An episode of the BBC documentary series ‘Mystery and my Family’ that is scheduled to air on Tuesday, March 26 will bring to life the gruesome crime story of Cypriot Styllou Pantopiou-Christofi, who was hanged in Britain’s Holloway prison in 1954 after being found guilty of murdering her daughter-in-law.
Styllou Pantopiou-Christofi was aged 54 at the time of her execution on December 15 1954.
Christofi was the second last woman hanged at Holloway, which closed its doors in 2016. 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.
Now, 65 years later her grandson, Toby Christofis, has concerns about how his immigrant grandmother was treated throughout the investigation and at the trial. The programme will explore conflicting witness accounts, the question of Christofi’s mental health, cultural prejudices and a language barrier that, according to the programme synopsis “may have seen her wrongly convicted of murder”.
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.
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.”
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 in Rizokarpasso 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 children, including her son Stavros alone.
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.
Christofi’s execution was carried out on the morning of December 15, 1954, at 9am, by one of the world’s most famous executioners, Albert Pierrepoint. 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.