John Henry George Lee, also known as John ‘Babbacombe’ Lee or simply as ‘the man they could not hang’ – was born on the 14th of August 1864, in the Devonshire village of Abbotskerswell – and upon leaving school went to work for Miss Emma Keyes, at her home ‘The Glen’, in Babbacombe, a seaside hamlet near to Torquay. Shortly after he joined the Royal Navy – but was discharged for an injury he sustained some three years later….he returned to Torquay and took up a position as footman for a Colonel Brownlow. However, in 1883 Lee was convicted of stealing £20 worth of silverware from his employer and spent 6 months in Exeter Prison doing hard labour….


On his release 19-year-old Lee was fortunate enough to be given work again by his original employer, Emma Keyse; the elderly spinster obviously thought he deserved a second chance and already had his half-sister Elizabeth Harris in her employment, working as a cook. Miss Keyse was a wealthy, respected woman – who had been Maid of Honour to Queen Victoria (who had actually spent a night at the Babbacombe house). It seems Miss Keyse was not a lady to tolerate slovenliness – it was common knowledge she’d had reason to reprimand Lee as she was dissatisfied with his work and as a result had reduced his wages….not something that would have particularly pleased him….

It was during the early hours of the 15th of November 1884 that a female servant found Emma Keyse on the floor of the Pantry; she had been severely beaten and her throat had been cut. In an attempt to dispose of the evidence the perpetrator had saturated the body with oil and it was surrounded by burning paper – presumably with the intention of burning the house down….

‘Torquay, Babbacombe Bay, from the Inn’ National Science and Media Museum via / No known copyright restrictions Original image URL:

Immediately the finger of accusation was pointed at Lee and he was promptly arrested. He had supposedly been the only man in the house at the time, he had a criminal record and he had a motive – having had his wages cut…. He also had an unexplained wound on his arm – claiming this had happened when he broke a window to let out smoke from the fire….and it was his knife that had been used to cut the victim’s throat…. All pretty damning evidence – even if circumstantial….

Lee was meant to be represented in Court by a Reginald Gwynne Templar – a young solicitor acquaintance of Emma Keyse. This in itself is a little odd – what also seems rather strange is the eagerness Templar had to take on the case…. However, two days before Lee’s trial was due to begin Templar was taken ill, an illness he never recovered from. Templar died in December 1886 from Paralysis of the Insane – a polite way of saying Syphilis. Speculation is that he was the lover of Elizabeth Harris (Lee’s half-sister); Elizabeth was pregnant at the time, the father of her child ‘unknown’…. Lee claimed Templar was also present in the house on the night of the murder….

Templar’s younger brother Charles, Liberal MP for St. Ives, took over the role of representation in Court for Lee – despite it being only circumstantial evidence it took the jury just 40 minutes to return a ‘guilty’ verdict….Lee was sentenced to hang…. After sentence was passed Lee was questioned as to his calmness, to which he replied….

“The reason I am so calm is that I trust in the Lord and he knows I am innocent”….

Lee’s execution date was set for February 23rd 1885 at Exeter Prison. It was to be the first time the scaffold was to be used in this location – it had been moved from an old prison hospital building that was due to be demolished and had been re-erected…. After 1868 hangings were no longer public but took place inside prisons. The ‘long-drop’ method was used at the time, taking into consideration the person’s height, weight and the muscular build of the neck to calculate the length of rope needed to prevent decapitation….

On the morning of Saturday 21st of February, Prison Governor Edwin Cowan ordered that the scaffold apparatus be ‘thoroughly overhauled, cleaned and tested by the engineer officer and a warden carpenter’…. During the afternoon the apparatus was tested again by the artisan warden and the appointed executioner, in this case a James Berry. The executioner, after testing the equipment twice, verbally reported back to the Governor that he was satisfied all was in working order…. The execution was to take place on the following Monday at 8am….img_0264

Lee was led on to the scaffold, his hands already bound; his legs were then strapped just above the ankles, a hood placed over his head, the noose put around his neck and then adjusted…. James Berry then stepped back and pulled the lever to release the trap doors for Lee to fall through….only it did not happen…. The doors only dropped about quarter of an inch…. The executioner and prison officials stamped on the boards – but nothing budged…. The noose and hood were removed from Lee and he was carried to an adjacent cell….

Berry and the prison officials inspected the apparatus to find out what was wrong – speculating that because it was wet weather the damp had made the wood swell…. A carpenter planed some of the edges and the equipment was tested – this time with a prison officer representing the prisoner by holding on to the rope – everything appeared to be in working order…. Lee was brought back in, the Reverend John Pitkin, Prison Chaplain, once more read the prayers and the process was repeated….once again the trap doors refused to open….

Chief Constable for Devon, Gerald de Courcy Hamilton was present that day….he described how Lee was then subjected to a third attempt (possibly even a fourth – although this was disputed at the time)…. It was the prison’s Medical Officer who intervened, ordering for Lee to be removed to a cell….saying the officials could carry on practicing with a sack of flour, they were not going to experiment on this man any longer….img_0266

The Governor postponed the execution and the Home Secretary, Sir William Harcourt, was informed….who commuted Lee’s sentence to life imprisonment – his view being that it would be inhuman to put the man through all that again. An investigation was launched to discover the reason for the equipment malfunction….

The trap door of the scaffold had two halves and two sets of hinges….the ones at the outer edges of the door allow the halves to swing downwards. Another hinge was situated along the entire length where the halves met in the middle and were secured by draw bolts – when the lever was pulled these were released. In this instance the scaffold had not been re-erected correctly; the end of the long central hinge was resting on about an eighth of an inch of the draw bolt….combined with Lee’s weight pressing down, the doors were prevented from opening to the pit below….

The Home Office report prompted an inquiry into how all future executions were to be conducted and a redesign of the gallows to stop it from ever happening again….

John Lee continued to protest his innocence….in 1907 – after 22 years of imprisonment – he was released…. For a while he became a minor celebrity, giving talks on his experience…. A silent film was made relating the story. Lee married a local woman called Jessie and he became a father….but then deserted his family to take off with another woman, Adelina Gibbs – a barmaid in the public house he was working in at the time. In February 1911 they set sail from Southampton bound for New York to begin a new life in the United States…. Lee died of a heart attack, March 19th 1945 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, aged 80…. It could be said it is a miracle he didn’t have a heart attack on that fateful day in February 1885…. Perhaps it was Divine Intervention – there was talk that Reginald Templar had confessed to the murder of Emma Keyse on his death-bed….

4 thoughts on “The Man they could not hang….

    1. He was wasn’t he…. But can you even begin to imagine what he went through? Especially if he really did happen to be innocent….it doesn’t bear thinking about…


  1. Oh, how awful! That poor man – a fascinating and macabre account. The hanging tale that haunts me is that of Dic Penderyn, sentenced to hang for wounding a soldier during riots at Merthyr Tydfil in 1831. He protested his innocence and had solid witnesses to back him up but the authorities wanted a scapegoat and Dic was it. His last words from the scaffold were ‘Oh Arglwydd, dyma gamwedd!’ which means ‘Oh Lord, what an iniquity!’. Forty years later another man (on his deathbed) admitted to the crime. The story is told brilliantly and movingly in Alexander Cordell’s novel The Fire People

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you – I shall have to look that one up… I hope it doesn’t make me weird (if so, I know I’m not alone) – but I find these cases absolutely fascinating …


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