John ‘Babbacombe’ Lee
For centuries, executions in England were carried out by professionals. These skilled executioners were paid handsomely to ensure that condemned men – and women – were dispatched quickly and effectively. By the nineteenth century, hanging had become firmly established as the preferred method of executing murderers and other notorious criminals in English prisons. As well as being bloodless – and certainly less traumatic to prison staff than death by firing squad – it was also hugely reliable. Hardly anybody survived a hanging. But to survive three attempts? It sounds impossible. But a man by the name of John Lee allegedly did just that.
Lee was convicted of the murder of Miss Emma Anne Whitehead Keyse. Emma Keyse (as she was more commonly known) lived alone in the small village of Babbacombe, in the county of Devon. However, she shared her house with four servants. Lee, the half-brother of the house’s cook, was one of the servants. Indeed, he first got the job when he left school in 1879. He soon left, however, to travel the world in the Navy. But the sea-faring life was not for Lee and, after being dismissed, he got a job as a footman in the town of Torquay. It was here in Torquay that he first fell foul of the law. After being caught stealing from his employer, he was sent to prison. Lee was released in 1884 and immediately returned to Babbacombe.
Since Lee was the only male in the house, as well as the only person with a criminal record, when Emma Keyse’s body was found on a November morning in 1884, he was the prime suspect. The spinster had been brutally killed: as well as her head being bashed in, her throat had been slit. What’s more, the culprit had attempted to burn the body. When questioning Lee, the police noticed that he had cuts on his arm. He could not account for the injuries. These cuts, as well as his past record, were enough to see him convicted of murder. He was sentenced to hang in Exeter Prison on the morning of 23 February 1885.
By all accounts, the Exeter Prison executioner, a man by the name of James Berry, was thorough in his work. Indeed, he tested the gallows trapdoor several times before Lee was brought out and a noose put around his neck. However, upon pulling the lever, the trapdoor failed to open. Berry tried again. No luck. And a third time. Still it wouldn’t open. The execution was postponed and Lee’s lawyers appealed. Upon hearing of the case, the Home Secretary, Sir William Harcourt, commuted the death penalty. He said: “It would shock the feeling of anyone if a man had twice to pay the pangs of imminent death.”
That’s not to say Lee went unpunished. He was still given a life sentence and was released only after 22 years. Throughout his imprisonment, Lee maintained his innocence. And, indeed, in the English media, he became known not as the man they couldn’t hang but, due to his lack of guilt, the man they shouldn’t hang. What happened to Lee after his release, nobody knows for sure. Some say he stayed in the South-West of England. Others report he emigrated to America for a new life. His guilt – or innocence – has never been comprehensively proved, though he will always retain a place in English history as the man who escaped the hangman’s noose.