On the Anniversary of the Hanging of Ruth Ellis
67 years ago, on July 13th 1955, Ruth Ellis (aged 28) was hanged. She was the last woman in the United Kingdom to be killed by the State as punishment for a capital crime. She’d shot her lover, David Blakely, outside a pub, in what was ruled to have been a premeditated murder. Another male associate, Desmond Cussen, had given her the gun and driven her to the scene. In her trial, Ellis was frank and direct about what she had done, and she considered her punishment just and due. Today, she would have been convicted of Manslaughter with Diminished Responsibility. The law changed in 1957, soon after her execution.
Over the course of her short life, Ellis experienced repeated abuse. There was physical abuse from her husband George Ellis, and from Blakely himself; alleged sexual abuse from her father, and possibly what would now be termed ‘coercive control’ by the man who gave her the gun. Three days before the murder, she’d suffered a miscarriage after Blakely punched her in the stomach.
As an actress, model, nightclub hostess and sex-worker, she was a transgressive figure. She’d had two children; one out of wedlock who was raised by her mother; and two abortions, one of which was illegal. She was the kind of woman for whom there was very little sympathy and understanding in the 1950s, and she presented in the trial as cold-hearted and hard.
I feel a kinship with Ellis. My life has been so different, more privileged. But I can’t help but see points of connection. Like me, she was born in a small coastal holiday town, ravaged by insecure employment and deprivation. That a woman from that class and culture, let alone one who’d been abused, might appear cold-hearted and hard, seems obvious to me. The difference between her and me is that social mobility has enabled me to handle (or repress) the effects of traumatic experiences and thus navigate the world a bit more skilfully.
A small, specific detail of Ellis’s story always catches my breath. She was drinking Pernod on the day of the murder. I’m in recovery from alcohol addiction and I know, first-hand, Pernod’s personality distorting effects. I imagine for Ellis it was a sophisticated ‘lady’s drink.’ In my case, it did the job quickly and cost-effectively. Unlikely as it sounds, it was my drug of choice; and because it wasn’t vodka, it played its part in my denial of my problem. Also, like Ellis, I have, more than once, surrendered my autonomy to the agenda of a man in the patriarchally-generated belief that this will scrape a little bit of power for myself. For me, Ellis stands as a symbol of the frustration that women can only fight the wrong done to them when they leverage the accepted style of femininity that oppresses them in the first place. And the 1950s is not another land. We have seen those gendered values play out over and over.
My connection with Ellis, though, extends significantly further than my identification with her class and gender disempowerment. Ellis was executed by Albert Pierrepoint. In 1927, Albert’s uncle, Thomas Pierrepoint, executed my great uncle, William Knighton, for matricide. My great-grandmother had her throat cut while in her bed.
I only learned of this horrifying piece of family history in my 30s. It never featured in the stories about my relatives I heard growing up. Having discovered it, I learned too that William’s cousins had always believed that, as someone living with epilepsy and alcohol problems, he was innocent and probably framed. According to their account, my great-grandfather, George, murdered his wife. George was known by the family to be sexually abusing his daughter, my grandmother, who, on the night of the murder, was in bed with her mother. The family argued this sleeping arrangement was for my grandmother’s protection. On the morning after the murder, William (aged 22) found a bloody razor in his pocket. Blackouts being familiar to him, he assumed, though he had no memory of it, that he had committed the murder, and he confessed. The Criminal Cases Review Commission brought a posthumous appeal against William’s conviction in 2001, which failed, ostensibly due to the lack of any significant new information.
It was a shock to discover not only that a family member, just two generations back, probably perpetrated this horrific act, but also that there may have been an awful miscarriage of justice resulting in the execution of an innocent person. Also shocking is the violence, sexual abuse and addiction in the story. These are issues which reverberate through families and generations. This story is not material for the cosy and reassuring middle-class preoccupation with ancestry and family-trees frequently discussed in polite company. My ancestral knowledge offers me useful, but frankly chilling, insights into family dynamics and genetic predispositions. And, in the light of the extraordinary intergenerational suffering and trauma it represents, the fact that I am still here, and have, for seventeen years, continued to make a daily choice not to drink alcohol, seems improbable if not miraculous.
I say ‘Pierrepoint’ executed my great uncle, but of course, it was the State that did that. The Pierrepoints were merely its instruments. Albert, Ellis’s executioner, took seriously the need to undertake this ghastly work ‘humanely’. He famously set great store by the accuracy of his calculations of height, weight and drop, and the seamless flow of the overall process.
