England decrees that she must die
for being broken one time too many.
In the streets of London and throughout our land
heartbeats falter, straining beneath
the lost battle for clemency.
Safely removed from the well-intended protests,
the clamouring anger, the supplicating prayer,
she dresses neatly to greet her end.
She knows what skirt to wear,
how little make-up she needs
if she is to face her maker,
how to hold her breakfast cutlery,
and how to turn away a sedative at her final hour.
Her ingenuous politeness
as she thanks her rostered warder for her care,
leaves an respectful aftertaste in the woman’s mouth:
she will not forget Ruth Ellis.
She thinks she is ready,
and she waits in her seat with practiced calm.
She wants to die and yet,
when the hangman enters her stony cell
she springs to her feet in consternation,
knocking over a chair in nervous haste.
the executioner speaks soothingly, tells her to sit,
and as he binds her wrists,
she returns to that calm centre.
While good people of England want her to live
she only longs to die,
and only she knows her hopes for the future;
whether she expects to stand again by her dead lover’s side,
even at the risk of more beatings,
or if she thinks her God may forgive her,
or if she just wants to rest eternal
beneath the passive earth
in unfamiliar and welcome peace.
The noose fits snug round her neck
Her heart ticks to zero
as the trapdoor expiditiously opens.
Her body drops and sways.
All pain has ceased.
you killed a sadistic man.
Some dismissed you as a peroxide tart,
but you were a lifelong victim of man’s cruelty,
felled by a masculine government
and failed by mankind.
In the end you were a brave martyr.
I bow to you.
You are long past caring and you never had a plan, but,
Ruth Ellis, you
were the only woman to be hanged
in this country, in my lifetime.
While I was learning to crawl
you were closing the book
on this country’s shocking history of female executions,
and you have touched me deeply.
Thanks go to Alan for challenging me to write a poem about Ruth Ellis’s final hour. I’m grateful to him for giving me a reason to read up on her history, and for suggesting such an excellent subject for a poem. I hope I have done justice to Ruth Ellis, who, in 1955, was the last woman to be hanged in England.
©Jane Paterson Basil