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‘Middle aged, unattractive and foreign’: the Cypriot murderess

Styllou Pantopiou-Christofi was executed in December 1954

By Jean Christou

Britain’s Holloway prison, home – and execution site – for some of the UK’s most famous women offenders is to close down in mid 2016.

Opened in 1852, it has hosted such famous killers as Moors murderer Myra Hindley, and the last woman hanged in Britain in 1955, Ruth Ellis. In all there were just five executions of women carried out at Holloway in the intervening years.

But what a lot of people in Cyprus don’t know is that the second last woman hanged at Holloway was a Greek Cypriot. Styllou Pantopiou-Christofi was aged 54 at the time of her execution on December 15 1954. She was also the first woman to be hanged in Britain in 30 years and the oldest woman executed at Holloway in the 20th century.

Holloway prison, built in 1852, is to be closed down by the middle of the year
Holloway prison, built in 1852, is to be closed down by the middle of the year

Today, the details of the gruesome crime committed by Christofi, her trial and eventual hanging would have made the front pages on a daily basis in Cyprus for months, and probably in the UK. More than likely her motive would have become the butt of endless mother-in-law jokes, countered by heavy feminist and psychology debates online.

In 1954 however, though Christofi’s case made the papers here and in Britain, there was little public detail. Even the Cyprus Mail archives contain only three short articles, more or less saying: ‘Cypriot woman to be hanged’, ‘Cypriot woman’s death sentence’ and ‘Cypriot woman hanged’ over a period of three days – 14, 15 and 16 of December 1954.

Her crime? Christofi was hanged for murdering her German daughter-in-law Hella, aged 36, at their London home in Hampstead by first knocking her out with the cover of an ash can, strangling her with a scarf and trying to dispose of the body in the back yard by setting it on fire.

In the decades since, Christofi’s case has however been featured in at least a dozen books on female killers, thousands of online articles, and even in PhD theses. Yet, the Sunday Mail was hard pressed to find anyone in Cyprus who knew of the case, and online searches in Greek brought up far fewer mentions of her than in English. There is even a YouTube video of the case in Spanish.

The Sunday Mail spoke to a veteran Cypriot journalist who was vaguely aware of Styllou Christofi by name but said in 1954 the media on the island had not given the case much coverage. A former politician who was a student in London in December 1954 had never heard of her, and neither had a leading Cypriot criminologist.

It is not clear where Christofi hailed from. One reference suggests the Karpas peninsula in the north, while some others cite Pitsilia in the mountains, but neither can be confirmed. The Sunday Mail heard from a former Rizokarpaso resident who was aware of her story to a degree and that there was a waxwork figure of Christofi at Madame Tussaud’s in London. The museum failed to respond to a request for confirmation.

In an even more macabre and ironic twist to the story of Christofi, who was married at 14, it is documented that in 1925 at the age of 25, she was put on trial in Cyprus for killing her own mother-in-law with the help of two other women who held the victim down while Christofi shoved a burning piece of wood down her throat. The three perpetrators covered for each other and Christofi was acquitted for lack of evidence. Tellingly, her husband left her after the trial and she was left to bring up her son Stavros alone.

The ease with which Christofi, who was illiterate and spoke only a few words of English, did away with her daughter-in-law almost 30 years later may have been influenced by her earlier acquittal, but Britain in 1954 was not Cyprus 1925, and Christofi’s account and her pleadings of innocence fell on deaf ears as the evidence stacked up against her. At one point she even tried to blame her son for her predicament.

Her son Stavros had moved to the UK in 1941 after spending some years in Nicosia working as a waiter and got a job working at the Cafe de Paris in London’s West End. He married a German woman, Hella Bleicher, and by the time Christofi went to live with them in the UK in July 1953, the couple had three children. At first they welcomed Christofi into their home but within the next 12 months, Hella told her husband she had had enough of her mother-in-law’s criticism and interfering in the way they ran their household and reared their children. She told him she would take the children to Germany for a visit and when she came back she expected Christofi to be gone back to Cyprus.

