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John Lee, The Man They Couldn’t Hang!

No matter what, John Lee just wouldn't hang!

John Lee, born on 15 August 1864 in Abbotskerswell, Devon, gained notoriety for his extraordinary survival of three attempted hangings for the murder of his employer.

In 1885, Lee faced conviction for the murder of Emma Keyse, his employer, at her residence in Babbacombe Bay near Torquay on 15 November 1884.

The evidence against him was tenuous and circumstantial, relying primarily on Lee being the sole male present in the house during the time of the murder, his prior criminal record, and a mysterious cut on his arm.

Despite maintaining his innocence, Lee received a death sentence. However, his life took an astonishing turn when he remarkably survived three separate attempts to hang him. As a result, his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.

He garnered significant attention and earned the nickname “the man they couldn’t hang.”

The Botched Hanging of John Lee

In February 1885, John Lee found himself facing the gallows at Exeter Prison in Devon County, England amidst cloudy skies. The somber scene took an unexpected turn, plunging the onlookers into a mystery that has remained unsolved for almost a century and a half.

As the hangman, James Berry, prepared to set the machinery in motion, an uncanny occurrence unfolded. The trap doors, designed to open beneath Lee’s feet, stubbornly refused to budge. Berry, puzzled but undeterred, examined the mechanism and confirmed its flawless operation. Undeterred, Lee ascended the scaffold once again, only to be met with the same inexplicable failure.

Growing increasingly concerned, Berry adjusted the spacing between the trap doors and called upon the prison warden to verify their functionality. Astonishingly, the mechanism exhibited no signs of malfunction. Despite this reassurance, the apparatus failed once more when Lee mounted the gallows for the third time.

Andy Jones with the noose he believes was used to hang John Lee

Andy Jones with the noose he believes was used to hang John Lee

Amidst a haze of panic and confusion, both Berry and the attending medical officer, John Pitkin, declined to proceed further. Lee’s execution was halted, and he was returned to his cell. Subsequently, his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.

Pitkin documented the incident in his report, recounting the events:

“After half an hour had passed since I commenced the proceedings in the condemned cell, I witnessed the utter chaos that prevailed. Witnessing the immense mental anguish the convict had endured and considering the improbability of the scaffold functioning correctly, the medical officer and I implored the Under Sheriff to postpone the execution that day. It would have been a great act of cruelty to persist with carrying out the sentence.”

The repeated failures of the supposedly reliable hanging mechanism raised numerous questions. Was it merely a mechanical malfunction, or did some unseen force intervene to spare John Lee? For nearly 150 years, prison officials, investigators, and medical experts have grappled with this perplexing enigma, yet no definitive answers have surfaced.

Twenty-two years later, John Lee was released from prison. He subsequently settled in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in the United States, but managed to make a living from his infamous past.

Early Life and Arrest of John Lee

Born on 15 November 1864 in the quiet village of Abbotskerswell, Devon, John Lee hailed from a humble background plagued by poverty and limited educational opportunities. Despite these adversities, he nurtured grand aspirations of swift wealth and worldly exploration.

Lee embarked on a path toward his dreams by joining the Royal Navy, only to be forced to abandon his aspirations after a severe leg injury rendered him unfit for service.

Stranded with meager resources and an uncertain future, Lee sought employment as a footman. However, misfortune struck when he found himself accused of robbing his employer, resulting in a two-year sentence of hard labor.

Following his release in 1884, Lee finally found stability as a personal servant to Emma Keyse, a wealthy widow residing in the serene Babbacombe Bay region. Through diligent service, he swiftly gained his employer’s trust and became an integral part of her household.

Archive photo of The Glen at Babbacombe where servant John Lee was accused of killing his employer Emma Keyse in 1884.

Archive photo of The Glen at Babbacombe where servant John Lee was accused of killing his employer Emma Keyse in 1884.

Tragedy darkened the tranquil streets of Babbacombe Bay on 15 November 1884 when the lifeless body of Miss Emma Keyse was discovered. She had been brutally murdered, her throat slashed by a kitchen knife, and her head bore three grievous puncture wounds. In a futile attempt to conceal the crime, the assailant had sought to burn the victim’s remains.

As the sole male resident of the house, Lee naturally became the prime suspect. A bloodstained knife was discovered in a drawer adjacent to his bed, and his arm was drenched in blood. Lee maintained that he sustained the injury while breaking a window to access his employer’s bedroom, where he had discovered a raging fire. However, his account was met with skepticism.

No eyewitnesses could corroborate the events, and Lee appeared to lack a motive for the murder. All the evidence against him was circumstantial. Yet, in the 19th century, when forensic science was still in its infancy, the police lacked the means to prove definitively that the blood found on Lee did not belong to his employer.

