The man they could not hang

The man they could not hang

JOHN ‘BABBACOMBE’ LEE was probably not guilty of the murder of his employer, Emma Keyse at her home in Babbacombe on 15th November 1884.

The evidence against him was weak and circumstantial but with a previous criminal record for robbery and Lee – apparently – the only man in the house at the time of the horrendous killing, the jury at his trial at The Guildhall, Exeter found him guilty and he was sentenced to be ‘hanged by the neck until dead’.

Yet he continued to profess his innocence all the way to the gallows.

But as events unfolded on that grey morning of 23rd February, 1885, with hundreds of people standing in the cold outside Exeter Prison waiting for the official notice of his execution to be pinned to the door, Lee was about to escape death at the hangman’s noose and take his place in British criminal history as “the man they couldn’t hang”.

For in spite of three attempts by the vastly experienced public executioner, James Berry, the trapdoor beneath Lee’s feet failed to open, not once, nor twice but three times.

Lee walked back to his cell where he told the priest that he had dreamt all of this the night before and knew that he would be spared death.

Victorian society was rocked by the news and ‘his escape from the very jaws of death’ was held up as proof, provided by Providence of his innocence. Subsequently Lee’s sentence would be reduced to life imprisonment – and eventually, after 22 years of appeals – freedom.


The Convicted

John Henry George Lee was born in Abbotskerswell in 1864, and put out to work by his father when he was 15. He found a job as a servant at ‘The Glen’, the large house of a Miss Emma Keyse, in Babbacombe before he left suddenly to join the Navy at Plymouth – to his father’s anger, his mother’s distress and Miss Keyse’s sad regret.


John Lee

Invalided out with pneumonia at 18 he became a footman in Babbacombe, but shortly after was arrested and jailed for robbing an employer. On release however he was re-instated by Miss Keyse as a general handyman.   Two elderly servants also lived at the Glen, sisters Eliza and Jane Neck, and Elizabeth Harris, Lee’s step-sister. He slept in the pantry, the rest of the household upstairs.

During the night of Saturday, 15th November 1884, someone started a fire at the house and panic ensued. Miss Keyse was not in her bedroom but was found by Lee in the smoke-filled dining room but only after he had smashed a window with his elbow to clear the smoke, cutting his arm in the process.  In evidence he later said what he saw as he turned, “ My poor dear mistress lying on the carpet – a ghastly sight. I can still see her eyes staring out from the hair which had fallen about her face. I can still see her hands. They were blue and claw-like, drawn up in convulsions of death.”

Miss Keyse’s throat had been cut and her head savagely mutilated with an axe or some such instrument. Oil had been poured over her body and an attempt made to burn it.

Lee helped the police carry the body from the house before he was apprehended on suspicion of murder. They had found a knife in Lee’s sleeping area that he could not explain. This, together with the cut on Lee’s arm and blood on a trouser leg – this in an age when forensic science had still to be developed – were sufficient for Lee being arrested and sent for trial.

JAMES BERRY was born in 1852, in Yorkshire. He was married and had six children three of whom died when they were young. He became a policeman in his early 20s but after eight years he left the force and became a shoe salesman, the better to support his family. Having met the public executioner during his police days he was persuaded to apply for and got the job of public executioner, chosen from some 1,400 applicants.

He was 32 years old and over the next eight years he hanged 131 people, including five women. He was paid £10 per hanging plus expenses, second class rail and cab fares and hotel,

He was by all accounts a quiet and contemplative man his favourite occupations being fishing and otter hunting, Frequently when going to an execution in a country town he took his rod and basket, and took half a day to fish before or after the execution. At home he kept rabbits and flew pigeons.

But “the onerous duty” of his job began to tell on him and he confided in close friends that at least six of the people he had hanged he believed to be innocent, this belief played upon his conscience and his health  He resigned his post in 1892, aged 40 and published his memoirs My Experiences as an Executioner and loaned the rope that had been used in the attempted hanging of Lee to the Chamber of Horrors exhibit at Madame Tussaud’s in London.

