The Man They Couldn’t Hang

Jun 4, 2012 - by Robert Walsh

John "Babbacombe" Lee

John "Babbacombe" Lee

After three attempts to hang John Lee at Exeter Prison in Devon, England, the hanging was called off. Years later he was paroled.  

by Robert Walsh 

It is February 23, 1885. The place is the coach house of Exeter Prison, Devon, England. The time is 8 a.m. 

Outside the prison, a large crowd has gathered to await the execution by hanging of convicted murderer John Lee, condemned for the brutal murder of his employer, Miss Emma Keyes, the previous year. When the execution has been successfully completed a bell will toll for 15 minutes and the dreaded black flag will be hoisted over the prison. 

At 7:55 a.m. the execution party, consisting of the prison warden, the chief guard, the prison doctor, the prison chaplain, several guards, the executioner and representatives of the press, assembles outside the condemned man’s cell. 

At precisely 8 a.m., Britain’s chief public executioner, James Berry, receives a signal from the prison governor and enters the condemned cell. He swiftly straps Lee’s arms by his sides and places a white hood over his head. Accompanied by the rest of the execution party, Berry swiftly leads the pinioned and hooded convict on to the gallows, straps his legs together and tightens the noose around his neck. Berry steps quickly off the trapdoors and approaches the lever. He swiftly pushes the lever over as he has done so many times before.

And nothing happens. 

The doors drop approximately a quarter inch, jam solid and will drop no further. Berry is slightly flustered by this, but because it has been known to happen before, he continues with his grim duty. He unstraps Lee’s legs, removes the noose and takes off the hood. He leads Lee into an adjoining room and quickly returns to examine and test the trapdoors. They are reset and the lever is thrown. 

They work perfectly. 

Berry goes into the adjoining room and brings Lee back on to the gallows. Again the hood and noose are applied and Berry throws the lever a second time. 

The doors jam solid again. 

This time Berry has strained the lever by throwing it too hard. Lee is again unstrapped and the noose and hood removed. He is again taken back to the adjoining room. It is suggested by a member of the execution party that the doors fit together too tightly. Two guards are dispatched to fetch a plane and an axe to whittle the doors slightly. When this has been done, Berry throws the lever and the doors jam solid again. Now a part of one door is sawed off and the trapdoors still need to be struck hard before they fall. 

Lee is then returned to his position atop the gallows. He is strapped, hooded and noosed for a third time. Berry moves swiftly, as if to bring this sorry spectacle to as quick an end as possible. He leaps for the lever and throws it as hard as he can. 

And the doors jam solid again. 

The prison chaplain has collapsed under the strain and lies prostrate on the scaffold, the grim spectacle having proved simply too much for him. The prison doctor immediately demands that the execution be halted on the spot and the Under-Sheriff of Devon agrees. 

The prison warden, doctor and chaplain (by now partially recovered) go to the doctor’s room to compose and sign a statement bearing witness to the morning’s bizarre events. This statement is immediately taken to the Home Secretary in London for his consideration. The Home Secretary decides that Lee has suffered enough and proceeds to commute the death sentence, instead ordering that Lee serve life imprisonment. And so starts the legend of “The Man They Couldn’t Hang.” 


John Lee’s Crime 

The scene of the crime was a seaside house in the pleasant Devon town of Babbacombe, near Torquay. On the night of November 14, 1885, householder Emma Keyes confronted an intruder inside her home. It was to be the last mistake she ever made. She was beaten to the ground with a heavy instrument believed to be a hatchet and her throat was cut with such force that her vertebrae had notches carved in them by the knife. After the murder her killer soaked her body in a fluid, believed to be kerosene, sprinkled more kerosene around the house and torched her body and the crime scene. It was a particularly brutal and callous murder, especially as other servants were in the house at the time and could easily have been casualties as well. John Lee, an employee of Emma Keyes, was a prime suspect right from the start. 

As a result of this, Lee was swiftly arrested, questioned, charged with murder and reckless arson and held to be tried at the next Assizes – the courts held every three months at which more serious cases were usually dealt with. This was significant for Lee as, under English law, only at an Assizes could a capital trial be held. And this would be a capital trial where few local people doubted his guilt, and even fewer when several people claimed to have heard Lee issuing death threats against the victim. 

