go into this subject in more detail than I can cover here.


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