According to some accounts he became subject to nightmares and turned to alcohol, touring pubs in Yorkshire and giving talks. Following a complete nervous breakdown he became a committed Christian and in 1894 became an Evangelist preacher at the Bowland Street Mission in Bradford.

He was a strong campaigner against capital punishment up until his death. He died on 21st October 1913 at Bolton, near York, aged 61.

My Method of Execution

James Berry

James Berry

Berry was a perfectionist and meticulous in his preparation for an execution – which his memoir shows – something that made the failure of the trap to work in Lee’s case even more of a mystery. These are Berry’s own words:

The Drop

“It is, of course, necessary that the drop should be of sufficient length to cause instantaneous death, that is to say, to cause death by dislocation rather than by strangulation. Generally seven to ten feet.”

The Rope

“The one I use is made of the finest Italian hemp, I adjust it just behind the left ear. This position has distinct advantages and is the best calculated to cause instantaneous and painless death,. Before using it I thoroughly test it with bags of cement of about the weight of the condemned person. The rope is thirteen feet long.”

Pinioning Straps

“A broad leathern (sic)  body-belt is clasped round the convict’s waist, and to this the arm-straps are fastened. Two straps, an inch and a half wide, with strong steel buckles, clasp the elbows and fasten them to the body-belt, while another strap of the same strength goes round the wrists, and is fastened into the body-belt in front. The legs are pinioned by means of a single two- inch strap below the knees. The rest of the apparatus consists of a white cap, shaped somewhat like a bag, which pulls down over the eyes of the criminal to prevent his seeing the final preparations.”

The Scaffold

“The essential parts are few. There is a heavy cross-beam, into which bolts terminating in hooks (for the ropes) are fastened. Its ends are let into the walls of the scaffold house.”

“The scaffold proper, or trap, or drop, as it is variously called, is the portion of the structure to which most importance is attached. It consists of two massive oaken doors, fixed in an oak frame-work on a level with the floor, and over a deep bricked pit.”

“The first door is hung on three strong hinges, which are continued under the second. When the trap is set the ends of these long hinges rest on a draw-bar. When the lever is pulled over it moves the draw-bar in the opposite direction, so that the ends of the long hinges drop through the openings and the two doors fall.”

The Proceedings

“The hour fixed for executions is 8.00 a.m. The scaffold and rope are arranged, and the drop decided, beforehand. I calculate for three minutes to be occupied from the time of entering the condemned cell to the finish of life’s great tragedy for the doomed man, so I enter the cell punctually at three minutes to eight.”

“The chaplain is already there, and has been for some time, also the two attendants, who have watched through the convict’s last nights on earth are also present. At my appearance the convict takes leave of his attendants, to whom he generally gives some little token or keepsake, and I at once proceed to pinion his arms.”

“As soon as the pinioning is done, a procession is formed, generally in the following order: Chief Warder, four Warders, Chaplain, Convict, Executioner, Principal Warder, two further Warders, Governor and Sheriff, Wand Bearer, Gaol Surgeon and Attendant. “

On the way from the cell to the scaffold the chaplain reads the service for the burial of the dead, and as the procession moves I place the white cap upon the head of the convict. Just as we reach the scaffold I pull the cap over his eyes. Then I place the convict under the beam, pinion the legs just below the knees, with a strap similar to the one used for the elbows, adjust the rope, pull the bolt and the trap falls.”

“Death is instantaneous, but the body is left hanging for an hour, and is then lowered into a coffin, made in the prison, and carried to the mortuary to await the inquest. The inquest usually takes place at ten o’clock, but in some few places it is held at noon. After the inquest the body is surrounded by quick-lime and buried in the prison grounds.”

“After the execution is over the fact that the sentence of the law has been carried out is announced to the public by a notice fixed to the door of the prison.”

