John Babbacombe Lee: The Man They Could Not Hang

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.

John Babbacombe Lee the man they could not hang

John Babbacombe Lee was sentenced to death for themurder of his employer. The evidence was weak.

On February 23, 1885, nineteen-year-old John Babbacombe Lee was brought to the gallows for the murder of his employer, Ellen 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.

There were no eyewitnesses, but John Babbacombe Lee was condemned to death by the judge.

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. John Babbacombe Lee continued to maintain his innocence.

The chaplain spoke to Lee and then the executioner pulled the lever. Nothing happened. He pulled the lever again. Still nothing. John Babbacombe Lee remained standing as warders pounded on the trap door with their feet.

After six minutes, Lee, still bound, was carried off the trap door. The bolts were checked 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 and the lever was pulled and everything worked fine.

 John Babbacombe Lee

Did divine providence prevent the gallows from working?

The chaplain again spoke to John Babbacombe Lee and then Lee was placed back on the trap door and the lever was pulled, but the trap door failed to open.

Once again John Babbacombe Lee was removed and a carpenter worked frantically to assure that the trap door was in working order. Again it was tested successfully.

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, John Babbacombe Lee was removed from the gallows, his ropes were removed, and he was taken back to a jail cell. Soon after he was granted a reprieve by Home Secretary Sir William Harcourt.

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, was released, and then moved to America where he died in 1933.

Additional References:
The Mammoth Book of True Crime: A New Edition (Mammoth Books)

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Doug MacGowan

Doug MacGowan lives on the San Francisco peninsula with his wife, a dog, and far too many cats. He has published five books on the topic of historic true crime. In his free time he enjoys reading.

Historic Mysteries