Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Pop History Moment: The Execution of Ruth Ellis


On this day in 1955, 28 year-old Ruth Ellis gained a certain grisly prominence; it's the day she became the last woman in Britain to be executed*, which punishment she'd earned for the murder of her younger lover David Blakely just three months earlier.

Ellis and Blakely's relationship was a tempestuous one, fraught with jealousy, despite the fact that he was an active homosexual and made sure she knew it; while many similar pairings have resulted in a mutually beneficial rapport, in Blakely and Ellis' case it was not to be. Their initial chemistry soon soured, yet they seemed unwilling or unable to disentangle themselves from each others lives; after two years - during which time his jealousy had become increasingly violent, and culminated in his inducing her to miscarry their child at the end of March - she'd finally had enough.

On Easter Sunday, April 10th, Ruth Ellis fired six bullets into David Blakely outside a pub called The Magdala on South Hill Park, a street in the London borough of Hampstead; in addition to mortally wounding Blakely, Ellis also hurt Gladys Kensington Yule, a passer-by who was injured by a bullet which went through Blakely then ricocheted off the pavement into her hand. Afterwards, as Blakely lay dying in front of her, Ellis did not try to flee the scene, but calmly asked a witness to call the police, and then went with them peacefully; by the time she'd been booked Blakely was dead.

The killing occurred during that year's General Election - a campaign the Conservative Party later won, in part because of its strong pro-death penalty position; her actions sparked a considerable controversy in the public debate, in addition to one of the earliest media frenzies.

During her brief trial two months later - following which the jury deliberated for just 23 minutes - Ellis cooperated fully with authorities, and never once tried to proclaim her innocence. In the witness box at the Old Bailey, when asked by Christmas Humphreys, the counsel for the prosecution, 'When you fired the revolver at close range into the body of David Blakely, what did you intend to do?', Ellis' answer was a simple 'It's obvious when I shot him I intended to kill him.' It was all the law required to convict her of first degree murder - and its mandatory death penalty - when, had she chosen to, she could have prevaricated and gone down for manslaughter instead.

Thirty years later, Ellis' then-nearly forgotten story re-emerged in the public consciousness when Mike Newell's 1985 film Dance with a Stranger was released; in it, Ellis was played by Miranda Richardson and Blakely was played by Rupert Everett. The film became as noted for its stylish evocation of London in the Fifties as it was for the strong performances of its young stars, and despite being saddo in the extreme is today considered a modern classic.

*By hanging, at London's Holloway Prison.

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