BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.

13 November 2014

BBC Homepage

Local BBC Sites

Neighbouring Sites

Related BBC Sites

Contact Us

Local history

You are in: Devon > History > Local history > A shadow of doubt - the story of the man they couldn't hang

John 'Babbacombe' Lee

The man they couldn't hang

A shadow of doubt - the story of the man they couldn't hang

His given name was John Lee, but he became known simply as the man they couldn't hang.

Mystery has surrounded the story of John 'Babbacombe' Lee for more than 100 years.

The tale of murder, fire, and a failed execution captured the imagination of the public at the time in the late 19th century, and has since spawned a series of books, songs, and even a whole album describing the events in Devon. 

So what do we know about the case of the man they couldn't hang?

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.

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. 

The Glen

The Glen, Babbacombe, home of Miss Keyse

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.

Lee returned to The Glen in the autumn of 1884, becoming engaged to a local girl soon after. But a few short weeks later his life was turned upside down. The mistress of the house, who had been his benefactress, was found brutally murdered. 

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.

Reports at the time described how he had remained completely calm throughout the trial, even when the Judge placed his black cap on his hand and sentenced him to death.

When he was asked by the Judge to explain his demeanour, Lee replied: "The reason why I am so calm is that I trust in the Lord and he knows I am innocent."

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.

Prison officials travelled to London to consult the Home Secretary, Sir William Harcourt. He ordered that Lee should be held at Her Majesty's pleasure with a recommendation that he should never be released.

Lee served the majority of his sentence at Portland Prison. His ordeal on the scaffold, and concerns about inconsistency in the evidence against him, led to a campaign for his release.

In 1905 the Home Secretary of the day responded to the campaigners with a statement: "People forget that the case of Lee is altogether different from those of other murderers. Lee was not reprieved because the merits of his case justified the step, but because of the miserable bungle which was made in an attempting to hang him."

Eventually the campaign was successful, and the middle-aged Lee was released in December 1907. He returned to Devon and began to plan his future. A year later his autobiographical life story was published, and Lee became something of a celebrity, touring the country giving lectures about his experiences.

John Lee was last heard of in 1911. By then he was married, living in London and working as a barman making a living telling his tale. But here the story ends. No further records of Lee appear after this time, despite investigations by historians and writers. 

As quickly as he was thrown into the spotlight, Lee was gone, and just as his story had been the subject of many conspiracy theories, his disappearance added new mystery to the life of the man they couldn't hang.


last updated: 19/09/2008 at 16:47
created: 12/09/2008

You are in: Devon > History > Local history > A shadow of doubt - the story of the man they couldn't hang

Film Archives

Archive still of the Beatles on a train

Watch a selection of old films from the BBC archives


The people of Devon

Meet some of the people behind the headlines in Devon

About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy