The Life of Jessie Lee

Jessie Lee (nee: Jessie Augusta Widger Bulled) was John Lee’s wife.

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Western Times - Friday 29 January 1909She was born in 1875 at Tendering, Essex, married Lee on the 22 January 1909 at Newton Abbot, Devon and died in Surrey in 1960.

Jessie Lee had two children:

  • A son – John Aubrey Maurice Lee who was born in Newcastle in 1910 and died in 1967 in Brighton – he married Marion Plummer at Cuckfield, Sussex in 1933.
  • A daughter Evelyn Victoria Mary Lee, born in Lambeth in 1911, married Benjamin Truman at Paddington on the 8th September 1939 and died at Tadworth in Surrey in 1964.

Jessie’s only known photograph in her nurses uniform was published in The Western Times – Friday 29 January 1909 (right).

Jessie Lee’s story in this case is one of huge sadness. Before marrying Lee she was a much respected nurse at Newton Abbot Workhouse infirmary. Their marriage in 1909 captured the imagination of Lee’s followers. Although Lee claimed in the media he wanted a private marriage it still received considerable coverage.

Lee WorkhouseBut it was the coverage of John Lee’s treatment of his wife, hidden away in the press three years after his marriage that made disturbing reading (Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette – Saturday 17 February 1912): “The wife of John Lee, who, convicted for the murder of an old lady at Babbacombe over twenty years ago, was reprieved after three attempts to hang him, applied to the Lambeth Guardians on Wednesday for relief.

Mrs Lee stated that she married Lee after his liberation from prison in 1908, on the completion of 20 years’ penal servitude. There were two children. At a public-house in the borough Lee received a good salary for exhibiting himself, but in February last year he left for America, and after sending her help for some weeks, wrote stating that he was out of work and could send no more money. The Board left the matter with the relieving officer”.

NYT715_1633-0735John Lee had actually left Southampton bound for New York on the 19 February 1911 with a woman illegally falsely claiming to be his wife, Jessie. Lee had used an address at 117 Copenhagen Street, Kings Cross on his travel documents and had slipped out of England leaving his real pregnant wife and young son behind to cope with no support whatsoever.

Many stories exist of Lee returning to England in the thirties. Indeed there is one of him running a business in Paddington during the war (his daughter married in the borough in September 1939). But it is reasonable to assume that John Lee never saw his wife and children or any other family member again after leaving England in 1911. For John Lee, The Man They Couldn’t Hang, it really was game-over. In a few brief years after being released from jail as a celebrity and the purveyor of great tales about his so-called exciting life he was to dump his wife, his public and his country. John Lee was a prime hypocrite who is now revealed as The Man Who Never Cared.

Norwood SchoolsBy 1917 Lee’s children were seeking help at Lambeth Workhouse where they were admitted and sent to Norwood’s School.

Both children married and Jessie lived into her 80’s, dying in 1960.

John Lee yearned some semblance of respectability in 1908 when all eyes were on The Man They Couldn’t Hang. Jessie was part of the jigsaw to build this fiction. His marriage to a nurse fitted the bill like a glove. But Jessie, like to rest of Lee’s world was duped. He was a classic liar a storyteller. Lee was a bragger who had started plying his lies back in 1880’s when the other woman in his life, Emma Keyse, was still alive. He may not have killed Emma. If, as I suspect, he was a fall-guy, a cover-up, he was perfect for the job although dangerous to know for those covering up. Lee raked in as much money and prestige as he could – dragging in the innocent and those he fooled along the way. When he drained the charade for all it was worth he ran taking a barmaid pretending to be his wife with him – leaving his poor wife, children, his lies and his mess behind.