Ruth Ellis: Who was the last woman hanged in Britain and why are we so obsessed with her murder case?


Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain, continues to inspire a morbid fascination in the public imagination.

This week BBC Four launches a new three-part documentary series investigating her life and execution, which will only reignite the obsession.

For those unfamiliar with the case, Ellis was a 28-year-old Welsh waitress and nude model turned Knightsbridge nightclub hostess who shot dead her rakish lover, David Blakely, 25, outside a Hampstead pub on Easter Sunday 1955, suspecting him of being unfaithful.

She was found guilty of murder at the Old Bailey, jailed at HM Prison Holloway and swiftly put to death on 13 July.

The case was a tragic one, Ellis having endured a hard life and several miscarriages at the hands of the cruel and hypocritical men she encountered among London’s nightlife.

She was a single mother infatuated with Blakely – a louche public schoolboy and keen amateur racing driver prone to bouts of drinking and depression – who had come to represent for her a world she aspired to be part of but was denied admittance to.

Her circumstances were such that the question of diminished responsibility was raised in her defence and the Ellis case did much to advance the abolition of the death penalty in Britain, which finally came to pass in 1965.

That should have been that, but her memory lingers like a haunting refrain, beckoning us back into the past.

Frequently sexualised in the language of pulp cinema of the period as a “femme fatale”, “blonde bombshell” or “siren”, Ruth Ellis has been improbably filed in the same category as Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield and Diana Dors, her story likened to a real-life ‘Frankie and Johnny’ from the popular ballad: “She shot her man/He was doing her wrong.”

Today her image is frozen in time, rendered almost iconic with the passing of the years – a sometimes troubling business, as in the case of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley.

The killings of women like Ellis and Hindley seem to particularly appal us when they shouldn’t any more or less than those of their male counterparts.

Perhaps this is because their crimes represent a perversion of our traditional expectations of femininity – they kill, rather than nurture – and because men indulge themselves in portraying them as dangerous objects of desire, a troubling conflation of sex and death as old as antiquity and one that speaks to the darkest corners of human psychology.

Ellis’s case certainly exposed the double-standards of the time – the tabloid press betraying an unseemly prurience in its reporting on the world of twilight vice she lived in.


David Blakely and Ruth Ellis (PA)

But why are we so drawn to the true crimes of yesteryear?

Why are we hung up on ghoulish figures like Dr Crippen, Jack the Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe, John Christie, Fred and Rosemary West, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables and Harold Shipman?

Is it that the nearness of their crimes renders the horror more palpable? Do their atrocities interestingly intrude on our rosy vision of post-war life, all Philip Larkin, the NHS and Beatlemania? Or are they living exhibits of pure human evil, as the red-tops would have us believe?

The Ripper industry never dies and the relentless deluge of Sunday night TV dramas and even great films like 10 Rillington Place (1971) have fed our desire for more stories of kitchen sink murder and intrigue.

And it’s not just the perpetrators themselves – their blank expressions staring back at us from mugshots taken half a century ago – but the executioners too.

Albert Pierrepoint, Britain’s longest-serving hangman who ended a reputed 435 lives at Her Majesty’s Pleasure, also looms large in the annals of British crime history.

Pierrepoint was memorably played by Timothy Spall in a 2005 film of that name that painted him as a grimly professional functionary (displaying none of the relish for his work seen in Dickens’ terrifying Ned Dennis from Barnaby Rudge) whose unlikely outlet was singing music hall songs in pubs with his friend James Corbitt. It was Pierrepoint who executed Ellis, of course, and she appears in that film played by Mary Stockley.

More famously, Miranda Richardson portrayed Ruth Ellis in Mike Newell’s moving Dance with a Stranger (1985). Richardson brilliantly captured Ellis’s brassy vitality and almost masochistic devotion to Blakely (a dashing Rupert Everett), a playboy who took everything for granted while she fought for every scrap.

The British obsession with this stuff was superbly sent up by Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith in the criminally-underrated Psychoville (2009-11) in the persons of David and Maureen Sowerbutts, a mother-son serial killing team from Wood Green with an almost academic preoccupation with Britain’s grisliest slayings.

The murky details of our past are undeniably fascinating but we should not spare ourselves an interrogation of our own motives in pursuing such dark matter.

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