The man they couldn’t hang was John Babbacombe Lee

This is the account and background to one of the most famous events in British Victorian history – based on fact from available extensive archive. It dismisses folklore and gossip of events by exposing the truth.

The murder of Emma Ann Whitehead Keyse at Babbacombe, England. A killing allegedly perpetrated  by her employee, John Lee, although more than likely by a Devon solicitor who was having an affair with Miss Keyse’ servant (image: John Henry George Lee. Born 1864 at Abbotskerswell, Devon, England. Found guilty of theft in 1883. Murdered his elderly employer, Emma Ann Whitehead Keyse in 1884. Survived three execution attempts in 1885. Served a life sentence. Married in 1909. Deserted his malnourished pregnant wife and child in the workhouse in 1911.).

This work is about the murder case, the now exposed cover-up and three failed attempts to hang John ‘Babbacombe’ Lee who took the blame for murder and became a celebrity. Here revealed are those connected with the case and those who would rather not be associated. Exposed is the panic that raged like wildfire through the Home Office and the British establishment when Lee was returned, alive, to his cell after attempts to execute him failed – an overwhelming fear of a crisis that involved the intervention of Queen Victoria. Also an investigation through public records of Lee’s bizarre life before, during and after a life sentence in prison.

With a vast growing archive of fascinating documents, this website exposes the reality behind a Victorian murder, a world famous botch at the gallows, the ruthless cover-ups, no forensic evidence and the blatant lies in a race to quell panic in the ‘establishment’ – all based on decades of research and hard facts.

The aim of this work is to find out not only who actually killed a near bankrupt Victorian spinster, but why she was murdered and to expose those responsible for the alarming range covers-ups and lies. So, the mystery, until recently, isn’t at the gallows in Exeter but in the hands of the person (or persons) who ended the life of this 68 year old woman 130 years ago.

Image right: The only known photograph of Newton Abbot Workhouse ‘mental nurse’, Jessie Bulled (exclusive to this website) discovered by Ian Waugh in June 2012. John Lee married Jessie in 1909. She was last heard of in 1911 after John Lee had deserted her in Lambeth Workhouse, pregnant. Her truly sad story is currently unravelling. If you know anything about Jessie please contact Ian Waugh here.

Bill Brown a retired Devonian farm labourer speaking in 1975. His family were closely connected to John Lee and his parents: “John Lee wasn’t guilty of the murder he was guilty of a cover-up that’s the only thing you can say about it anything like that when everybody was panicking frantically well anything can happen. Everybody was trying to clear themselves and John was in it and how would anybody react?”

Torbay Historian, the late John Pike, researched and wrote extensively on the case: “I have now reached the conclusion, quite definitely in my mind that the full facts did not reach the court at the time of the case. I think that Lee was there on the night, I think he was involved but I am quite definite in my opinion that he did not strike the fatal blow.”

Ian Waugh – Historic Researcher. From the 1990′s I have endeavoured to ‘put the record straight’. This is very much an ongoing project as more archive and certain facts come to light. I am stripping back and completely re-investigating the case and those behind it. My aim has been to dispel rumour and prove certain facts. A great many researchers, record offices and archives have assisted me with this work and for that I am very grateful. A few individuals, even 130 years after the murder, refuse to assist or comment for which I can understand their decision to hide certain facts.

Putting the record straight

The the alleged ‘royal connection’ between Emma Keyse and her mother. This letter from ‘The Royal Archives’ at Windsor lays to rest certain fantasies built up over the years and confirms some truth.

John Lee was the man found guilty of almost hacking the head off an elderly spinster, whilst, allegedly, single-handily setting fire to her home and his place of work whilst raising the alarm and trying to put the fire out!

He was the only accused and faced the full force of the law. With prison life and the dreadful experience at the gallows now a thing of the past, by the early 1900′s John Lee was a free man – available to sell his story for a small fortune and free to fool an unsuspecting public into believing he was really an all-round nice guy.

So nice in fact that he married a nurse in 1909 and dumped her in the workhouse in 1911.  The nurse, Jessie Lee was left destitute by her ruthless husband.

If you’ve heard about The Man They Could Not Hang and a little about John ‘Babbacombe’ Lee these pages might put you in the picture – if you hear stories of Lee walking the streets of Newton Abbot with rope marks around his neck, please take it with a large pinch of salt!   About this work here, The fact is The man they couldn’t hang was John Babbacombe Lee.

Current status:

Work on the true story of John ‘Babbacombe’ Lee continues as more recorded background information is revealed. Meanwhile a similar exercise is under-way in relation to the 1860′s serial child killer, Charlotte Winsor (here) with a section of Murder Research dedicated to the background and available archive. Also the famous Victorian and 20th century Devon prosecution lawyer, Isidore Carter (here). He was intimately involved in both the Winsor and Lee cases as well as a great deal many more. I am looking at his work and his long colourful life – again through recorded facts and archive.

Ian Waugh
Historian – John ‘Babbacombe’ Lee