Babbacombe Lee

From Kook Science

"Babbacombe" Lee
Born John Henry George Lee
15 August 1864(1864-08-15) [1]
Abbotskerswell, Devon, England, United Kingdom
Died 19 March 1945 (80)
Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Burial Forest Home Cemetery, Milwaukee, WI
Known for Surviving three attempts at his hanging

John Henry George Lee (August 15, 1864 - March 19, 1945), popularly known as "Babbacombe" Lee, was an English convict who notably evaded death by hanging on three occassions due to the failure of the trap-door, gaining him certain notoriety as "The Man They Could Not Hang."

The "Babbacombe" Murder

On the night of Saturday, 15 November 1884, an arson fire was put out at the Babbacombe Glen home of Emma Ann Whitehead Keyse, an elderly woman, said to have been formerly a Lady-in-Waiting to Queen Victoria. The lady's remains were then quickly discovered in the dining room; her throat had been cut and skull fractured, the blaze having been set to cover up the crime.[2] Lee, her manservant, was immediately arrested on suspicion of the murder, his motive said to be dissatisfaction at seeing his wages reduced by sixpence a week.

Trial and Conviction

On 4 February 1885, Lee was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of Emma Keyse.

Attempted Hanging

The sentence was to be carried out at Exeter City Gaol on the morning of 23 February 1885. At four minutes to 8:00, James Berry, the executioner, was conducted by the Prison Governor to John Lee's cell, where the prisoner was pinioned and from there led to the gallows. Berry, in his auto-biography My Experiences as an Executioner (1892), would describe Lee's mood as "perfectly calm, almost indifferent."[B]

At the first attempt, the lever was pulled and the bolts holding the trapdoor slid out, but the doors themselves did not open. Lee was led aside, and the doors were again tried, this time successfully opening. However, when Lee was returned, the noose replaced around his neck, the doors again failed to open.[B] The repeated failure led to the attempt at hanging being abandoned, before ultimately Lee's sentence was respited by the Home Secretary Sir William Harcourt and commuted to life imprisonment.


Lee spent twenty-three years in prison (1885-1907) following the failed hangings, first at HM Prison Pentonville, then HM Prison Wormwood Scrubs, followed by several years at Portsmouth Public Works Prison, and finally fifteen years at HM Prison Portland.

Following his release from prison, Lee recounted his life story in a series of newspaper articles for Lloyd's Weekly Newspaper, which became the basis first for a 1911 play by Claude E. Murrell, and then three film adaptations in 1912, 1921, and 1934.


Press Coverage


  2. "A FRIGHTFUL MURDER", The Graphic: An Illustrated Weekly Newspaper 30: 542, 22,, "A FRIGHTFUL MURDER was perpetrated last Saturday at Babbacombe Glen, near Torquay, the residence of Miss Emma Keyse, an elderly lady, who is said to have been formerly a Lady-in-Waiting to the Queen, and who was found, with her throat cut and her skullfactured, in the dining-room, which, with two of the bedrooms, was on fire. A young man named Lee, who was in the service of the deceased lady, and who slept in the pantry, was at once arrested on suspicion. At the inquest the female servants deposed to having been aroused from sleep by an alarm of fire raised by persons in the neighbourhood. The prisoner was then outside their mistress's room. There was no sign of any entry from without during the night. He had been heard within the last two months to complain of his place, and to speak of putting an end to some one in the house." 

Similar incidents

  • Joseph Samuel, another convict who "could not be hanged" after three failed attempts