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John Lee

John Lee, the man they couldn't hang

You have probably heard tales of men who have avoided death by a whisker! Just outside Torquay, Babbacombe has its very own infamous person in the guise of John Lee. A man who, by chance or divine intervention, managed to sidestep the best efforts of the hangman after being issued the death penalty. You wouldn’t believe a place like Babbacombe would produce such immortal people. This is a very interesting tale, however, one when Capital punishment still existed. Read on.

John Lee was born in Abbotskerswell and was not very newsworthy until he came to the fore in November 1884. John spent the early years of his working life in service; indeed, he was employed as a servant at the Glen, a beachside property in Babbacombe, later to become the ‘Scene of the crime.’

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In 1879, he joined the Navy, a position he enjoyed for three years until ill health required his discharge.

After his discharge in 1882, he gained employment at a large hotel in Kingswear, this obviously, for some reason didn’t suite, as we find him working as a footman in Torquay in 1883, having also spent some time as a porter at Torre railway station. At this time, he had his first brush with the law and was convicted and sentenced to six months for stealing from his employer. When he was released in 1884, his half-sister, who had been in service at the Glen for quite some time, was able to put in a good word for him with her mistress and secured for him a position at the Glen, precisely what his duties would have been is unclear. Still, it would seem that he felt secure as he got engaged to a local girl, Kate Farmer, who at that time lived in Ellacombe.

During the early hours of the morning of November 14th, 1884, Elizabeth Harris, another servant at the Glen, raised the alarm, having found several fires burning within the property. Staff and workers from the surrounding buildings, notably the Cary Arms, and some local fishermen extinguished the blaze.

However, on inspection of the ruins, the body of the Mistress of the house, Miss Keyse, was found in the dining room, throat cut and battered around the head. It was evident that the perpetrator had tried to conceal his crime, as papers soaked in paraffin had been piled around the body and set on fire. It would seem, however, that nothing had been stolen.

John Lee was arrested for the murder, even though any evidence the authorities had against him was circumstantial. He had a cut arm and could not account for the injury or his movements at the time of the crime. We know that Emma Keyse, an elderly lady by this time, was a former maid of honour and friend of Queen Victoria. This may have had some bearing on the need for a quick resolution to the investigation. He was tried at Exeter Assizes for the crime, and on February 5th,1885, was found guilty of murder and sentenced to hang. He had protested his innocence from the beginning.

Early on the morning of February 23rd, 1885, John Lee was led to the gallows in the courtyard of Exeter prison. The press were present and, by all accounts, were fairly emotionless, as there was nothing in Lees's case to be sentimental about. He was stood on the trapdoor, and the noose placed round his neck, the bolt was drawn, but the trapdoor didn’t fall. John Berry, the hangman, pulled the lever repeatedly, and the trapdoor failed to open. John Lee was taken back to his cell, and workmen where summoned to fix the fault, the mechanism was tested, and was found to be in working order, so Lee was returned to the scaffold. The witnesses were in awe; what could not be explained had happened but could not happen again. He was placed on the scaffold, and again, the noose was placed around his neck. Berry again pulled the lever, and again, the trapdoor failed.

This was an astounding situation, and the newspaper men who had been present are reported to have run through the streets of Exeter shouting the tale of the Man they couldn’t hang. Lee was again returned to his cell, and the Home Secretary was contacted. The Home Secretary was so shaken by the events that he authorised a delay, and eventually, after a Parliamentary debate, the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.

Lee served 22 years in prison and was released in 1907. In 1909, it is said that he married a Newton Abbot girl, Jessica Bulled, and moved to London, Where they had two children. Eventually, he deserted his family, probably, according to local legend, around 1911, and seems to have dropped off the face of the earth since nothing can be found about him after this time. It is possible he went to start a new life in the New World. But nobody knows, and if they do, they aren’t saying. It was reported at the time of his trial and sentencing that Lee had told the judge about his apparent disinterest after being questioned about it. I am so calm because I trust in the Lord, and he knows I am innocent. Spooky.

Babbacombe Beach is now a favourite with holidaymakers to the area. On the site of the Glen, a car park now stands, and because of its shelter from prevailing winds, the waters offer a good, safe beach for swimming and leisure activities. There are toilets, a cafe, and an excellent stone construction pier, good for the fisherman. The Cary arms, so prominent in the tale, is still operated as a public house, and as well as being probably in the best imaginable location for a dwelling of any sort, offers an amiable atmosphere, and a great, inexpensive menu.

The beach is accessible down a turn off on Babbacombe downs road, and is well signposted, if walking to the beach, use the same route, but you can divert and wader through the woods. After getting to the bottom of the hill, you may be worried about the journey back to the top; however, fear not. Stroll along the coastal footpath to Oddicombe, where you can catch the cliff railway to the top. However, this avenue is only open during the summer months.

To read more, read the local Govt. pdf

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