The inquest and trial were concluded quickly. The crime occurred in mid-November and Lee was found guilty of both charges during the first week of December. It only remained for the trial judge to don the traditional “Black Cap” and pass the following sentence: 

John Henry George Lee, you have been found guilty of willful murder by a jury of your peers. The sentence of this Court is that you be taken from this place to a lawful prison, and thence to a place of execution, where you shall be hanged by the neck until you are dead. And that your body be afterwards cut down and buried within the precincts of the prison in which you were last confined before execution. And may the Lord have mercy upon your soul. Amen. Remove the prisoner.  

Lee was swiftly taken away to Exeter Prison, which was known as the “hanging prison” for the county of Devon, and lodged in the condemned cell to await his fate. He was expecting either a hanging or a reprieve. In the end, he got both. 


John Lee’s Background 

So what kind of a man was John Lee? He was born on August 15, 1864, in the quiet little village of Abbotskerswell in Devon. The time and place of his eventual death is disputed. Some claim he died in a poorhouse in the town of Tavistock, about 12 miles from Plymouth. Others say he died in Australia, while still others claim he died in the United States, in Milwaukee, in 1945. (Personally, I think it's unlikely that he stayed in Devon with Torquay and Exeter so nearby. I think the memories of the trial (and the ghastly failed execution especially) might well have been more than most people could bear so his heading for foreign soil is more than likely.) 

He had a moderately comfortable childhood and became very close to his half-sister, a woman named Elizabeth Harris, a fellow-employee of Emma Keyes who would later give evidence against him. His elder sister, Amelia, was also employed by Emma Keyes and talked her into giving Lee a job in 1878. After briefly being in Emma Keyes’s employ, Lee left to join the Royal Navy, but was discharged in 1882 on medical grounds and, some say, because he had disciplinary problems during his service. 

After his discharge from the navy, Lee held a series of low-paid, menial jobs at a number of hotels in Torquay until he was jailed for petty theft. When he came out of prison, Elizabeth Harris interceded to get Lee his old job back. Emma Keyes was persuaded to allow Lee back into her service as a groundsman and occasional butler in spite of his criminal past. 

Lee returned to Emma Keyes’s employ in the summer of 1884, but it was only a few weeks later that he was caught attempting to sell a market trader a guitar stolen from the Keyes’s home. Mrs. Keyes, who seems to have tempered justice with no small amount of mercy, didn’t fire him. Instead, she docked his wages as a punishment, but kept him in work. The wage cut (and a desire for revenge) was later alleged to be his motive for murder. 


Was Lee Guilty of Murder?  

Lee’s guilt or innocence has been, unsurprisingly, somewhat overshadowed by the remarkable events that occurred at his failed execution. In favor of his innocence is the fact that the evidence against him was entirely circumstantial. Despite there being a great deal of such evidence, there was nothing that gave an iron-clad indication of his guilt. 

Lee also had far more to lose than gain by murdering his employer. After all, he had previously described her as his best friend in the world and simply having his wages docked was hardly a pressing reason to commit capital murder. That would be the action of somebody who was reckless, impulsive, foolish and a brute. According to Lee’s letters while awaiting execution, and the testimony of some people who knew him, Lee simply wasn’t that way inclined. Finally, even after his nightmarish experience on the gallows and having served a 22 year sentence, Lee remained defiant to the end, always asserting his innocence. 

There is, however, strong evidence, albeit circumstantial, to suggest that Lee was guilty. There was a hatchet with blood spots on it, a hatchet being the suspected murder weapon, which John Lee used regularly and was suspiciously quick to give to firemen when they were hacking burning timbers. The kerosene can was equally suspicious. Also, even when pressed heavily, Lee never offered any alternative versions of what happened that night. When pressed, he simply fell silent. He also fell silent regarding the inconsistencies in his story, such as his injured hand. And it wasn’t until long after the case had been closed (and his death sentence commuted) that he began to accuse others of being involved, and all of the people he accused had strong alibis.  

Lee marked himself out as a prime suspect by being the first to raise the alarm. He was also accused by at least one witness of telling them that Emma Keyes was dead even before her body had been found, although he later denied having done this. He had injured his left hand, yet had left a series of right-handed blood prints on the stair wall and the nightgown of the servant he apparently saved from the burning building. 

He also claimed that the cut on his left hand came from when he broke a window to help the servant escape the fire. The condition of the window indicates, however, that it was smashed from the outside in, while Lee was supposedly inside the house. The female servant Lee so generously saved also reported hearing the sound of the window breaking some time after she was rescued, not before. When Lee was finally persuaded to help move the victim’s body, and he only did so after much protest on his part, he claimed to be unaware of the extensive, and very obvious, injuries that she had suffered. If Lee was unaware of the injuries on the victim’s body, then how could he possibly know that she was dead? 


