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John Henry George LEE






A.K.A.: "Babbacombe" - "The man they couldn't hang"
Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Dispute over his wages
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: November 15, 1884
Date of birth: August 14, 1864
Victim profile: Emma Keyse (his employer)
Method of murder: Stabbing with knife
Location: Babbacombe Bay, Devon, England, United Kingdom
Status: On February 23, 1985, survived three attemps to hang him. Sentence commute to life in prison. Released in December 1907. Died March 18, 1945

John Henry George Lee, better known as John 'Babbacombe' Lee, (1864 - c. 1945) survived three attempted judicial executions in England and is known as the man they couldn't hang.

Lee was born in Abbotskerswell, Devon, served in the Royal Navy and was a known thief. In 1885 he was convicted of the brutal murder of his employer Emma Keyse at her home at Babbacombe Bay near Torquay on 15 November 1884.

The evidence was weak and circumstantial, amounting to little more than Lee having been the only male in the house at the time of the murder, his previous criminal record, and being found with an unexplained cut on his arm. Despite this and his constant claim of innocence he was sentenced to hang.

Execution and aftermath

However, on February 23, 1885, at Exeter prison, three attempts were made to carry out his execution. All ended in failure as the trap door of the scaffold failed to open. This was despite the fact it had been carefully tested by James Berry, the executioner, beforehand.

As a result, Home Secretary Sir William Harcourt commuted the sentence to life imprisonment. Lee continued to petition successive Home Secretaries and was finally released from gaol in 1907. The only other known man in history to survive three hangings is Joseph Samuel.

Many theories have been advanced as to the cause of the failure, but Home Office papers show that the official report stated incorrect assembly of the gallows mechanism allowed the trapdoor hinges to rest upon an eighth of an inch of drawbar, preventing them from opening when the doors were weighted. This incident helped lead to a standard gallows design, to prevent a repeat occurrence.

After his release, Lee seems to have exploited his notoriety, supporting himself through lecturing on his life, even becoming the subject of a silent film. Accounts of his whereabouts after 1916 are somewhat confused, and one researcher even speculated that in later years there was more than one man claiming to be Lee.

It was suspected that he died in the Tavistock workhouse sometime during World War II. However, one recent piece of research concludes that he died in the US under the name of "James Lee" in 1945. According to the book titled The Man They Could Not Hang by Mike Holgate and Ian David Waugh, Lee's gravestone was found at Forest Home Cemetery, Milwaukee.

In the 1970s, Dave Swarbrick (the fiddle-player in the English folk-rock band Fairport Convention), found a series of old newspaper articles about Lee and composed a rock opera entitled Babbacombe Lee which was recorded and released by Fairport Convention as an LP.

Folk song collector Gwilym Davies was given a notebook in 1971 by Mrs Hunt, of Greywell, Hampshire, in which the words of a poem, 'The Death of John Lee' were written. The words, with a composed tune, were published in 1972 by Gwilym Davies in 'A Hampshire Garland'.


John 'Babbacombe' Lee

Ellen Keyse was an elderly, wealthy spinster who had been a maid of honour to Queen Victoria. She was found by one of her servants after she had been severely beaten and with her throat cut.

It was the morning of 15th November 1884 and the body was discovered in the pantry. A maid had been woken up with the smell of burning. Fearing for her own safety she investigated and found her mistress's body saturated in oil and surrounded by burning paper.

John Lee was 19 years old and had a job on the staff as the footman. Lee had a criminal record and had served a prison sentence for theft and it was his knife that had been used to cut the old woman's throat. Although the evidence against him was purely circumstantial he was quickly found guilty and sentenced to death.

The motive for the murder was that Ellen Keyse had been disapointed with his behaviour and had reduced his wages and threatened to sack him. There was fierce controversy over the verdict and sentence but that didn't stop him being taken to the gallows at Exeter Gaol on 23 February 1885.

When the time came for Lee to hang the preist read a prayer and the hangman Berry pulled the lever. Instead of the trapdoors swinging down plunging lee to his death nothing happened. Berry pushed the lever back and forth and warders stamped on the trapdoors, but still nothing happened. Lee was carried clear, his legs were still pinioned, and a carpenter was brought in to test the bolts. He could find nothing wrong so shaved away the edges of the trap.

The drop was tested with a heavy weight and it worked first time. Lee was put back on the trap, the lever was pulled and again the trap refused to budge. Once more he was removed, this time back to his cell. Twenty minutes passed while a variety of workmen, planed, oiled and tested the apparatus. Every time it worked perfectly.

Lee was brought back again. Rev John Pitkin, the chaplain, intoned the prayers and Berry pulled the lever again. And again, and again. Still the trap refused to open. Lee was removed back to his cell and was reprieved within hours. The failure of the trapdoors had more to do with bad carpentry than devine intervention. It is believed that although the doors were tested with weights and worked these weights were not the same as that of Lee himself. When he was standing on the trapdoors his weight pushing down on the bolts actually prevented them from sliding.

He spent twenty-two years in prison before being released in December 1907. He married and emigrated to America. He died there in 1933, aged sixty-eight.





John Henry George Lee



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