Criminal logo

The True Story of the Man They Couldn't Hang

Anxiety on the Scaffold

By Joe YoungPublished 5 months ago 9 min read

In 1884, the Glen was a spacious two-storey villa, that stood just back from a stretch of beach in Babbacombe, a small fishing village, north of Torquay in Devon. A verandah on the front of the building faced the sea, offering the viewer a contrast between calm vista and stormy spectacle.

The owner of the villa was one Emma Anne Whitehead Keyse. a 68-year-old spinster who lived at the Glen with two servants, sisters Eliza and Jane Neck. These dedicated domestics were of a similar age to their mistress, and had been in her employ some forty years. Also abiding under the thatched roof of the Glen were a young cook named Elizabeth Harris, and her half brother, 20-year-old John Lee, who was employed as gardener and general servant.

While a household made up mainly of elderly women; firm friends seeing out their days to the sound of birdsong and the gentle lapping of waves, may appear quaint, the Glen’s location made it far from idyllic. The Torquay Times from November 1884 described the villa thus:

‘The spot is a weird and lonely one in the winter, and especially unsuitable for the living-place of an aged and solitary female. The approach to it is such that no vehicles can be got near it, and the occupant has to mount a very rough and steep hill in order to reach the high-road.”

While the Glen may have been an unsuitable location for its elderly occupants, in the young servant there was a pair of stronger legs that could climb that steep hill in order to maintain a line of supply and communication.

The life of John Lee

John Lee had initially worked as a servant for Miss Keyse when he was fifteen. The lure of the sea became too much for the youth, however, and he left the Glen to join the Royal Navy. This would turn out to be a short-lived enlistment, as he was invalided out after only eighteen months, following an attack of pneumonia. Back on civvy street, Lee was sentenced to six months’ hard labour after being convicted of stealing from his then employer, one Colonel Brownlow. Lee had obtained his position as footman with Brownlow, after being introduced to him by Miss Keyse. Yet despite having to bear the shame of lumbering Brownlow with a bad apple, the sympathetic spinster took the wayward Lee back into the fold at the Glen at the start of 1884, where he worked at the rate of half a crown (12 ½ pence) per week.

Back in familiar surroundings, Lee didn’t apply himself to the standard required by his mistress, and in response Miss Keyse cut his wages to two shillings (10 pence) per week. Angry at this decision, Lee asked a postman if he knew of any jobs that were available. The postman replied that there were plenty, adding that Miss Keyse would be unlikely to give Lee a character reference, given his slovenly attitude to work. Lee’s response was prophetic:

“If I don’t get one, somebody will suffer. Why! I would burn the house to the ground.”

Fire at the Glen

On Friday, 14th November there was a strong wind blowing straight from the sea onto the front of the Glen. At that time, the cook, Elizabeth Harris, was heavily pregnant and none too well. She had gone to bed at 5.00 pm, but was stirred awake in the early hours by the smell of burning. She immediately alerted the Neck sisters, who rose quickly and went in search of Miss Keyse, calling her name in the smoke-filled house. The sisters found Miss Keyse’s bed ablaze, but unoccupied. They went down the burning staircase in search of their mistress, in so doing passing the pantry in which John Lee slept. He was fast asleep, or at least pretending to be. As Lee rose, in a state of real or feigned confusion, he joined the others in trying to dowse the flames. Finally, Eliza Neck unbolted a door and sent him to seek assistance at a nearby pub, the Cary Arms.

Eliza took water into the dining room, where the blaze was at its most fierce. There, she came across the body of Miss Keyse, partially clothed and badly burned. The dead woman’s face was bloodied. By this time, assistance had arrived and with great effort, given the aforementioned remoteness of the building, the flames were extinguished.

A subsequent post-mortem examination found that Miss Keyse’s skull was fractured in two places, and her throat had been cut with great violence. During the ensuing investigation into the blaze, it was discovered that there had been five seats of fire within the Glen, and charred paper and paraffin were discovered. The shutters and doors were all still locked, which eliminated an intruder as the arsonist, and suggested the fire had been started by someone within the household. John Lee became an immediate suspect, not least because of his previous threat of arson. A bloodstained oil can was found in the pantry where he slept, and also a bloodstained knife in a drawer there. Lee was arrested and charged with the murder of Miss Keyse.

Lee on Trial

During the trial at Exeter Castle, Lee appeared utterly unperturbed by proceedings, causing the The Torquay Directory to comment that, ‘the prisoner wore his usual air of indifference’. The Neck sisters and Elizabeth Harris gave evidence, as did Police Sergeant Nott, who had arrived at the Glen some two hours after Elizabeth Harris had woke to the smell of burning. The defence suggested that the cook’s lover, and father of her unborn child, was responsible, but this was dismissed and Lee was found guilty and sentenced to death. After Lee had taken the sentence with sufficient composure for the judge to remark upon it, the prisoner replied:

“Please, my lord, allow me to say that I am so calm because I trust in my Lord, and he knows I am innocent.”

