England · Executions

The would-be death of “the man they could not hang”

February 23, 1885
Exeter, Devon, England
John “Babbacombe” Lee (20, pictured) escapes death by hanging three times

Lee, later gaining the title “the man they could not hang” due to his unsuccessful execution, was convicted of killing his employer. Emma Keyse was a wealthy, unmarried woman who had in her employ a handful of servants, with Lee being the only male employee. Keyse was found murdered in her room in November 1884. She had been beaten, her throat slit, and her body set on fire.

Lee was the immediate suspect, primarily because he was the only man in the household, though some circumstantial evidence further suggested his guilt: a bloodied knife was found in a drawer next to his bed; he was found with blood on his clothing, though he claimed he had cut himself by breaking a window to save Keyse from the flames; and he had threatened to “level this place to ashes” before the attack.

The evidence against Lee was circumstantial but proved to be enough to persuade the jury to convict him after 45 minutes of deliberation. Lee was sentenced to hang.

Lee was led to the gallows on a rainy day and remained calm, claiming God knew of his innocence. He stood over the gallows’ trapdoor, a noose was placed around his neck, and the lever was pulled. But nothing happened. Prison officials tried to stomp or jump on the trapdoor to convince it to open but to no effect. Lee was moved briefly and the trapdoor swung open effortlessly. Lee was stood over the trapdoor again, the lever was pulled again, and again he did not fall. Once again, the door opened when Lee was moved away. A third round was attempted and, yet again, the trap refused to budge.

Some witnessing the event claimed the door’s stubborn refusal to move was divine intervention, with God protecting the man’s life. Others believed the door was enchanted by witchcraft. Modern theories are far less preternatural, however. It’s likely the rain had saturated the wooden boards which formed the scaffold, and their swelling combined with the weight of Lee (or any other person) caused the trapdoor’s bolt to wedge itself in place. Once alleviated of the additional weight, the bolt was free to function properly.

Regardless of the reason Lee could not be hanged, English law dictated a person who survived three attempts at execution by hanging would have their sentence reduced to life imprisonment. Lee served 22 years in prison, earning his release in 1908. What happened to Lee after his release is up for debate, though the most recent theory claims he abandoned his wife and children to move to Milwaukee, Wisconsin where he died in 1945, 60 years after his would-be execution.

Sources:
“The strange story of the Devon man they could not hang.” Devon Live. June 6, 2018. Accessed: February 23, 2020. https://www.devonlive.com/news/devon-news/strange-story-devon-man-could-1647804.amp (image source)
Storey, Neil R. The Little Book of Murder. The History Press, 2013
Crowley, Michael. The Man They Couldn’t Hang: A Tale of Murder, Mystery and Celebrity. London: Waterside Press, 2010
“The Man They Could Not Hang.” BBC. October 14, 2002. Accessed: February 23, 2020. http://www.bbc.co.uk/insideout/southwest/series1/john-babbacombe-lee.shtml
“The Late Babbacombe Murder.” The Guardian [London, England]. October 6, 1885
“An Execution Postponed.” Fall River Evening News. February 23, 1885

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