John “Babbacombe” Lee (1864-1945) was an Englishman famous for surviving three attempts to hang him for murder.
In 1885, he was convicted of the murder of his employer, Emma Keyse, at her home at Babbacombe Bay near Torquay on 15 November 1884 with a knife. The evidence was weak and circumstantial, amounting to little more than Lee having been the only male in the house at the time of the murder, his previous criminal record, and being found with an unexplained cut on his arm.
Despite his claim of innocence, they sentenced him to hang. Having survived three attempts at hanging, they commuted his sentence to life imprisonment. He became popularly known as ‘the man they couldn’t hang.’
On February 23rd 1885, at Exeter Prison, John ‘Babbacombe’ Lee climbed the scaffold and stood awaiting his turn to be hanged to death. But a strange thing happened and has remained unexplained for over 100 years after the incident.
As the executioner James Berry pulled the lever, the trapdoors through which Lee was supposed to plunge failed to open. Not thinking too much about it, Berry examined the mechanism and determined that it seemed to work just fine. Lee climbed on the scaffold the 2nd time and the mechanism again failed as the trap doors did not open.
Spooked by this, Berry enlarged the cut between the two trap doors and got the warden to test it. The mechanism was working fine with no issues what so ever. Lee climbed the hanging scaffold for the 3rd time and the mechanism failed again. All hell broke loose as both Berry and the attending medical officer John Pitkin refused to take part in further proceedings. The execution was halted, and they returned Lee to his cell.
Berry provides a detailed account of the failed execution in his memoirs, ‘My Experiences as an Executioner’, noting that the trapdoor was adjusted with a saw and axe between the attempted executions.
As a result, home secretary Sir William Harcourt commuted the sentence to life imprisonment. The Home Office ordered an investigation into the failure of the apparatus, and they discovered it that when the gallows were moved from the old infirmary into the coach house, the drawbar was slightly misaligned. As a result, the hinges of the trapdoor bound and did not drop cleanly through. Lee continued to petition successive Home Secretaries and released in 1907.
An alternative theory, raised by Ernest Bowen-Rowlands in his book ‘In the Light of the Law’, suggests the trap was blocked by a wooden wedge inserted by a prisoner working on the scaffold, and removed when they tested the apparatus.
As for Lee, he was released 22 years later, and he became a mini-celebrity in England. Later he immigrated and lived out the rest of his years in anonymity in Milwaukee, America.
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 guilt will ever be proven.
CRIME NOVELS BY PAUL ASLING
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