At Exeter prison, within the more mind-focusing confines of the condemned cell, Lee maintained the same level of indifference toward his fate as he had shown at the trial. The Western Morning News reported that ‘His health was not visibly affected either by his confinement or the anticipation of his fate. He partook of his meals with heartiness and regularity and, in short, evinced little of the depression which would be naturally looked for in the case of one so situated.’

Morning of the Execution

The execution of John Lee was set for Monday 23rd February. Three days prior to that date, the hangman, James Berry arrived at the prison. On the eve of the grim event, Berry twice tested the drop, using sandbags to replicate the weight of the prisoner. The apparatus worked satisfactorily.

Just before 8.00 a.m. on the day of the execution, ten reporters observed the grim procession that passed on the way to the execution shed. This comprised the Governor, the Chief Warder, the Chaplain, the Schoolmaster, the Prison Surgeon, and the prisoner himself, who walked with shackled hands between two warders.

Lee was positioned on the trapdoor, still showing no signs of fear as to what was coming. His ankles were pinioned and the usual white cap was pulled down over his face. Berry then placed the rope around Lee’s neck. After final adjustments to the noose had been made, Lee expected to feel the floor collapse beneath his feet, and gravity to pull him downward momentarily, until the lethal hessian brake halted his descent.

Berry pulled the lever but, to his horror, the trap didn’t open. Instead it gave out a loud creak which was heard by everyone present. Berry pulled the lever several times, but the doors remained shut. With officials in a state of some agitation, the order was given to remove the noose and cap from the prisoner, and to loosen the restraint on his legs. Lee stood clear of the trap, still apparently unalarmed, while the executioner prepared the apparatus for a second attempt. The Western Morning News describes what happened next.

‘Again the fatal signal was given, and the loud click of the lever once more startled the witnesses to this terrible scene.'

The bolt having once more defied the repeated efforts of the hangman, Lee was freed from the fatal noose and removed, this time to the back of the building.’

With the apparatus tested and set up for a third attempt, Lee was placed on the trapdoor as before, and Berry pulled the lever. Again the trap refused to yield. Berry, in a state of some anxiety, tried to coax the doors open by stamping on them, but they resisted even that incentive.

This time Lee was removed from the execution shed and taken into the interior of the prison, while the services of a carpenter were brought in. Said tradesman planed the edges of the trapdoor, in what was hoped would be a final remedy to the fault. After some five minutes’ absence, Lee returned yet again to enact a terrible scene he had already rehearsed three times. As Berry pulled the lever on a fourth attempt to dispatch the young man, The Western Morning News reported that;

‘The apparatus seemed, if possible, more rigid than ever.’

The Execution is Abandoned

The enormous strain of standing four times on the fatal trap, finally took its toll on the prisoner. In a state of prostration, he was removed to his cell, where he was offered stimulants. One newspaper reported that he pointedly refused the offer.

And so, the legend of the man they couldn’t hang was born. Quite why the trap failed to open was never definitively explained. To deepen the mystery of this remarkable case, here’s what the executioner Berry himself wrote of the incident.

‘I worked the lever after Lee had been taken off, drew it, and the doors fell easily. With the assistance of the warders the doors were pulled up, and the lever drawn a second time, when again the doors fell easily.’

Berry also said that the Governor was ‘almost frantic’, and that the chaplain had fled the execution shed after the third attempt to hang Lee.

John Lee served almost 23 years behind bars, being released from Portland Prison in December 1907, aged 43. He immediately returned to the home of his mother in Abbotskerswell, where many reporters had gathered. Lee refused to engage with them.

Little is known of what happened to Lee after his release. A postcard in the Black Museum at Scotland Yard suggests he was living in London in 1910, and there are reports of him running a pub there. He is also said to have been in America in the early 1930s.

Whatever it was that John Lee did with his life after prison, he was very, very lucky that he was able to do it at all.

capital punishment

About the Creator

Joe Young

Blogger and freelance writer from the north-east coast of England

Reader insights

Be the first to share your insights about this piece.

How does it work?

Add your insights


There are no comments for this story

Be the first to respond and start the conversation.

Sign in to comment

    Find us on social media

    Miscellaneous links

    • Explore
    • Contact
    • Privacy Policy
    • Terms of Use
    • Support

    © 2023 Creatd, Inc. All Rights Reserved.