John Lee of Devon became famous as 'The Man They Could Not Hang'. He was found guilty of a grisly murder, but it was a fiasco at the scaffold that cemented his legend. After the trapdoor failed to open for a third time, the execution was postponed in confusion and Lee's sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.
In the history of capital punishment in England, there is no other undisputed example of a prisoner cheating the hangman three times.
Most of what is known about Lee comes from 'penny-dreadfuls'. These publications were popular in Victorian times, and recounted notorious tales of crime in lurid detail. They were written and printed in great haste, to catch the wave of public interest in current scandal. Their language was florid, and their reporting was usually exaggerated and often wildly speculative.
Some supporting evidence about this particular story exists in public records, but both of these sources are essentially contemporary with the crime and the botched execution. It is not surprising, therefore, that little is known about Lee before the murder for which he was convicted. Still less is known about his later life, after the furore over his escape from capital punishment had died down.
John Henry George Lee was born in the Devonshire village of Abbotskerswell, near Torquay, on 15 August, 1864. He was the younger of two children in a moderately well-to-do family. His father, also called John, sold produce from their smallholding while earning a second wage as a clay miner. His paternal grandfather, a widower, shared the family's cottage and worked as the village cobbler.
John's mother, Mary Lee, had an older daughter by a man called Harris before she married John Lee Senior. Elizabeth Harris was brought up at nearby Kingsteignton by John's maternal grandparents, and the half-brother and half-sister were close friends. Their relationship would have a profound influence on John Lee's fate.
Amelia, John's elder sister, introduced him to the Glen at Babbacombe Beach, where she had taken employment. This gracious house was owned by a kindly lady called Miss Emma Keyse, who was said to have been a lady-in-waiting to the future Queen Victoria in her youth, and whose philanthropic reputation was noted throughout the locality. She was a spinster in her late fifties when John briefly entered her service in 1878. He worked in the grounds and stables before defying the wishes of his parents and joining the navy.
His career at sea was not a success. Lee was eventually discharged as an invalid in 1882, and it is probable that a record of poor discipline was a factor in this. His subsequent employment in a series of Torquay hotels was no more favourable and he served a short prison sentence after being caught pilfering. But by now Elizabeth Harris was working at the Glen as Miss Keyse's cook, and she persuaded her mistress to offer John Lee his old job back.
John Lee returned to the Glen in the summer of 1884, to work as the groundsman and occasionally as butler. There were three other servants in service at the time: an elderly pair of sisters called Jane and Eliza Neck, and Lee's half-sister Elizabeth. Within a few weeks, Lee was caught selling a guitar from the house to a market-trader. Emma Keyse responded to this breach of trust by cutting his wages. This event would later be construed as Lee's motive for killing her.
Certain events at the Glen that took place in the early hours of Saturday, 15 November, 1884 are accepted as true by all commentators. After working on her diary in the drawing room until around midnight, Emma Keyse confronted someone near the foot of the stairs, and was struck repeatedly about the head in a frenzied attack. The weapon used was very probably a hatchet kept in the toolshed on the grounds. John Lee was the regular user of this implement.
For reasons that are unclear, the unfortunate woman was then mutilated with her own garden knife. Her throat was cut so deeply that the neck-bones were notched. By now certainly dead, her final indignity was to be set on fire. Newspapers were used to construct a pyre on the dining room sofa, and paraffin was probably poured over her. The perpetrator started a fire here, and also in at least two other places on the ground floor. There is little doubt that the intent was to burn down the house – this in spite of the fact that other people (the Necks, certainly) were asleep upstairs.
John Lee's behaviour in the next few hours, and the evidence that it left, appeared suspicious. He roused a number of people in the surrounding area between four and five o'clock, marking him as the first person to be aware of the fire. During this period, he told at least one person that Miss Keyse was dead, but his later testimony claimed that he didn't then know this. He rescued Jane Neck from the fire, and in the course of doing so, he left right-handed bloody handprints on the shoulder of her nightdress and on the stair wall. He claimed to have cut his hand while breaking a window to let out smoke, but displayed a wound to the left one. Moreover, the window was later found to have been broken from the outside, and Jane Neck heard the sound of its breakage some time after Lee had helped her down the stairs.
Lee was also reluctant to help with the removal of Miss Keyse's body from the still-smouldering sofa. Eventually persuaded to do so, he later claimed to have been unaware of the very obvious injuries to her head and neck. A paraffin can was recovered from the pantry where he slept, now almost empty whereas it had been filled with the lamp-fuel only days before. There were bloodspots on the can. Lee fetched his hatchet with surprising speed when the fire-fighters sought a means to break out burning roof-timbers. There were bloodspots on that too.
Lee was soon charged with Miss Keyse's murder. The shock and disgust of the townsfolk was intense, and few doubted his guilt. Several witnesses came forward, claiming to have heard the young man threatening the victim's murder in the days and weeks before the incident.
An inquest and a trial both started within a few days and both were completed during the first week of December. Lee was found guilty of murder and reckless arson and was condemned to hang.
Was Lee Guilty?
The most troublesome aspect of Lee's conviction concerns his motive. On the face of it, Lee had a great deal to lose through Emma Keyse's death, and nothing to gain. He had described her, with apparent sincerity and justification, as his best friend in the world. The prosecution claimed that the docking of his wages provided his incentive. In truth, though, to respond to such a punishment by killing his employer would have been an extreme case of biting the hand that fed him. Murder through spite could only have been the action of a hot-headed, stupid person. All the available evidence suggests that Lee was neither. His letters, indeed, prove that he was erudite and suggest that he was a fairly peaceful type.
