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. 

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