Murder victim Hella Christofis with her husband Stavros (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Murder victim Hella Christofis with her husband Stavros (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

According to capitalpunishmentuk.org, which describes the murder in detail, on the night of July 28, 1954, once Stavros had gone to work and the children were in bed, Christofi followed Hella to the bathroom and hit her over the head with the ash-can cover.

“She now dragged the unconscious woman into the kitchen and strangled her with a scarf. In a futile attempt to destroy the evidence of murder Styllou pulled the dead body out into the yard where she put paraffin soaked newspaper round it and set fire to it.

“A neighbour, John Young, who was letting his dog out, noticed the fire in the back yard and could see what appeared to him to be a tailor’s dummy being burnt. Styllou went into the street and raised the alarm with a passing motorist around one o’clock on the Thursday morning, shouting ‘Please come. Fire burning. Children sleeping’.”

It said the fire brigade were able to save the house and the children but then discovered the partly charred body of a woman in the yard and noticed a red mark around her neck. “Styllou had hoped that the body would be too badly burned to reveal anything. The police were now called and a search of the house revealed Hella’s wedding ring wrapped in a piece of paper in Styllou’s room. She told the officers that she had been asleep and had been awakened by the sound of two male voices downstairs. She went down stairs and had seen one man in the yard, before going to Hella’s bedroom where she got no reply when she knocked on the door. She then saw the body on fire in the yard and went for some water to douse the flames with.”

The account relates that the police were “less than impressed with this tale” and arrested Christofi at the scene. She was later charged with murder after the post mortem.

“Stavros begged his mother and her lawyers to plead insanity but Styllou declined, saying ‘I am a poor woman of no education, but I am not a mad woman’,” according to the account.

Apparently the chief medical officer at Holloway concluded that Christofi was insane but still medically fit to stand trial. This later led to a debate among several British MPs on how that was possible. According to various accounts, six Labour MPs were the only ones who questioned the death penalty in her case. One noted: “The mere fact … she did not claim insanity, shows … she is not of sound mind.”

According to capitalpunishmentuk.org, the Holloway medical officer found Christofi to be suffering from a delusional disorder that made her fear that her grandchildren would not be bought up properly by Hella and that she would in time be excluded from seeing them due to the clash of cultures between the two women.

Christofi’s trial began in the Old Bailey on October 25, 1954 and ran for several weeks. Despite the compelling evidence that included blood and paraffin on her own shoes, she kept protesting her innocence from the stand.

During the proceedings, the prosecutor referred to her as “a stupid woman … [who] really believed that after washing the floor she could eliminate bloodstains, and that with a small tin of paraffin she could so burn a body that it could not be recognised”.

In the end, it took the jury of ten men and two women just under two hours to find Christofi guilty. Reportedly she showed no emotion. Her appeal was dismissed on November 29 after she was re-examined as part of the process by three more psychiatrists, all of whom ruled that she was sane by the legal standards of the day.

According to a 1997 thesis by criminologist Anette Ballinger who thoroughly researched Christofi’s case, while in prison the condemned woman dictated several letters to Stavros, blaming him for her predicament, “suggesting at best, a failure to come to terms with reality and take responsibility for her own actions, at worst, severe paranoia as well as an inability to consider the loss Stavros had suffered”.

Christofi’s letter to Stavros continued: “You have tried too hard to hang me, to put around my neck the noose, so that you may rest. I am not obliging you to come and see me, my son. For my fortune, there are my family in the streets in Cyprus crying for me. If you saw their letters, you would be moved and cry as we do. My brothers say that if the sea were earth they would come on foot to see me. Kiss the children for me.”

As her execution drew near, Christofi asked for a Greek Orthodox Cross to be put up on the wall of the execution chamber “where she would be able to see it in her last moments”. The cross remained there until 1967.

feature jean - Britain's famous executioner Albert Pierrepoint oversaw the killing
Britain’s famous executioner Albert Pierrepoint oversaw the killing

On the morning of December 15, 1954, one of the world’s most famous executioners, Albert Pierrepoint, carried out the hanging at 9am. He was assisted by Harry Allen, Britain’s last ever executioner who would go on to hang a number of EOKA members in Cyprus a few years later.