Lee would always deny his guilt, even after his eventual release from prison. During the period when the world's eyes were on him, though, he never offered a wholly plausible explanation of the events of the night of the murder. Many people believe that Lee was protecting someone, probably his half-sister Elizabeth Harris. What is certain is that Harris was pregnant at the time of the crime, because she gave birth to a child in the Newton Abbot workhouse during May, 1885.
Long after Lee's release and disappearance from public life, a Devon newspaper published a story suggesting that the secret of the Babbacombe murder had been buried along with a local worthy in about 1890. It added that the man concerned was surprised by Miss Keyse while intimately engaged with a house-servant, and that the killing had ensued to preserve his reputation.
The year of the publication of this article was 1936, and the sources and details of the story (including an explicit naming of the dead man referred to) were omitted. Nonetheless, these hints seem to point to a man called Reginald Templer, a local solicitor who died of syphilis aged 29, about two years after the killing. Templer also behaved very suspiciously following the fire at the Glen. He wrote rather histrionic letters about it only hours after its occurrence, and then offered to defend Lee, even though he claimed to be a friend of the Keyse family. He turned out to be hopeless as an advocate, and was relieved of the job, showing signs of mental illness, before judgement was passed. Some accounts equate Templer's behaviour with bad conscience.
Whether or not one or both of Templer and Harris were involved in the murder, it is a little hard to believe that Lee was not in some way culpable, at least as an accomplice. The crime-scene evidence strongly suggests his involvement, even if it does not wholly add up to a coherent proof of what happened. Lee gave no alternative version of events, even in the last days before his planned execution. Confronted with inconsistencies in his alibis, he seems to have fallen silent, apparently incapable of further explanation. After the commuting of his sentence, he did at last accuse others, but their alibis appear sound. A fisherman called Cornelius Harrington, somewhat improbably, was the subject of some of Lee's allegations.
Conspiracy theorists dispute Lee's guilt to this day. Whether guilty or not, though, the strangest part of the story was yet to come.
The Failed Execution
On the morning of Monday, 23 February, 1885, John Lee was taken from the condemned cell at Exeter jail, and was mounted on the newly-erected scaffold. The device was of the collapsing type, with a lever-actuated trapdoor, and it was designed to be transported between sites of use throughout Devon. The hangman was James Berry, a celebrated practitioner. He had checked the equipment two days previously. Perhaps significantly, a lot of rain had fallen on the timbers, standing unprotected in the prison's van-yard, since then.
The first attempt to hang Lee took place a few minutes after 8 o'clock, and the lever jammed. This was an unusual, but not unprecedented, occurrence. Lee was left standing off to one side while a carpenter adjusted the mechanism according to Berry's instructions. The trap was tested (though without the application of a dead-weight, for want of time). Some 20 minutes after the first failure, the hanging was attempted again. This time the lever went right over, but the trap still did not fall.
Lee was taken back to the cells and a further attempt to fix the equipment was made. Clearances were opened right up, by vigorous application of the joiner's plane, but the work was done in haste, perhaps because of sympathy for the prisoner's ordeal as well as the practitioner's embarrassment.
Just after nine-thirty, a third and final attempt was made. The trap still did not fall. When a dead-weight was drawn up, the prison surgeon, a man called Gaird, took charge and refused to contemplate a further attempt that day. The prison governor was consulted, and it was decided that the Government (meaning the Home Office in Whitehall, London) must be informed.
According to some accounts, Lee ate the breakfast prepared for the hangman, who was too upset to face it. It is certainly true that Berry would renounce the idea of capital punishment in later life. This experience may ultimately have convinced him of the cruelty of his calling.
The Story Continues
During the following day, the news came out that the Home Secretary, Sir William Harcourt, had revoked the death sentence and had directed that Lee should serve life imprisonment instead. Despite many appeals, he spent more than 20 years in Portland Prison, before finally being released in 1907. It is known that Lee married and lived locally for a while; he is the subject of a few photographs. Within a few years, though, the public interest waned, and Lee spent the rest of his days in anonymity. A death certificate of 1948 suggests that he lived to 74 years and died in Tavistock, but other versions have him passing away in the United States, or Australia.
Many explanations for the failure of the trap have been offered, but the consensus view seems to lie in a deflection of the assembly, causing the mechanism to jam. The scaffold had a box-frame base, but was erected on cobbles in the van-yard of the jail. With only one or two people on the platform, as was the case when the operation was checked, there was probably insufficient weight to deform the structure. At the time of the failures, though, it is thought that at least seven people were on the platform on all three occasions that the execution was attempted. This extra weight was applied to a structure that was designed to be supported evenly all around its base-frame, but that may have been bearing on as few as three points. It therefore seems plausible that the hanging of John Lee failed because of the twisting of the scaffold caused by the weight of a throng of onlookers.
There was a postscript and a renewal of interest in the story in 1972, when the British folk-rock band Fairport Convention dedicated an album to the story. Indeed, books are still being written about John 'Babbacombe' Lee. The reason is obvious: though a poorly-recorded subject, it is one that nonetheless arouses curiosity and morbid fascination.
If you would like to read a fuller factual account of the case, including detailed legal testimony, try www.murderresearch.com.