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The Weird Story of “The Man They Couldn’t Hang”

John ‘Babbacombe’ Lee’s life and almost-death are matters of speculation

John 'Babbacombe' Lee was convicted of murder in 1884 and sentenced to death by hanging. Then things got weird. (Pearson Scott Foresman/Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

Most Western countries, including England, don’t have the death penalty anymore.

But in the nineteenth century, executions were relatively commonplace. Most people, obviously, didn’t survive. And unlike John ‘Babbacombe’ Lee, they sure didn’t survive three attempts.

He was convicted of the brutal murder of Miss Emma Anne Whitehead Keyse, which occurred on November 15, 1884 in the small village of Babbacombe, writes the BBC. He maintained his innocence of the crime from the moment he was accused, although circumstantial evidence—including an unexplained cut on his arm— was enough to earn the conviction. And this week in 1885, he was supposed to be killed by hanging.

This is a weird story, and it’s hard to know how much of it to put credence in. More than a hundred years has passed since the incident, and Lee’s own subsequent storytelling about what happened to him has shadowed the truth of what really happened. But as the story goes, Lee was sentenced to hang at Exeter Prison, and although the executioner tested the workings of the trap door below the scaffold, through which he was supposed to drop, they tried to hang him three times and each time the trap stuck.

They stopped trying to hang him after that. In the words of British Home Secretary Sir William Harcourt, who commuted Lee’s sentence to life imprisonment, “It would shock the feelings of anyone if a man had twice to pay the pangs of imminent death.” That probably wouldn’t happen today in the United States, which still has the death penalty in some states, although it might.

But almost-death was only the beginning for Lee, who went on to serve 22 years in prison in England. After he was released in 1907, a variety of stories exist about where he went and what he did. Some thought he moved abroad, while others say he moved to London and went on to survive the Blitz. The nature of his story—he was the only man on record who survived three hanging attempts either than Australia's Joseph Samuels—obviously attracted attention down the years.

In 2009, two Lee enthusiasts said new research placed his grave in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. According to that research he died in 1945 and had a second family in America, after deserting his wife and two daughters in Britain after his release from prison. Records indicate they went to a workhouse—Lee may or may not have been a murderer, but it doesn’t sound like he was a very caring man to his first family.

To the many members of the public who came to interpret Lee’s avoidance of death as a divine sign that he was the man that authorities shouldn’t hang, what happened to him after his day on the gallows scarcely mattered, writes Michael Crowley in the introduction to a book on the case. But you have to wonder what it must have felt like to be Lee after he survived the hangings, doing time in a prison that he described as “moving from one tomb to another,” according to Crowley, and building a life afterwards.

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