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John 'Babbacombe' Lee - The man they couldn't hang'

Page updated 2 April 2009

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In 1884, Lee was employed as a footman at the Glen in Babbacombe, Torquay. In November of that year there was a fire at the house, and Miss Emma Keyse the mistress of the house was found dead, with her throat cut. It seemed that the fire was started to conceal the crime. The police quickly arrested Lee for the murder, based on some circumstantial evidence.

On February 5th,1885, he was found guilty of murder at Exeter Assizes in the Guildhall, and sentenced to hang despite protesting his innocence. He is said to have told the judge when asked why he was so calm, ’The reason I am so calm, is that I trust in the Lord, and he knows that I am innocent.

Early on the morning of February 23rd, 1885, John Lee was led to the gallows in the Exeter prison courtyard. The press who were to witness the execution, later accounted that everything was fairly emotionless. He was walked to the trapdoor, the noose placed round his neck, the lever pulled to draw the bolt - the trapdoor didn’t budge. The hangman, John Berry pulled the lever a second time - the trapdoor again failed to open, it was stuck fast. Lee was taken back to his cell, and workmen where called to fix the fault and test the mechanism. When ready, Lee was returned to the scaffold, positioned with the noose around his neck and Berry for the third time, pulled the lever - the trapdoor again refused to budge. The witnesses were stunned, unable to explain what had happened.

The newspapers rushed to their deadlines, reporting on the 'man they could not hang'. The Home Secretary was contacted, who authorised a delay and after a Parliamentary debate, the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.

Lee served 22 years in prison, and was released in 1907. He married Jessie, a Newton Abbot girl, in 1909, who had a son John by him. He worked in Ye Olde King's Head in Lambeth, London telling customers of his escape from the hang man's noose. Lee met his mistress Adelina Gibbs, a barmaid at the King's Head, and deserted his wife and son, sailing with Adelina, from Southampton to New York, on the German liner Prinz Friedrich Wilhelm, in February 1911. During the Depression he worked as a shipping clerk for a truck company. He died of a heart attack at the age of 80 on 19 March 1945 and was buried in Forest Home Cemetery, Milwaukee.

Source: Various including the Express and Echo

John Lee
John 'Babbacombe' Lee.
Exeter Prison
Exeter Prison.

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