The Man They Couldn’t Hang – Babbacombe Lee

Babbicombe TragedyOn the morning of 15th November 1884, 68 year-old Emma Ann Whitehead Keyse was found dead at her home, “The Glen,” at Babbacombe Bay near Torquay by her servants who had been roused by the smell of smoke in the property.

According to the post mortem her skull was fractured in two places and her throat had been cut so severely that all the main arteries were severed and even the parietal bone was notched.

An attempt had also been made to burn the body and several rooms of the house. A strong odour of paraffin oil still evident on her clothes several hours later.

With no sign of forced entry into the house, John Lee, half-brother to the cook, Elizabeth Harris, and the only man known to be in the house at the time of the murder was soon arrested.

At his trial, the jury reached a unanimous guilty verdict.

Asked by the Clerk, “have you anything to say why sentence of death shall not be passed upon you?”

Lee protested his innocence.

The sound of rustling silk attracts all eyes to the judge, as he raises his hands to don the dread black cap.

“John Lee, you have been found rightly guilty of a crime of the most revolting brutality.  Not only did you sacrifice for life of one who had loaded you with kindness upon kindness, who gave you are fresh start in life when you returned an outcast from prison, that you must also place in jeopardy the lives of your fellow servants by fire, that your fell and ghastly work might be hid.  I take you to prepared to meet your maker, for I can hold out to you no hope of mercy from man, and I exhort you to change that callous bearing you have maintained during the trial for one more fitting your terrible and desperate position.”

John "Babbacombe" Lee

John “Babbacombe” Lee

On the 23rd February 1885, John Lee was brought to the scaffold where the hangman James Berry waited for him. With the prisoner pinioned he is moved onto the trapdoor and the white hood placed over his head. Finally the noose is placed around his neck.

Berry pulls the lever to release the trapdoor and…

Nothing happened

Shocked and neglecting his own safety Berry jumped on the trapdoor to try and force it to open, but the wood under Lee’s feet remained solid.

Lee was removed from the trapdoor and the lever pulled again, this time the trap operated successfully but when they attempted the execution for the second time again the trapdoor failed to open.

This time Lee was removed from the room whilst the equipment was tested and once again no fault could be found. Believing that damp had caused the boards to swell the edges of the trapdoor were planed and the mechanism successfully tested once again.

John Lee was brought back once again, and yet again the trapdoor failed to operate once Lee was in position.

The prison chaplain, John Pitkin, appealed to the Govorner to stop the proceedings

More than 30 minutes had elapsed since I first began the service at the condemned cell. Then, when I saw the helpless confusion that prevailed, the great mental suffering through which the culprit had passed, and the improbability of the scaffold working, I joined with the medical officer in an appeal to the Under Sheriff to postpone the execution for that day. Great cruelty would have characterized further effort to carry out the sentence that day.

After deliberation Lee’s sentence was changed to life imprisonment by the Secretary of State, Sir William Harcourt.

Lee continued to proclaim his innocence but it was not until 1907, 22 years after the botched execution, that his petition was finally successful.

For some time after his release, Lee was a celebrity supporting himself by giving lectures on his life story, however as his notoriety waned he dropped out of  the public eye and his whereabouts were lost.

It was thought that he died in Tavistock in 1941, but recent investigations now suggest he emigrated to America and died in Milwaukee on the 19th March 1945.

In 1971 Fairport Convention released the album Babbacombe Lee inspired by old newspaper articles about the events.


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