“Grover’s Peace” Taster
At 9 o’clock on the morning of April 1st 1950, Ruby Willis was hanged in Horfield Prison.
There were demonstrators and onlookers in equal measure outside the gaol. The former, supporting the campaign to repeal capital punishment; the latter, determined to be present as the law exacted revenge on the city’s notorious ‘Goodtime Girl.’
Six hours later, the banner headline on the front page of the Bristol Evening Post roared Thou Shalt Not Kill. The copy underneath was lean and chilling…
The Prison Chaplain read the Bible to Ruby Willis at 8.40 this morning. Fifteen minutes later, he watched as Mr Pierrepoint led her into the scaffold cell and closed the door. At noon Ruby was lowered into her grave, while the Horfield Prison Governor watched and the Chaplain read the burial service – all present, and indeed all of us not there, complicit in the breaking of the 6thCommandment.
Two days later, a packed house at the ABC Cinema on Whiteladies Road watched enthralled as Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame lit up the screen in the tense melodrama In A Lonely Place, providing enough electricity to power the whole suburb. Those who turned up for the entire programme, watched the Movietone News pictures of the crowd outside Horfield prison forty-eight hours earlier, listening in cold satisfaction to the film narration.
Ruby Willis was a model executed for the murder of Bristol club owner Ronald Eaves. Her lawyer implored her to plead temporary insanity. To which she simply responded I took Ronnie’s life. I don’t want you to save mine. Lord Chief Justice Bannerman told the Jury that Ruby’s defence was ‘essentially non-existent’. He instructed the twelve good men and true to ignore the extreme abuse dealt out by Eaves, the assault which resulted in a miscarriage, and her poor mental health, as ‘according to the law of the land this is no defence…”
She was shown no mercy. Petitions signed by thousands of people were ignored by the Home Office. Ruby Willis went to her death alone, save for the presence of half a dozen civil servants. There was no one to grieve for her.
* * *
“And the last one…”
Lieutenant Berger pushed the piece of paper across the top of his desk. Grover picked up the typed sheet, stared at it with some suspicion, then looked up at the Adjutant. Berger nodded at him.
“Simply to remind you that you’re still in the US Army.”
Grover signed his name at the bottom of the sheet. Pushed it back across the desk and stood up. Berger checked the signature, then held out his right hand. Grover shook it.
“The best of luck, Sergeant Major.”
Grover saluted and left the office.
* * *
Sergeant Major Ed Grover had not been home to Tomah Wisconsin for eleven years.
Back in Spring 1941 he had joined the Eagle Squadron in Suffolk. Like the rest of the men around him, he had wanted to get into the war. He couldn’t fly, so he helped service and re-build the dwindling bunch of Spitfires that made it home from sorties. Five months before D Day, he transferred to the 21st Infantry and battled across every yard of ground from Omaha Beach to the River Elbe. He got his first stripe after the 21st broke out of Bastogne. His second after Baker Company led the charge over the Saar River. As he slogged east, he received word that his mother had died of liver cancer. The letter went astray and was eventually pinned to the side of his jeep by a corporal from Div. Comms, two weeks after the funeral. There seemed no point in going home, so he stitched on his third chevron and kept going.
In May 1945 Grover was posted to the charnel house that was West Berlin. Over the course of eleven months, he had morphed from scared rookie into experienced killer. He had the whites of his enemies’ eyes close up. Now, he looked into the faces of bewildered mothers and children; starving, sick and traumatised; and tried to help win the peace.
Finally, on December 31st 1949, the 21st Infantry was flown out of Germany, to Fairford in Gloucestershire. The USA and Tomah Wisconsin were still thousands of miles and light years away, and he had nothing to go back for. He lucked out. The boffins at Filton were making upgraded aero engines for a new NATO fighter with the help of a huge chunk of US dollars. The army needed a liaison officer. Grover talked his way into the job. Still not out of uniform, but still on European soil.