Pierrepoint later noted in his autobiography how little press interest there was in Christofi’s execution. ”One wonders if it was because she was middle aged, unattractive and foreign?” he wrote.

Christofi’s body was exhumed and reburied in Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey when Holloway prison was revamped in 1971.

 

Motherhood and an alien culture at the heart of Christofi’s case

British criminology lecturer Dr Anette Ballinger in a thesis she wrote in 1997 titled ‘Dead woman walking: executed women in England & Wales 1900-1955’, and who features Christofi’s case, argues that that the discourse of motherhood is of paramount importance when women stand trial.

 'Bad mother' Styllou Christofi
‘Bad mother’ Styllou Christofi

A ‘bad’ mother is likely to be judged for the absence of ‘the maternal instinct’ with its accompanying mothering skills as well as for her crime. Yet a mother who loves with too much intensity – who is too possessive of her children – is no longer a good mother, for instead of being self-sacrificing she has become both greedy and needy – a threatening figure who is out of control, Ballinger writes.

She said the case of Styllou Christofi was an example of the ‘good’ mother who was out of control – “someone who was incapable of setting boundaries in this role, taking it to the extreme of murdering her daughter-in-law in order to ‘protect’ her son and grandchildren”.

“Styllou crossed the boundaries of ‘good’ mothering by abusing her power and control over her children, thus failing to accept her adult son’s right to an individual and independent life. Instead of fitting into the role of an altruistic mother and loving grandmother, she had become a controlling and manipulating woman, thus fitting into another stereotype, that of the ‘dragon-like’ mother-in law,” she said.

Christofi was described as heavyset and unglamorous with no apparent redeeming features, and her crime appeared to be motivated by jealousy and a desire to dominate her son’s household. She appeared ungrateful, callous and domineering “attacking an attractive, young, defenceless mother in a most gruesome manner, who had shown her nothing but hospitality and provided a home for her”.

Ballinger also said that during the trial, Christofi was also perceived as a stupid, foreign peasant woman. The author argues that apart from the implied racism, the comments reinforced the image of an unrefined woman lacking in sophistication and feminine attributes, which set her apart from the feminine ideal of the day, unlike the glamorous Ruth Ellis whose trial captured the headlines six months later.

Glamorous, Ruth Ellis
Glamorous, Ruth Ellis

“Her [Styllou’s] failure to display acceptable and appropriate feminine behaviour in the crucial area of motherhood ensured that she was perceived as a dangerous woman,” Ballinger writes, adding that this dangerousness was greatly magnified by Christofi’s capacity for extreme violence.

“Her total failure to display remorse, her shouting and cursing as well as her attempts to blame her own son for her predicament, ensured that she could not be constructed as a ‘pathetic’ or ‘helpless’ victim.”

Christofi’s “mental defectiveness”, she added, was not of the type conducive to sympathy which could have resulted in her being declared ‘mad’. Instead, it appeared as negative personality characteristics and this led to her being described as ‘obstinate’, ‘suspicious’ and ‘cunning’.

“Not only did these characteristics stand in sharp contrast to the feminine ideal of the naive, malleable and docile woman, they were also important ingredients in the construction of the ‘bad’ woman. When this construction became overlaid with her ‘dark-skinned foreignness’, Styllou Christofi found herself located at the receiving end of both judicial and cultural misogyny.”

On the face of it, the murder Ballinger says was “as simple and primitive as Oedipus, and as cruel”, but at the same time Christofi’s state of mind coupled with the contrast between an illiterate Cypriot woman who had spent all her life in a remote, rural corner of the island, and the culture of the criminal justice system in central London, “has created a vast gap in our comprehension of this case – obscuring Styllou’s motives and reasoning” and leaving only a set of “tantalising questions to which we will never know the answer”.

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