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24 September 2014
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   Inside Out - South West: Monday 14th October, 2002


John Lee

John 'Babbacombe' Lee, famously dubbed ‘the man they could not hang’, perhaps should be renamed ‘The man they should not hang’.

Inside Out and Lee Archive owner Ian Waugh, shed new light on the case to reveal a different suspect.

Brutal murder

Miss Emma Anne Whitehead Keyse lived alone in 'The Glen', with her servants Jane and Eliza Neck, Elizabeth Harris, the cook and her half brother John Henry George Lee.

'The Glen', Babbacombe, Devon
The Glen, beach residence of Emma Keyse

In the early hours of November 15 1884 in the hamlet of Babbacombe, Devon, Emma Keyse was discovered brutally murdered. Her throat was slit, she had three wounds to her head and the murderer had also attempted to burn the body.

Initial suspect

John had been a servant at 'The Glen' since leaving school, and in 1879, left to join the navy. After being invalided out, John returned to Torquay to work as a footman, but was convicted of stealing from his employer.

John was released from prison in 1884 and returned to work at 'The Glen'.

John Lee was the initial suspect, being the only male in the house at the time of the murder and was found with an inexplicable 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." John Lee to the judge at his trial

Divine intervention

Indeed, there does appear to be divine intervention on the day of John’s execution.

He was sentenced to be hanged at Exeter Prison on 23 February 1885.

After three failed attempts to hang Lee, his sentence was commuted to penal servitude

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’.

Three times they tried to hang Lee and three times it failed.

Penal servitude

The execution was postponed. Home Secretary, Sir William Harcourt commuted the sentence to penal servitude for life stating that;

"It would shock the feeling of anyone if a man had twice to pay the pangs of imminent death." Home Secretary, Sir William Harcourt

Lee was released from prison after serving 22 years. Rumours are rife about his whereabouts after release, rumours that Inside Out can shed light on.

But should Lee have even stood trial for the murder of Emma Keyse, let alone serve life for it?

Inside Out with the help of Ian Waugh reveals further evidence that brings a new suspect into the frame.

Reginald Gwynne Templar was a frequent visitor to ‘The Glen’ and represented Lee in court. Should he have been under suspicion of the murder?

Templar wrote to John Lee the morning after the murder, offering his services as a solicitor. This was unusual as Templer was a friend of the victim and equally unusual that he had heard about the murder so quickly.

Templar represented Lee for a time but then left, as he became ill. Suffering from insanity, Templar died at an early age, allegedly babbling about murder on his death bed.

Although there is little evidence to prove that Templar was the murderer, there is equally little evidence to prove that Lee was either. The evidence is purely circumstantial.

It is claimed that Lee was the only man in the house. Yet it is alleged that Lee told solicitors that Templar was in the house that night.

Lee's fate

With the Forensic Science laboratory not opened until 1935 and the first conviction by fingerprint evidence not until 1902, it is doubtful that John Lee’s innocence or indeed guilt, will ever be proven.

It is similarly uncertain as to how John Lee spent his days after release, although rumours are rife.

Newspaper report, "The man they could not hang."
There were extensive newspaper reports

Much speculation has surrounded the movements of John Lee after his release from prison in 1907.

Some believed he began a new anonymous life abroad. Others have suggested he moved to London, where he survived the blitz, his second escape from death.

Unmarked grave

It is certainly possible that Lee spent some time out of the country. It is also possible that he ended his days in a South West workhouse.

The discovery of a death certificate of a man name John Lee, states he was a painter/journeyman. He died of ‘Myocardial Degeneration’.

An unmarked grave believed to be that of John Lee, is all that remains to mark the rather sad existence of the man who rightly or wrongly paid for the death of Emma Keyse in 1884.

His grave may be unmarked and long forgotten, but the story of John Babbacombe Lee will long live on as ‘the man they could not hang’.

Ian Waugh, owner of the Lee Archive, is keen to get in contact with any of John Lee's relatives or anyone who has more information about the case.

Email him at

See also ...

On the rest of the web
Murder research
Babbacombe beach and The Glen
Babbacombe Murder
Torquay Museum

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