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John Henry George Lee was born on the 15th November 1864 in the rural village of Abbotskerswell in Devon. As a working class boy who left school with no qualifications, John began his working life as a humble servant to Miss Emma Anne Whitehead Keyse, a spinster who lived alone an affluent home called ‘The Glen’ in the coastal hamlet of Babbacombe Bay, with her servants; sisters Jane & Eliza Neck, Elizabeth Harris the cook and the cook’s half brother John Henry George Lee.
Being a restless teenager - with no money, no life experience and eager to see the world - John enlisted in the Royal Navy, but almost as quickly as he’d left, he was invalided out owing to a leg injury and was returned back to Devon. Being broke, John tried his hand at being a footman, but was found guilty of stealing from his employer and was sentenced to two years hard labour. In 1884, aged 20, thanks to the kindness and generosity of his former employer – Emma Keyse – John Lee was taken back to the familiar surroundings of his job at ‘The Glen’ in Babbacombe Bay.
Barely a few months later, on the morning of 15th November 1884, Miss Emma Keyse was found brutally murdered; her throat was slit from ear-to-ear with a kitchen knife, she had three deep puncture wounds to her head, and - in his attempt to hide his crime – her corpse had been set on fire.
The Police had one suspect - John Henry George Lee – a convicted criminal, with an unexplained cut on his arm, who was the only male in the house. That was the evidence. There were no witnesses to her murder, no sightings of John, and he had the same alibi as everyone else in the house – he was asleep. He had no motive, no murder weapon, no blood stains and he hadn’t stolen anything.
The evidence was slim, and as his legal defence became unstable as his lawyer started feeling ill (and later dying), and believing in his innocence, John stated "The reason I am so calm is that I trust in the Lord and he knows I am innocent". Only his prayers fell on deaf ears, as John Lee was found guilty of murder and was sentenced to be hung by the neck until he was dead.
I appears that as much as he prayed, God had forgotten John Lee. Or had he?
On the morning of 23rd February 1885 at Exeter Prison, a set of wooden gallows were transferred from the old infirmary into the coach house in preparation for the execution of 21 year old John Lee. As was his job, the executioner James Berry calculated John Lee’s weight and height, measured out a length of hemp rope appropriate to the necessary drop to break his neck, a slip-knot and a noose were tied at one end and James Berry tested the trapdoors of the gallows with a sack of grain in place of the prisoner. Everything worked perfectly.
At the strike of the hour, as John Lee stood on the gallows with the hemp rope around his neck, as Berry pulled on the draw bar to open the trap doors, with a quick drop and a sudden stop, soon enough John Lee’s neck would be snapped and he would be dead… only it didn’t. John’s neck didn’t break. In fact, he didn’t even drop or move, as the trapdoors remained shut.
James Berry pulled the draw bar again… nothing. Unsure what was wrong, John Lee was removed from the gallows, and as he watched from the side, the sack of grain once again took his place, only this time, the trapdoors spring open. With the problem solved and with his appointment with death imminent, John Lee was returned to the gallows, his head through the noose, and with a sharp tug of the draw bar… nothing. John Lee wasn’t dead and hadn’t moved an inch.
Again he was removed from the gallows, again the draw bar was tugged, and again the sack of grain plummeted to the ground, on command, so again John Lee was returned to the gallows, his feet on the trapdoors, his head through the noose, his neck seconds away from being broken and his life being extinguished forever, and as James Berry yanked hard on the draw bar? Nothing.
John Lee wouldn’t die. Being pushed aside by the executioner whose incompetence was obvious to all who watched impatiently as John Lee stood their ‘not dead’ and James Berry stamped up and down upon the trapdoors, trying to force them open with his body weight, his face red with fury, knowing full-well he wouldn’t be paid for a botched job.
And yet, with John Lee having survived an execution three times, the medical officer refused to take part in this debacle, and with no medical officer on-sight, the execution was stopped.
Home Secretary, Sir William Harcourt later commuted John Lee’s sentence to a life sentence stating "It would shock the feeling of anyone if a man had twice to pay the pangs of imminent death". In 1907, 22 years after he had cheated death, John Lee was released from prison.
When the gallows were inspected, it appeared that when it was moved from the old infirmary into the coach house, the draw bar had been slightly misaligned, meaning the hinges of the trapdoor were at best temperamental, and at worst useless, so (whether this was divine intervention) we shall never know, but then as John Lee himself said "The reason I am so calm is that I trust in the Lord and he knows I am innocent".
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Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a writer, crime historian, podcaster and tour-guide who runs Murder Mile Walks, a guided tour of Soho’s most notorious murder cases, hailed as “one of the top ten curious, quirky, unusual and different things to do in London”, nominated "one of the best true-crime podcasts at the British Podcast Awards 2018", and featuring 12 murderers, including 3 serial killers, across 15 locations, totaling 50 deaths, over just a one mile walk
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a crime writer, podcaster of Murder Mile UK True Crime and creator of true-crime TV series.
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