At the age of 27, Ellis made history when she went to the gallows at Holloway Prison on 13 July 1955, becoming the last woman to hang in England. As was customary with hangings, Ellis was buried in an unmarked grave in the Holloway Prison Cemetery.
Following extensive rebuilding of the prison in the early 1970s, all the bodies of female executions were exhumed and their remains reburied in Brookwood Cemetery. Ellis was the exception, as she was reburied at Saint Mary Churchyard in Amersham, Buckinghamshire, with her headstone bearing her birth name, Ruth Hornby.
The Ellis hanging provoked much controversy and on the day of her execution, the Daily Mirror newspaper ran a story attacking her sentence, written by columnist Cassandra, that later became famous. The general public also felt the need for their opinions to be heard and 50,000 people signed a petition to the Home Office, asking for clemency. The appeal was rejected by the Conservative Home Secretary, Major Gwilym Lloyd George. The force of public support finally won and 10 years after Ellis was hanged, the death penalty was abolished in Britain in 1965. People were starting to realise that politics played a far greater role in judicial sentencing than previously realised and that capital punishment was becoming arbitrary.
The last person to be sentenced to death in England was David Chapman in November 1965; in Wales it was Edgar Black, who was reprieved on 6 November 1963; in Scotland it was Patrick McCarran in 1964, who died in prison in 1970; and in Ireland it was William Holden in 1973, who was removed from his death row cell in May 1973.
Public opinion had it that there were various factors working against Ellis in her sentencing, including her appearance and lifestyle, the fact that she wounded a passer-by and not least, her apparent lack of remorse. It also transpired that the murder and Ellis’ arraignment occurred during the 1955 General Election campaign, which was won by the Conservatives who supported the death penalty. The new Home Secretary could not be seen to be influenced by the public furore and media debate, in granting Ellis a reprieve.
Tragedy seemed to surround the deaths of Blakely and Ellis. A few weeks after her execution, Ellis’ younger sister died suddenly at the age of 18, supposedly of a broken heart. Ellis’ husband, George, had been a heavy drinker and after sinking into the depths of alcoholism, committed suicide by hanging in 1958. Ellis’ son, Andrea, was deeply psychologically affected by what had happened and was living in a squalid bedsit when he committed suicide in 1982.
Films have been made, telling the tragic story of Ruth Ellis. These include Mike Newell’s ‘Dance with a Stranger’ (1985), starring Rupert Everett as David Blakely and Miranda Richardson as Ellis; and Adrian Shergold’s ‘The Last Hangman’ (2005) (UK title: ‘Pierrepoint’), with Mary Stockley playing Ellis. A film that bears a close resemblance to the Ellis story, about a doomed murderess, is ‘Yield to the Night’ (1956) starring Diana Dors. The film was in fact based on the 1954 Joan Henry book of the same name.