In a heart-wrenchingly haunting song, ‘Follow me, Ruth’, performed by folk band Three Legg’d Mare, there is an imagined dialogue between Ellis (Ruth) and Pierrepoint (Albert) in the last three days of Ruth’s life. This dialogue captures Albert’s professionalism and, strange though it is to acknowledge, his compassion and care. In striking symmetry with my own story, songwriter and bandmember Kate Saunders is a relative of Albert’s. He was her grandfather’s cousin and they had been close. Saunders wrote the song to explore her own feelings about this family connection and, in the process, learned of Albert’s humane proficiency.
In the song, Albert tells Ruth of the ‘scaffold’ he has ‘prepared.’ Addressing her, he mourns the loss of the woman she could have been.
Heartache and sorrow have ruined your life, you're a ghost of the woman you were
and he grimly states that he takes
no pleasure in claiming a life for a life.
Ruth herself appears in the song with a dignity never afforded her by the tabloids, powerfully conveyed by the depth and richness of Saunders’ voice. Ruth lays out the choreography of her final moments, arrestingly, in Albert’s own professional language, speaking of the calculation of the length of the ‘drop’, of the ‘pinioning’ of her arms and legs, and of the ‘hood’ pulled down on her head. Her statement,
I’m glad to be ended by you
expresses her appreciation of his care. The whole dialogue is resonant with the strange and respectful intimacy they shared in these last hours of her life.
For me, this song, in humanising both Ruth and Albert, also humanises my family members and the awful drama that befell them. It shows them all as caught up in their particular time and culture, and it captures a mysterious opacity inherent in both narratives. There is a standard tabloid question ‘Who was Ruth Ellis?’ This question, regardless of the answer, frames her as sinister, agentic and motivated. My own question, ‘Who killed my great-grandmother and why?’ is a similar kind of question. It's not just unanswerable; its very asking places too much weight on the individual, and too little on the context. My own family’s story is one of poverty, mental illness and addiction. The disorientating legacy of uncertainty regarding the identity of the perpetrator points me inevitably, and I think rightly, to a wider sense of causes and conditions and beyond the idea of the freely-acting individual criminal. Pierrepoint, too, was a man of his time and circumstance, not the ‘evil executioner.’ As Saunders’ song so powerfully exposes, his macabre skill articulated not heartlessness, but compassion. He was merely undertaking a horrible duty on the behalf of a State that sanctioned the killing of those convicted of certain crimes.
Capital punishment was abolished for murder in 1965 and finally abolished in full in the UK in 1998. However, polls have 40% of the population favouring its return, rising to 58% among conservative voters. My great-uncle may, or may not, have been guilty. Ruth Ellis would, at a different moment in history, have qualified for Diminished Responsibility. In both cases, their lives were excruciatingly challenging. Can we really, like Pierrepoint, calculate the moral weight the individual should bear, and determine their irreversible drop? I don’t think we can. At a time when progress appears to be rolling back around the world and the markers of civilised society cannot be taken for granted, we should take care to prevent a return to capital punishment in this country.
Follow me, Ruth by Kate Saunders (lyrics reproduced with permission)
Extend unto me your gentle hand oh Albert. Dispatch me well.
Spare me your grieving after I'm gone for these eight and twenty years were long,
For a man lies dead by my own hand and I'll hang from the rope when you're done.
Three days, three days in my holding cell, the crowd it builds outside the jail.
To beg my reprieve, Mr Pierrepoint, their plea was ever bound to fail.
For the time is set, the rope is stretched and I'll hang from the noose when you're done.
Follow me, Ruth, follow me, Ruth on the thirteenth day of July.
The time it has come for you to walk on the scaffold that I have prepared.
Heartache and sorrow have ruined your life, you're a ghost of the woman you were.
And I'll take no pleasure from claiming a life for a life.
My height, my weight, my build and my age: an eight foot four drop I will fall.
I feel your gaze at the back of my head as you watch through the prison door.
As the hour it strikes, I will not fight and I'll fall thinking dear of my son.
At eight in the morn, my time it has come. Oh Albert, dispatch me well.
Pinion my arms and pinion my legs and pull the hood down on my head.
As the trap flies open and I fall through I am glad to be ended by you.