Because Mondays are MURDER...

Monday, 18 February 2013

Murderous Monday - Men Who Kill - John Henry George Lee - The Man They Couldn't Hang

On 23rd February 1885 at Exeter Goal, John Henry George Lee went to the gallows, conivicted of the murder of Miss Emma Ann Whitehead Keyse.  James Berry the executioner had earlier checked the scaffold and trapdoor and found them to be in good working order.  However when the time came to drop John into eternity, the trapdoor failed.

John Henry George Lee was born at 1 Elm Cottage Abbotskerswell, Devon on 15th August 1864 to John Lee, and agricultural labourer and his wife Mary Stevens (sometimes Stephens).

On the 1871 Census, six year old John can be found living with his parents, elder sister Amelia Mary and grandfather John Lee, at Tree Cottage in Abbotskerwell, Devon.  John's mother Mary had a child from a previous relationship with a man named Harris.  Elizabeth Harris, John's half sister was brought up by her maternal grandparent William and Betsy Stevens.

John's sister Amelia Mary entered the employment of Miss Keyes at The Glen, Babbacombe, Torquay and at the age of 15 John followed her.  However in 1879, against his parents wishes John joined the Royal Navy.

On the 1881 Census John can be found stationed on the training ship the Implacable at Devonport under Captain Thomas S Jackson.  Later he served on the training ship Liberty.  Unfortunately John's naval career was cut short after he contacted pneumonia and was invalided out of service in 1882.  John went back into domestic service and towards the end of 1882 was employed by Colonel Edward Brownlow, however only six months later John was accused of stealing from his employer.  John was arrested and later found guilty and sentenced to six months imprisonment at Exeter Gaol  After serving his sentence, John returned to his old job as gardener at The Glen in Babbacombe.  By this time John's half sister Elizabeth Harris was working at The Glen as a cook.

For reasons not quite clear Miss Keyse became disappoints in the quality of John's work and docked his pay from 2s 6d a week to just 2s.  This is not have the desired affect as John decided that for less pay he would do less work.  Eventually Miss Keyse gave John notice to quit his employment at The Glen.

Three weeks later on 15th November 1884 fire broke out at The Glen.  Elizabeth Harris awoke the the smell of burning, he roused two other servants in the house, Jane and Eliza Neck.  John was apparently already awake and helped lead the woman to safety, during this rescue, John left a bloody hand print on Elizabeth's nightdress.

Coastguards and local fishermen helped douse the flames.   It was then discovered that three fires had been set in different locations, Miss Keyse bedroom, the drawing room and the dining room where they discovered the dead body of Emma Keyse laid out on the sofa.  She had been bludgeoned with a heavy object on the left side of her head her throat had also been cut with a knife, so deeply that the neck bones were notched.  The window of the dinning room was broken, something John admitted doing to 'let the smoke out of the house'.  Further investigation of the property revealed a large pool of blood in the hall by the stairs.  An oil can containing paraffin used to start the fires was found to be covered in blood.   Also a towel, knife and pair of trousers belonging to John were found in his quarters, all stained with blood and smelling of paraffin.

John was arrested and charged with the murder of Miss Keyse, he was sent to trial on 2nd February 1885.  He pleaded not guilty and protested his innocence throughout the three day proceedings.  At the trail Elizabeth Harris testified that John had made several threats against Emma Keyse's life and had threatened to burn the house down, especially after Miss Keyse reduced his wages.  The jury only took forty minutes to find John guilty, he was sentenced to death.

On 23rd February 1885 John walked from the condemned cell to the gallows.  Three times he stood in place, thee times the rope was adjusted around his neck and three times the lever was thrown.  Each time the trapdoor failed to open.  John was returned to his cell as a stay of execution was ordered to allow time for the Home Secretary to be contacted.  John's sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. 

The Guardian reported on 24th February 1885,

"The scene which occurred at Exeter Goal yesterday morning will go far to justify those who have long urged the need for some alteration and improvement in the manner of conducting executions in this country.  Without going into revolting details, it is sufficient to say that three unsuccessful attempts were made to carry out the sentence which have been pronounced upon John Lee for th notorious murder at Babbicombe [sic].

After the third failed attempt the miserable man was taken back to the prison and the execution postponed, with the view of affording the Sheriff time to communicate with the Home Secretary.  In spite of the peculiar atrocity of his crime, it is impossible not to feel some pity for the man, who was thus doomed to undergo three a great part - perhaps the greater part - of that penalty of which the law had condemned him to suffer once; and it will be learned without surprise that the convict has been respited."

John was sent to Plymouth Convict Prison to serve out his sentence.  He appears as an inmate there on both the 1891 and the 1901 Census.  John was eventually released from prison on 18th December 1907

On 22 January 1909 John married Jessie Augusta Widger Bulled.  They had two children together, John Aubrey Maurice born in 1910 in Newcastle Upon Tyne and Eveline Victoria May born in 1911. 

Just before the birth of his daughter John abandoned pregnant Jessie and his son John in the Lambeth Workhouse and left for America with barmaid Adelina Gibbs.  Together they arrived in the United States on 28th February 1911 on the Prinz Friedrich Wilhelm.  They lived in Milwakuee until John's death on 19th March 1945 aged 81 years.  Adelina passed away on 9th January 1969.

It's not known what happened to Jessie and John Jr, but Eveline later married in 1939


  1. I always thought you were freed if the hanging failed tree times. Great bit of research that.

  2. Did they ever find out why the trap-door failed to open? I've read of a few earlier accounts of hangings that didn't result in death, but they were more unusual by this stage.

    1. One of the possiblities pur forward at the time was heacy rain the night before swelling the wood.