Convicted 19th-century killer John “Babbacombe” Lee, the “Man They Could Not Hang,” cheated death on the gallows in England, became a minor Edwardian celebrity, and died secretly in Milwaukee.
John “Babbacombe” Lee, the Man They Could Not Hang
John Henry George Lee, born in Abbotskerswell, Devon, England on August 15, 1864, was sentenced to death when he was just 20 years old.
Fresh out of prison for theft in 1884, Lee got a job with his half-sister Elizabeth Harris, who served as the cook for elderly spinster Emma Keyse at her Babbacombe Bay beach residence known as “The Glen.”
Keyse was a long time friend of the Lee family, and had known John as he was growing up. Before his release, she had even sent a letter to the prison chaplain asking if he had been properly reformed so she could hire him when he was released.
“I hope you will excuse my troubling you, but I feel anxious to know what report you can give me of John Lee?” she wrote. “Whether he has conducted himself satisfactorily, and whether those who have had much to do with him can give a good report, and whether you consider that he truly and really feels the great sin he has been led into, and whether he is really penitent.”
Ms. Keyse decided to give Lee a chance.
Not long after Lee began working for her, she was found dead.
Murder in Babbacombe Bay
In the early hours of November 15, 1884, Keyse was found beaten and her throat was cut in her home. The killer then attempted to cover up the crime by setting fire to her body and several areas around the house.
Lee was arrested later that morning.
Emma employed several servants at The Glen, but Lee was the only male. She had also recently informed him that she was selling the house and would be cutting his pay. That, along with other circumstantial evidence such as a cut on his arm, was enough to seal his fate.
Emma Keyse’s home in Babbacombe Bay, known as “The Glen” c. 1870
At Lee’s trial, his sister eagerly testified against him.
“John came into the kitchen crying,” Harris said. “He said Miss Keyse was only going to pay him two shillings a week.”
She testified that John told her he would have his revenge.
Lee was convicted and sentenced to hang, though he maintained his innocence straight to the gallows.
Days before his execution date, Lee made one final effort to clear his name. He told prison chaplain John Pitkin that another man had been at The Glen the night of the murder. Lee said the man was there with Harris. He believed it to be a fisherman named Cornelius Harrington, but he said his sister would know the man’s name.
Gerald de Courcy Hamilton, Chief Constable of Devon, investigated Lee’s claims.
“I have the honour to inform you that I have personally made careful enquiries in order to ascertain if there is any truth in them and that I can arrive at no other conclusion than that they are absolute fabrications,” he wrote to Pitkin.
Harris said Lee was lying, Harrington was a respected fisherman who was never known to step foot on Keyse’s property, and was confirmed to Hamilton to have been in his quarters that night.
“The extreme circumstantiality of the convict’s statement defeats it’s own object and establishes it’s falsity, and is moreover contradicted on numerous important points by incontrovertible evidence of facts,” Hamilton wrote.
Lee’s execution went ahead as planned.
Failed Execution at Exeter
Lee climbed the scaffold on February 23, 1885 at Exeter Prison, where he stood awaiting the drop. But when executioner James Berry pulled the lever, the trap door through which Lee was supposed to plunge failed to open.
Berry examined the mechanism without Lee on it, and it seemed to work fine.
The actual noose used to hang John “Babbacombe” Lee on display in the Littledean Jail’s Crime Through Time collection
As Lee stood there a second time with the noose securely around his neck, the trap once again failed.
“On the prisoner reaching the place of execution he was placed by Berry, the executioner, immediately under the cross-beam, over which was carried the rope; he was faced outwards towards the door, with both feet standing transversely on the junction of the two flaps or shutters which formed the drop. The executioner, with considerable skill and rapidity (as it appears to me) strapped the culprits legs above the ankles, drew the cap over his face, adjusted the noose round his neck, stepped back and pulled the iron handle or trigger, to let fall the foot-boards, to my intense astonishment, however, these latter deflected only about a quarter of an inch and appeared to be tightly jammed together about the centre. The executioner and some of the prison officials standing by endeavoured, by stamping on the boards, to get them to move, but without avail. After some seconds the prisoner’s face was uncovered, and he was led away to an adjoining cell or room in the prison.”
Some cuts were made to create a bigger gap between the two doors, and one of the warders stood on it to test it. The lever was pulled, and the trap opened as it was supposed to.
Still, when Lee was returned to the scaffold, the mechanism failed again.
After the third attempt to hang Lee, the attending medical officer refused to take part in further proceedings.
“More than 30 minutes had elapsed since I first began the service at the condemned cell,” wrote Pitkin, who read his burial service through four times over while Lee stood on the scaffold awaiting the drop. “Then, when I saw the helpless confusion that prevailed, the great mental suffering through which the culprit had passed, and the improbability of the scaffold working, I joined with the medical officer in an appeal to the Under Sheriff to postpone the execution for that day. Great cruelty would have characterized further effort to carry out the sentence that day.”
