The man they could not hang – John ‘Babbacombe’ Lee

The man they could not hang – John ‘Babbacombe’ Lee

John Henry ‘Babbacombe’ Lee alternatively known for “The man they could not hang”.

In 1864 George Lee was born in England, when started serving Navy when he was 17 for one year he was relieved due to Pneumonia.

Finding new small job opportunity was not that easy during those times, it took nearly 6 months for Lee to be hired as a footman for a person named Brownlow.

Lee was not a saint though. He was, however, a kleptomaniac. In 1883 he was convicted for stealing from the Brownlow family and served 6 months in prison.


New Job and Accused of Murder

In 1885, Lee was brought to the court but this time not for any theft but it was a murder.

After leaving the prison, his half sister Elizabeth Harris was able to get him a job for a position of Butler for the employer named Emma Keyse.

The house of Emma Keyse was called the “The Glen” at Babbacombe, Torquay. This could possibly explain why he was called Henry “Babbacombe” George Lee.

Murder of Miss Emma Keyse and Evidences

On November 15, 1884, Miss Emma Keyse was bludgeoned to death with an axe. The murderer slashed her throat and set her home on fire. Lee became a suspect and was quickly arrested after this incident. In early 1885 Lee was convicted for the murder and was sentenced to hang till death.


On what basis Lee was sentenced to hang, here are the four things!

  • He was the only male in the house.
  • His previous criminal record for stealing.
  • A small cut in his arm.
  • A Small drop of blood on his clothes, possibly from the cut on his arm. That’s it!

Very weak and deduced stuff. Lee was little lucky to get representation. The trial was started before he ever had a representation. Finally someone agreed to defend him, this really surprised me. Who? The same person that prosecuted him for stealing in 1883! From here things will get more interesting.


The Execution Attempt

Lee continued to proclaim his innocence. But on February 23, 1885 he was hanged as per the judgement. The trap release was always checked before bringing the person to hang and it was working perfectly it was inspected by James Berry.

James Berry

James Berry

When the trap door was supposed to open under Lee’s feet, it didn’t open when the executioner released the trap.

The executioner examined the trap door a second time without Lee. IT WAS WORKING! A second attempt, the trap door doesn’t open when the executioner releases it.

AGAIN, the exectutioner checked the trap for the last time, IT WAS WORKING PERFECTLY!! The third hanging attempt, guess you know what would have happened.

The executioner’s panel came to a decision that they could quit trying to hand a man who broke the trap every time he stepped on it. Somebody didn’t want him to die.

They had a problem though. He was supposed to hang! If he can’t be hanged, what are we going to to do? After discussing it they decided to change his sentence to life imprisonment.

After 22 years in prison, John was released after a review of his case decided the evidence against Lee was too weak. He was 41 at the time.


After Release

After leaving prison, John married and in 1911 emigrated to the United States. He started supporting himself through lecturing on his life and even becoming the subject of the silent film.

He lived a quiet life in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and passed away in 1945 at the age of 81. According to the book The man they could not hang, Lee’s gravestone was located at Forest Home Cemtery, Milwaukee in 2009.

The story doesn’t end here

But should Lee have even stood trial for the murder of Emma Keyse, let alone serve life for it?

Inside Out with the help of Ian Waugh reveals further evidence that brings a new suspect into the frame.

Reginald Gwynne Templar was a frequent visitor to ‘The Glen’ and represented Lee in court. Should he have been under suspicion of the murder?

Templar wrote to John Lee the morning after the murder, offering his services as a solicitor. This was unusual as Templer was a friend of the victim and equally unusual that he had heard about the murder so quickly.

Templar represented Lee for a time but then left, as he became ill. Suffering from insanity, Templar died at an early age, allegedly babbling about murder on his death bed.

Although there is little evidence to prove that Templar was the murderer, there is equally little evidence to prove that Lee was either. The evidence is purely circumstantial.

It is claimed that Lee was the only man in the house. Yet it is alleged that Lee told solicitors that Templar was in the house that night.

Till date the real truth wasn’t found, if you have found anything please share it in the comments.


Comments are appreciated

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