So what went wrong at Exeter Prison?

Exeter Prison

Exeter Prison

Berry produced this preliminary report for the authorities:

“Eight o’clock on Monday, February 23rd, 1885, was the time fixed for his execution. The scaffold and its arrangements had not been used for a previous execution, in their then position, though the drop had been used once, for the execution of Mrs. Took, but it was then fixed in another place.”

“On the Saturday I examined this drop, and reported that it was much too frail for its purpose, but I worked the lever and found that the doors dropped all right. On the Monday morning, at the appointed time, I brought out the prisoner in the usual way, pinioned him and adjusted the noose. He was perfectly calm, almost indifferent. When the noose was adjusted I stood back and pulled over the lever. “

“The noise of the bolts sliding could be plainly heard, but the doors did not fall.  I stamped on the drop, to shake it loose, and so did some of the warders, but none of our efforts could stir it.”

“Lee stood like a statue, making no sound or sign. As soon as we found our efforts useless we led the condemned man away. We tried the doors, which fell easily; then Lee was placed in position again, and again the doors refused to fall.“

“Lee was led away, the doors tested for the third time (after wood was planed from the edges of both doors) – but again, to no avail.”

At the time various theories were advanced for the failure of the workings, most popular being that it was caused by the doors being swollen with the rain which fell on the Sunday night.

Berry concluded, “That this was not the cause is proved, firstly, by the fact that the doors fell all right when the weight of the prisoner was not on them, and secondly, by the fact that they would not fall with the prisoner on them, even when we had chopped and planed down the sides where it was supposed that they stuck”.

What then of Lee?

John Lee served 22 years in prison, and was released in 1907 in a flurry of newspaper reports and magazine articles and began his reintroduction into society by being photographed shaking hands with the vicar of Abbotskerswell.

There began a small industry devoted to the production of articles, pamphlets, books and later, plays, films and nowadays websites, devoted to mulling over the evidence and theorizing over what might have been.

He toured pubs and public halls recounting his story. A play was written about him and subsequently two films were produced under the title The Man They Could Not Hang. He married a girl from Newton Abbot in 1909 but later abandoned her.

In their book”The Man They Could Not Hang“, extensive detective work by the authors, Mike Holgate and Ian David Waugh have uncovered the fact that he left Britain in 1911  bound for a new life in America, where, during the Depression, he found employment as a shipping clerk for a trucking company.

After a couple of changes of his first name – coincidentally perhaps to that of the man who tried to hang him – John Lee was buried in Milwaukee under the name “James” Lee, having died of a heart attack in 1945, aged 80 years.

So who did murder Emma Keyse?

TURN BACK to the beginning of this story. Look at the man pictured second from the left at the top of the front cover of The Illustrated Police News, where the artist may have inadvertently captured the likeness of the true killer.

GuiltyReginald Gwynne Templar was a young solicitor who stepped forward – unasked and unexpectedly – on the morning of the discovery of the body and offered to act as the defence for Lee. There is speculation that he was the lover of Elizabeth Harris, the cook, and was, according to Lee at least, present in the house on the night of the murder.

Two days into the trial however. Templar was taken ill and died in December 1886 from paralysis of the insane – a polite medical euphemism used at the time for a condition associated with tertiary syphilis. Was he the killer and Lee an accomplice – or was Lee, as he always maintained, innocent of the charge?

John Fisher

Hanging polls

Capital punishment for murder in the UK was abolished in 1965 in Great Britain and 1973 in Northern Ireland.

A YouGov poll in August 2014 showed that fewer than half of respondents would support reintroduction of the death penalty in the UK for murder. Of almost 2,000 people questioned, 45% were in favour – which represents a fall from 51% in a similar poll in 2010.

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This article was written by

Writer, author, script and sketch-writer, cartoonist, public speaker, Visitor Engagement Volunteer (National Trust) and would-be ukelele virtuoso.

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