The man they couldn’t hang was John Babbacombe Lee

The account of one of the most famous events in British Victorian history based on research and archive. The man they could not hang.

This is about the murder of Emma Ann Whitehead Keyse at Babbacombe, England and the grimy secrets surrounding it. A killing supposedly perpetrated by her employee, John Lee, although more than likely by a Devon solicitor who was having an affair with Miss Keyse’ servant.

The Glen, Babbacombe, in the 1880’s not long before the murder of it’s head of household, Emma Keyse in 1884.

John Babbacombe Lee – The truth

John Henry George Lee, the ‘guilty man’, was born in 1864 at Abbotskerswell, Devon, England. A dodgy untrustworthy character known to the police courts. He was found guilty of theft in 1883. Allegedly murdered his elderly employer, Emma Ann Whitehead Keyse in 1884. Survived three execution attempts in 1885. Served a life sentence. Released from prison in 1907. Married Jessie Bulled in 1909. Had an affair with another woman. Deserted his malnourished and pregnant wife with a child in the workhouse in 1911. Then ran away never to be seen again (or so he hoped).

John Babbacombe Lee

John Babbacombe Lee, accused of murdering Emma Keyse, ‘The Man They Could Not Hang’.

Most of this work is centred around John Lee only because he was the man at the time who was found guilty of the murder of Miss Keyse. But in reality he is just one of several important characters in this hugely disturbing and peculiar case.

It is not a true to say that without the botched hangings at Exeter prison in 1885 this case would not be prominent in British criminal history. The murder and the manner in which it was conducted sent shockwaves around Britain and beyond. The manner in which Emma Keyse was killed and the more than half dozen attempts to disguise the cause of death through the fires that were started sets this case aside from similar atrocities of that period.

Babbacombe Bay, is a beautiful quiet and slightly difficult place to get to in modern times –the steep hill that twists its way down to the bay front is precarious at the best of times. In the 1880s the setting would have been almost cut off and quite difficult to get to.

Emma Keyse painting

Babbacombe Bay through the eyes of the victim. A watercolour painting by Emma Keyse, dated September 1876 entitled: ‘View from my bedroom window – Babbicombe’ (click the image for more detail).

Emma Anne Whitehead Keyse was born at Edmonton, North London, 1816, the daughter of Thomas and Elizabeth Keyse (1783 – 1871). Emma was four when her father died. The almost broke spinster Emma Keyse inherited her property, ‘The Glen’ on her mother’s death. The existence of those immediately surrounding Emma Keyse would have been, to say the least, quiet. With Miss Keyse strictly religious ways life was quite confined for those in her household. Life at her home, ‘The Glen’, would hardly have been a bundle of fun. For the two ageing sisters who had served Emma Keyse and her by now dead mother over a great many years the dullness was normality. A different story though for the cook, Elizabeth Harris, who at the time of the death of her employer was pregnant with her daughter Beatrice who was born in 1885. And for the self-styled footman, the bragging and ambitious young John Lee, recently reinstated after serving a term in prison for theft at another house, life at The Glen must have been stifling and tedious beyond belief.

Emma Ann Whitehead Keyse

A Victorian artist’s impression of Emma Keyse who was brutally murdered in 1884 at her home in Babbacombe.

Only the occasional visitor to this oppressive household must have lightened the mood very slightly. One of those who was acquainted with Miss Keyse was the young Newton Abbot solicitor, Reginald Gwynne Templer, the son of a well to do family from nearby Teingrace who had an estate at Stover. Indeed, the Templers, were just the sort of family who would bring a certain ‘class’ to the by now broke Emma Keyse.

From what we can surmise, Mr. Templer, had his eyes set on John Lee’s stepsister, Elizabeth Harris, the lowly cook. So his visits to ‘The Glen’ weren’t of total misery. Templer was to die in December 1886 a few years after the murder from a long and drawn and illness known in Victorian times as ‘paralysis of the insane’ – known today as advanced syphilis. It was originally considered a psychiatric disorder when it was first scientifically identified around the nineteenth century, as the patient usually presented with psychotic symptoms of sudden and often dramatic onset. It is highly likely that he had already contracted the illness by 1884. Certainly by 1885 when he attempted to represent John Lee as defence in court, Templers illness had prevented him from presenting a reasonable case for John Lee. The symptoms that Templer suffered could well have brought on a form of a fit and could have bludgeoned Emma with the ferocity that almost severed her head (more about Templer here) (his last appearance in public here).

On the night of the murder it is suggested that the cook, Elizabeth Harris, was ‘entertaining’. It has been suggested, indeed witness statements have claimed, that Emma Keyse had come down stairs due to a disturbance. It is probable that the perpetrators of the slight noise she heard were those who contributed to the vicious attack that was to end her life.

At a burial some years later a well-known lawyer from South Devon told his sons who  were present that “we have buried this afternoon the secret of the Babbacombe murder.” It was the low-key funeral of 29 year old Reginald Gwynne Templer who had died at Holloways Sanitorium.

This website is looking at the events surrounding the murder case as well as a step-by-step investigation into the background and lives of those marked by history who have been linked to it. This research has been going on for about 25 years – it’s been part of my life since my grandfather told me the tale when I was a boy in the 1960’s. It has been online since 1999 in one form or another with detailed transcriptions from court records. A book was co-authored by myself. And today when you would have thought that the research is exhausted even more material and information is coming to light.

Exeter and Plymouth Gazette - Friday 27 February 1885

The Exeter and Plymouth Gazette – Friday 27 February 1885

Apart from the guts of this website, take time out to look at the latest information published here in a blog.

Even as we speak there seems to be no end to the story of the Babbacombe murder and those connected to it. That on a grey morning at Exeter prison in 1885, as the life of John Lee was supposed to have ended, it in fact brought to us a character we all know as the man they could not hang” – Ian Waugh