Meet Hella and Stavros Christofi. He was from Cyprus and worked as a waiter; she was from Germany and worked in a shop. In 1953, they enjoyed a simple but happy life in London with their three kids. Happy ... until Stavros’ mother Styllou became a part of the household.
A little background on Styllou, who’d moved from Cyprus to live with her son’s family. In 1925, she’d been tried ... and acquitted ... of murdering her own mother-in-law via a particularly brutal method: shoving a burning torch down the woman’s throat. She was let off the hook that time, but she hadn’t gotten any nicer by the time she became a mother-in-law herself.
Needless to say, the two women didn’t get along, and things soon got very tense at the Christofi home:
Styllou was a matriach of the old school and made her feelings plain. Speaking little English she soon developed a dislike for the country she had come to live in and constantly found fault with Hella and the way she chose to bring up her children. Hella put up with this for some time but finally her patience snapped and she gave Stavros an ultimatum.
Hella had arranged to take the children on a holiday to her family in Germany and she demanded that upon her return, Stavros would have shipped his mother back to Cyprus and out of their lives forever. Stavros spoke to his mother about this and Styllou decided to herself that if someone had to go, it would be Hella and not her.
Yeah, this isn’t going to end well for Hella, as you’ve already guessed. On the night of July 29, 1954, the situation came to a brutal, tragic head. Stavros headed out to his job at a local cafe, leaving his mother and his wife at home together. Once the children were tucked into bed, the fireworks began.
Or more literally, the fire: a neighbor walking his dog noticed smoke emerging from the family’s backyard. Since it was the middle of the night, he thought it odd enough to take a closer look, and upon investigating he saw what looked like “a tailor’s dummy on fire,” and spotted Styllou stoking the flames. Odd, but not criminal ... or so he thought.
About an hour later, a couple heading home from work encountered an even odder sight: Styllou in the middle of the street, screaming “Please come! Fire burning! Children sleeping!” The man raced to help, and unwittingly uncovered the crime:
Mr Burstoff, thinking that the kitchen might be on fire, and children’s lives might be in danger, rushed to help but soon discovered that the fire was in fact in the yard, and was a human body. Styllou had tried to burn the corpse by covering it with paraffin soaked newspaper.
Styllou tried to say that it must have been an accident. She had been woken from her sleep by the smell of smoke and upon investigating had found Hella’s body in the yard. She could offer no explanation as to how Hella had come to set fire to herself and the entire story seemed to lose what little conviction it might have ever had when Hella’s wedding ring was found in Styllou’s room, wrapped in a piece of newspaper.
Turns out Styllou had first clobbered Hella over the head with an ash-can lid, then strangled her, before setting her body aflame. Though she initially tried to blame an unidentified man for the murder, the police saw through her story. She was charged with murder, and declared fit to stand trial even after a prison doctor declared her 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.”
Despite this medical opinion regarding the woman’s diminished mental capacity, the jury was ruthlessly efficient, taking just two hours to find her guilty. As part of her appeal, she was re-examined and judged sane by three different psychiatrists. Her penalty? Death, carried out via hanging on December 13, 1954.
As an aside, compared to the sensational Ruth Ellis case that took place just seven months later (the blonde, glamorous Ellis was the last women executed in England)—and even with its exceedingly gruesome details—the Christofi killing received relatively little media attention, a fact noted by legendary hangman Albert Pierrepoint himself in his memoirs. File that under “sex sells” ... and keep your eye on your in-laws, ok?