The last woman ever to be hanged by the British government, Ruth Ellis, is back in the news 52 years after her execution.
A petition to have the Ellis case reopened is being supported by Gordon Brown after new evidence possibly exonerating Ellis was brought to light. Author Monica Weller, who was doing research for a book with Ellis’s sister, claims that evidence never heard at the trial may have resulted in a much different verdict and spared Ellis her life.
Ellis was sentenced to death in 1955 for shooting and killing her lover, George Blakely, outside a north London tavern on Easter Sunday. The weapon used in the crime, a Smith and Wesson revolver, was heavy and required two hands to operate. Hospital records show that Ellis’s left hand was gnarled as a result of contracting rheumatic fever as a teenager and she weighed only seven stone and stood at 5’2 when the murder took place. Weller alleges that this, along with other evidence not heard at the trial, may absolve Ellis of the crime, or at least of the severity of her sentence.
Foreign press at the time mocked Britain’s intolerance of ‘crimes of passion’ with one French reporter writing: “Passion in England, except for cricket and betting, is always regarded as a shameful disease.” We’d like to think that we just have a passion for being dispassionate. Stiff upper lips don’t go well with fits of rage, Frenchie.
Whatever the outcome, the tragedy of this case is compounded by the strange turn of events that followed Ellis’s death. Her 18-year-old sister suddenly died weeks after the execution, supposedly from a broken heart, and her husband, George Ellis, delved into alcoholism and hanged himself three years later. Ellis’s son, Andy, suffered psychological damage from the ordeal and in 1982 committed suicide in a bedsit after destroying her headstone at Saint Mary Churchyard in Amersham, Bucks. Her grave is now overrun with yew trees, which have historically been symbols of death and renewal, resurrection and transformation.
Whatever the outcome of the petition, we hope Ruth gets her redemption in the end.