Why Did the Gallows Fail?  

James Berry, Chief Public Executioner

So, what happened on the gallows that fateful day? What went wrong and put a potentially innocent man through such agony? Lee himself always claimed it was God’s work and that it was a case of divine intervention. He also claimed to have had a dream while in the condemned cell, in which the gallows malfunctioned and failed to do its deadly work. The other versions are somewhat more scientific than that. James Berry, who was the chief British hangman assigned to execute Lee, admitted to having had a dream early in his career of the gallows failing to work. On why the gallows did not work properly for Lee’s execution, Berry attributed the failure to purely technical problems. 

There had been heavy rain in the two days leading up to the execution and, a gallows being made of wood, he felt that the rain had caused the trapdoors to warp and then jam solid whenever weight was placed upon them. He also felt that the gallows were poorly constructed. He describes the trapdoors as being too thin and the ironwork as being too light for the job in hand, so that the iron catches on the trapdoors became locked. He also described the doors themselves as fitting together too tightly. 

Mr. A.B. Hardy, a Home Office representative, mentions having ordered the Clerks of Works to thoroughly inspect the gallows. It was their opinion and his that a long hinge rested on the drawing bolt that held the doors closed and thus held them closed even after Berry had worked the lever to open them. Officer Edwards was the Artisan Warder at Exeter Prison at the time. He blamed the iron bearing bars of the gallows as being too light and thus tending to lengthen when significant weight was put upon them. This would explain why the doors jammed solid when weight was placed upon them, but worked perfectly when that weight was removed. Mr. Harris, the Chief Constable for the county of Devon and a witness to the failed execution, remembers the gallows as being cold, wet and damp. He advanced the idea that the gallows had simply become too wet for too long and that, while drying out, the wood had warped and consequently the trapdoors simply jammed under Lee’s weight. 


Lee’s Sentence Commuted to Life Imprisonment 

The aftermath of the hanging affected different people in different ways. Lee’s death sentence was immediately commuted to one of life imprisonment. He served 22 years, mainly at Portland Prison in the county of Dorset and was released in 1907. He’s said to have left for the United States, where he lived illegally, never becoming a U.S. citizen, until he is said to have died in Milwaukee in 1945, although the precise date and location of his death has never been fully confirmed. 

The official reaction to the failed hanging, at least from those who were there, was to simultaneously deny their own responsibility while preferably passing the buck on to someone else. In the official correspondence between various officials and witnesses to the debacle, there is plenty of blame offered around, but very little accepted. 

To be fair to the officials of the time, they did at least begin the long-overdue process of modernizing and standardizing the execution methods used in British prisons. A new standard type of gallows and execution suite was designed, meaning that future executions would never again end in such farcical circumstances. This new system was gradually introduced at “hanging prisons” all over the country. 

It proved quicker and safe for all concerned (except the condemned, of course), especially when a new breed of executioners such as John Ellis and Albert Pierrepoint began working their own ideas into the execution procedure. The combination of decent, purpose-built equipment and professional and skilled executioners did much to make the British method of execution the fastest and cleanest method available, and it was exported to a large number of countries, some of which still use it today such as Singapore, Malaysia, India and, until abolition in those countries, South Africa, Australia, Austria and Canada. 


A Postscript 

There is one final, and equally grim, postscript to the case of “The Man They Couldn’t Hang,” that you couldn’t possibly make up, and it is this: 

John Lee’s mother was desperate to secure her son’s release and, to do so, engaged the services of a lawyer from Plymouth who felt as strongly as she did and was prepared to try and force his case to be taken up in Parliament. 

That lawyer was a certain Herbert Rowse Armstrong. 

Armstrong left Devon in 1905 and moved to Hay-On-Wye in the county of Herefordshire, opening his own law practice as he did so. In 1921, he deliberately administered a fatal dose of arsenic to his wife Katherine, whose continued presence was clearly no longer welcome to him. Armstrong was convicted of murder and hanged at Gloucester Prison on May 31st, 1922 by John Ellis, the chief executioner from Rochdale. His final words as the doors fell are said to have been ‘I am coming, Kate!’ 

This time, the gallows worked perfectly.

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