The Story of John Babbacombe Lee
John Babbacombe Lee was sentenced to be hanged for murder. Executions in late 19th century England were grisly affairs. The preferred method was by hanging and often a prisoner could twist on the rope for 30 minutes or so before death came. All of the hangings at the time were grimly successful. Except for one.
On February 23, 1885, nineteen-year-old Lee was brought to the Exeter Prison gallows for the murder of his employer, Emma Ann Whitehead Keyse. His trial was swift, but the evidence was fairly circumstantial. Keyse had been found stabbed to death in the pantry of her estate house and Lee’s room was off the pantry and the knife was allegedly one of his own.
Without eyewitnesses, the judge condemned Lee to death.
Attempts at Execution
On that February day, Lee was led to the gallows and his arms and legs were bound after he was standing on the trap door. Hee continued to maintain his innocence.
The chaplain spoke to Lee and then the executioner, James Berry, pulled the lever. Nothing happened. He pulled the lever again. Still nothing. He remained standing as warders pounded on the trap door with their feet.
After six minutes, Lee was carried off the trap door. A visual inspection of the bolts was conducted and some of the wood around the edges of the trap door was shaved down a bit. A heavy weight was placed on the trap door. The lever was pulled and everything worked fine.
The chaplain again spoke to John Babbacombe Lee and then placed him back on the trap door. The lever was pulled, but the trap door failed to open.
Once again they moved Lee and a carpenter worked frantically to assure that the trap door worked correctly. The trap door worked successfully once again.
Lee was lifted back onto the gallows for the third time. The chaplain later said:
The lever was pulled again and again. But…when I turned my eyes to the scaffold, I saw the poor convict standing upon the drop as I had seen him twice before. I refused to stay longer.
A Reprieve for the Man they Could not Hang
Clearly frustrated, they removed Lee from the gallows. Free of the rope, he returned back to a jail cell. Soon afterward, Home Secretary Sir William Harcourt granted Lee a reprieve.
Was the trap door faulty? It seemed to work perfectly for other prisoners. Or was it divine providence that prevented Lee’s death sentence from going through?
We will never know. John Babbacombe Lee served 22 years in prison. After his release, he moved to America where he died in 1933.