The execution was halted, and Lee was returned to his cell.
A report of the incident was sent to Home Secretary Sir William Harcourt, who said, “It would shock the feeling of anyone if a man had twice to pay the pangs of imminent death.”
“In spite of the peculiar atrocity of his crime,” the Guardian wrote, “it is impossible not to feel some pity for a man who was thus doomed to undergo three times a great part—perhaps the greater part—of that penalty which the law condemned him to suffer once.”
Lee’s sentence was commuted to life in prison.
“It appears that John Lee, who broke the skull and cut the throat of his benefactress, and then set fire to her body,” a friend and neighbor of Keyse told London newspaper The Times, “is not to be hanged as, owing to the rain on Sunday night, the drop will not work easily the next morning. It should be announced in future all executions will take place ‘weather permitting.’”
Prison officials had speculated at first that, since it was a damp day, perhaps the wood planks of the scaffold had swollen with rainwater and caused the failure. An examination of the scaffold, however, revealed that the boards were dry, and Lee’s life had actually spared by no more than an eighth-inch misalignment of the iron draw-bolt that held the trap door in place.
The scaffold was originally constructed in a different building at the prison. When that building was torn down in 1882, the scaffold was disassembled and moved to it a new location.
There had been only one execution at Exeter since the move, and the door functioned as it was supposed to. But when Lee stood on the scaffold, his weight caused the hinges to press against the bolt and prevent it from sliding free.
“I am of the opinion that the ironwork catches of the trap doors were not strong enough for the purpose,” Berry wrote in his report of the incident, “that the woodwork of the doors should have been about three or four times as heavy, and with ironwork to correspond, so that when a man of Lee’s weight was placed upon the doors, the iron catches would not have become locked, as I feel sure they did on this occasion, but would respond readily. So far as I am concerned, everything was performed in a careful manner, and had the iron and woodwork been sufficiently strong, the execution would have been satisfactorily accomplished.”
The discovery of Miss Keyse’s burning body from the December 6, 1884 issue of The Illustrated Police News
The Man They Could Not Hang
Lee was released 22 years later in 1907 at the age of 42, and began touring the country telling his story. “The Man They Could Not Hang” was something of a celebrity.
He married a respected nurse named Jessie Augusta Bulled in 1909. Their son John was born the following year. Then, in 1911, Lee abandoned Jessie and young John in Lambeth Workhouse, leaving her destitute and pregnant with their second child.
What became of Lee after that, however, was something of a mystery for a long time.
It was commonly believed he had gone overseas and died there, until a historian made a discovery in 2002. A death certificate and unmarked grave suggested Lee had died in a workhouse in Tavistock and was buried there.
But Lee did not die in England. In 2009 researchers Mike Holgate and Ian Waugh discovered a trail of documents that told a different story—one that confirmed the original suspicions.
When his fame began to fade, Lee boarded a ship in Southampton bound for America on February 19, 1911. He was accompanied by a woman named Adeline Gibbs. Adeline was fleeing her own marriage and, according to the ship’s manifest, claimed to be Jessie Lee.
Lee sent money back to his wife for a few weeks, but it wasn’t long before he wrote to inform her that he would no longer be able to help.
Soon after, Jessie gave birth to a baby girl and named her Eveline.
The Man They Could Not Hang
Life and Death in Milwaukee
The convicted killer and his mistress settled in Milwaukee, Wisconsin where they started a new life.
In 1914, Adeline gave birth to a daughter. They named her Evelyn.
Unfortunately, Evelyn met a tragic end at the age of 19. On October 12, 1933, just a week after She started working as a maid for Dr. Arthur Kovak, she was found dead on his bathroom floor.
Kovak, who lived in an apartment at 1803 W. Wisconsin Ave. in Milwaukee, arrived home to find that Evelyn had become overwhelmed by the noxious fumes of naphtha while cleaning the draperies and died of accidental asphyxiation.
At the time of Evelyn’s death, the media reported the Lee’s address as 922 South 10th Street.
Some articles about the incident incorrectly reported John Lee himself as dead in 1933, but he still had a few more years left in him.
Forest Home Cemetery records show Lee bought three plots in 1937. When he died on March 19, 1945 at the age of 80, Lee was laid to rest beside Evelyn. At that time, Lee’s “widow” was reported to reside at their home at 454 East Holt Avenue.
Adeline died in 1967 and was also interred beside Evelyn.
John Lee, the man who was convicted of murder in England, survived hanging three times, and became an Edwardian celebrity, lived out the remainder of his years in anonymity in Milwaukee.
Grave of John “Babbacombe” Lee in Forest Home Cemetery, Milwaukee
Lee always maintained his innocence, even claiming later that his sister confessed to the murder on her deathbed to a man named Major Pearson from the Salvation Army. Researchers have been unable to locate any records proving the existence of Major Pearson.