Consequently, John Lee found himself charged with the murder of Emma Keyse and subjected to a trial that would determine his fate.

John Lee’s Trial and “Execution”

In the courtroom, John Lee enlisted the services of a local solicitor named Reginald Gwynne Templer to defend his case. However, just two days before the trial commenced, Templer withdrew, citing illness. In his place, his brother Charles Templer assumed the role, despite his reputation as an inept advocate with a track record of failures.

Maintaining his innocence, Lee vehemently protested his culpability throughout the trial. Nevertheless, the mounting evidence presented against him appeared damning, and Charles Templer’s defense faltered against the prosecution’s relentless efforts.

However, on the day designated for Lee’s execution, fate intervened, altering the course of events. Neither James Berry, the hangman, nor the prison warden could coax the hanging mechanism into functioning despite their best efforts. Ultimately, the execution was halted.

Reflecting upon the extraordinary circumstances, the Home Secretary, Sir William Harcourt, amended Lee’s sentence to life imprisonment, remarking:

“The prospect of a man facing the imminent threat of death three times would shock anyone.”

How Did John Lee Get So Lucky?

The precise reason for the failure of John Lee’s hanging remained elusive initially. Prison officials speculated that the rainy weather may have caused the wooden planks of the scaffold to swell, impeding the mechanism.

However, thoroughly examining the planks revealed them to be completely dry. With everything carefully and routinely executed, there appeared to be no logical explanation for the repeated failures.

While some attributed the events to divine intervention, with Lee being innocent and protected by a higher power, others sought a more practical explanation by scrutinizing the mechanical aspects of the failure. An in-depth analysis of the gallows revealed that critical components required stricter maintenance to ensure proper functionality.

Formal portrait of John 'Babbacombe' Lee AKA 'The Man They Could Not Hang' after his eventual release from prison aged 53

Formal portrait of John ‘Babbacombe’ Lee AKA ‘The Man They Could Not Hang’ after his eventual release from prison aged 53

It was possible that certain elements had become jammed, hindering the opening of the trap doors under the prisoner’s weight. Thus, a combination of fortuitous circumstances and human oversight saved Lee’s life on three separate occasions.

However, the question remained as to why the adjustments made after the second failed attempt did not rectify the problem. Experts were unable to provide a satisfactory answer, and the investigation concluded with the belief that a mechanical failure, albeit unremarkable, was the most plausible explanation for the unsuccessful hangings of John Lee.

Later Life of John Lee

Following his release, Lee appears to have taken advantage of his fame, supporting himself by giving lectures about his life and even being the subject of a silent movie. After 1916, accounts of his travels are a little hazy.

One researcher even hypothesized that others may have claimed to be Lee at different times. He may have passed away at some point during World War II in the Tavistock workhouse. Recent studies have determined that he passed away in America in 1945 while going by the name of “James Lee.”

John Babbacombe Lee was sentenced to hang at Exeter Prison and has the dubious distinction of being the only man in history to have survived three hanging attempts.

John Babbacombe Lee was sentenced to hang at Exeter Prison and has the dubious distinction of being the only man in history to have survived three hanging attempts.

In 2009, Milwaukee’s Forest Home Cemetery was home to Lee’s gravestone, according to the book The Man They Could Not Hang.

A Bizarre Twist Unfolds Half a Century Later

Fifty years later, a startling revelation emerged when advancements in forensic science were applied to the case. It was discovered that the true perpetrator of the murder was none other than John Lee’s initial solicitor, Reginald Gwynne Templar.

Reginald harbored a strained relationship with Emma Keyse, and in a fit of rage, he had committed the heinous act. To protect himself, he meticulously orchestrated a scheme to frame Lee by planting incriminating evidence. Lee’s steadfast claims of innocence were vindicated.

This astonishing revelation added another layer of peculiarity to the already extraordinary events surrounding the near-execution of an innocent young man. Lee’s life had been spared due to a remarkable convergence of circumstances—a twist of fate that came to light only decades later through the application of forensic science.

RIP Victims.

Next, read about the Case of the Moby Prince, a Ship and Passengers Abandoned to Burn. Then, about the Blood-Curdling True Story Behind the Rwandan Genocide.

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Written By

Abin Tom Sebastian, also known as Mr. Morbid in the community, is an avid fan of the paranormal and the dark history of the world. He believes that sharing these stories and histories are essential for the future generations. For god forbid, we have seen that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. zoritoler imol

    October 15, 2023 at 3:23 pm

    F*ckin’ amazing issues here. I’m very happy to peer your post. Thank you a lot and i’m taking a look forward to contact you. Will you kindly drop me a e-mail?

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