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Mystery of John Lee

For more than 100 years mystery has surrounded the story of John 'Babbacombe' Lee. He was an Englishman famous for surviving three attempts to hang him for murder. 

John Lee grew up in Abbotskerswell, leaving the village in his early teens to go and work at The Glen in Babbacombe. His sister was already in the service of Miss Emma Keyse, whose home overlooked the beach in the South Devon village.

John Lee
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In 1879, Lee left The Glen to join the Royal Navy. He was discharged on medical grounds and four years later he returned to South Devon and a series of jobs. He was arrested for trying to sell stolen goods from a home where he had been working as a footman. 

He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to six months hard labour in Exeter Prison. His plight came to the attention of Miss Keyse, his former employer who wrote to the prison chaplain asking after Lee's welfare and expressing her desire to take him back into her service on his release from prison. She was as good as her word. 

Several years later, he was convicted of the murder of Emma Keyse, at her home at Babbacombe Bay near Torquay with a knife. Emma Keyse was found dead on the dining room floor of her home by her servants in the early hours of the morning on 15 November 1884. The house was on fire and it was clear an attempt had been made to burn the body. Lee, as the only man in the house, quickly became a suspect and was soon arrested and sent for trial at Exeter. Twenty-eight witnesses spoke against him, while Lee, who pleaded not guilty, said nothing. The case was over in three days. Lee was found guilty and sentenced to death. 

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. 

Although circumstantial, the evidence was enough to try and convict him of a murder to which he would always claim his innocence. 

"The reason I am so calm is that I trust in the Lord and he knows I am innocent," said John Lee to the judge at his trial. 

Three weeks later, Lee was taken to the execution cell in a procession including the chief warder, the prison chaplain and the executioner James Berry. 

Lee was led to the scaffold, a belt tied around his ankles, a hood placed over his head, and finally the rope was placed around his neck. Mr Berry asked if Lee had anything to say, to which he replied, "no - drop away". The bolt was drawn, but nothing happened, the trap door did not move. The warders tried stamping on it, but still it would not drop. Eventually Lee was led away and when the apparatus was tested, it worked perfectly. Lee was placed on the gallows, shackled and with a hood over his head, again the bolt was drawn but nothing happened. The warders stamped on the trapdoor, but it still wouldn't drop. A third attempt was made to execute Lee after the mechanism had been tested again, but it would not budge. 

In his autobiography, Lee described how he wanted his ordeal to end: "The suspense was becoming unbearable. I wanted them to get it over at any price." 

After the third failed attempt the chaplain told Lee that: "Under the laws of England they can't put you on the scaffold again". Lee was returned to a cell where he remained for many days waiting to hear his fate. 

James Berry, the executioner tested the trap on the scaffold and verified that it opened successfully each time. Yet John Lee became famous as ‘The man they couldn’t hang’. Lee continued to petition successive Home Secretaries and was finally released in 1907.



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