John Babbacombe Lee’s Story

This is one of England’s strangest series of events that started with a murder case and ended with so many unanswered questions. The Babbacombe Murder was a terrible incident in November 1884. John Babbacombe Lee – The man found guilty of the crime became famous the world over as The Man They Could Not Hang.

John Henry George Lee was born in the Devon village of Abbotskerswell on the 15th of August 1864. His parents were John Lee Senior and Mary Lee (nee Harris) (Alan Elliott’s detailed genealogical research into the Lee family of Abbotskerswell is ).

HMS Implacable

On the 1881 census John Lee was a Boy 2 Class on the vessel ‘Implacable’ at Devonport (originally a French 74 gun warship called ‘Dugay-Trouin’ with three gun-decks built in 1800. Conquered by Britain at Trafalgar in 1805 and renamed ‘Implacable’. In 1949 she was still afloat, complete with decorated rear gallery. Neither Britain nor France wanted the ship. She was old, but not considered old enough for historical interest. So she was sunk in the English channel). Naval training ship history here.

Lee was convicted of theft in 1883 and sentenced to hard labour at prison at Exeter.

He was charged on suspicion of murdering elderly spinster Emma Keyse (his employee) on the 15th November 1884.

at babbicombe

John Lee was sentenced to hang at Exeter on the 23rd February 1885 where he famously survived three execution attempts at the gallows ” thereafter he forever became known as The Man They Could Not Hang.

Right: The Illustrated and Sporting Dramatic News – August 1st 1885.

After serving a life sentence he was released from Portland Prison on the 18th December 1907 and on the 22 January 1909 he married Jessie Augusta Bulled at Newton Abbot in Devon, England.

They had two children ” John Aubrey Maurice born on the 10th January 1910 and a daughter (who John Lee never saw) who was born on the 10th of August 1911 at in London.

Understanding John Lee

So, John Babbacombe 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 and a living ‘miracle’.

He married a nurse in 1909 and dumped her, pregnant, in the workhouse in 1911.  The nurse, Jessie Lee, was left destitute by her ruthless husband.

Lee then had an affair with another woman. The two of them lied to authorities about her identity, claimed to be Lee’s poor real spouse, fled England and headed to America claiming to be man and wife.

In short – Lee fooled a curious public into believing he was a good innocent person who, by fate and the hand of God, had survived the ultimate ordeal and was happily married with children. Claiming to be settling into a respectable simple Edwardian family life when in fact he milked his celebrity status for all it was worth, spent every penny and did a runner.

John Henry George Lee probably wasn’t a murderer. He was an all-round liar, manipulator and a darn right bounder. He used his status in the public eye to threaten the British government, lawyers and individuals in Devon as well as certain public figures.

His claims about his life were bloated, stupidly romanticised out of proportion and heavily edited.  Although historically interesting, the book he claimed to write and the over-long silent film about events surrounding the murder is completely ridiculous – full to the brim of everything excluding fact.

The real Lee is mundane and unexceptional.  A small-time crook with a record before the murder, a liar, a trickster, a bragger who fooled a desperate lonely, broke elderly Emma Keyse into believing he was ‘special’.

She was a spinster infatuated with a possibility of infatuation itself – the reality of which was beyond social and practical reach. The life for lonely Emma on the beach at Babbacombe must have been intense, almost penniless and closed. Surrounded only by her dead mother’s servants and the few neighbours – some lower and others higher in class.

Young Lee, a man in his late teens and then his early twenties, must have brought her forbidden light that she could in her way have thought she could manipulate. Her world, although broke, was another class altogether – his lower class and maybe his sexual brashness was something socially prohibited and yet for an exciting challenge.

Emma’s letters to Lee when he is serving his first conviction reveal the desperation of a woman either ‘mothering’ or in love with the idea of love itself with a man beneath her.

After Emma’s death Lee claimed his affection for her and hers for him. But as Lee could be barely believed on any subject we have her letters to him as some evidence of an affection.

Lee played up to this as indeed he played to any scenario where he is the lead character.

When Templer almost hacked the head off Emma Keyse in a fit of pique John Lee jumped. When the gallows failed him three times he was thrust into a world beyond his wildest dreams. By the time he was due to be released from prison the public were gagging for him as a cheap hero.

The English masses loved his so-called romance with his ‘sweetheart’ a nurse working in Devon – the marriage was a dream for Lee’s ego.

When the appetite for his over-blown stories diminished the truth behind Lee’s unpleasantness slowly trickled out.

True to form Lee lied, ran away and then disappeared back into the ordinary world where he started – obscurity.

The story was over. Lee was alive but unwanted and unloved by his beloved audience who had moved on and away from his dodgy persona.

John Lee in America?

On the 28th of February 1911 John Lee allegedly travelled to America with a woman claiming to be his wife. Meanwhile his real wife, Jessie ” pregnant with their second child, had been abandoned in the workhouse.

The convicted murderer apparantly lived with his partner Adelina in Wisconsin where they had a daughter Evelyn who was born on the 1st of August 1914 ” she died suddenly on the 12th of October 1933.

The Man They Could Not Hang, John Henry George Lee, never became a legal citizen of America and finally died aged 80 on the 19th March 1945 in Milwaukee, his “partner” Adelina died 9 Jan 1969.

As for his poor and neglected real wife, Jessie ” so far her fate still remains a mystery.

lee vicar

Left: Pressing the flesh. Press opportunity and photo call – but who gains the most out of this form of publicity? The Vicar of Abbotskerswell shakes the hand of the murderer, John Lee, who, because of a technical error at the scaffold is, by the time this picture was taken, an Edwardian celebrity and all round nice-guy. Lee had served a twenty two year prison sentence and had just been released on licence. The world was desperate to read Lee’s story, so he sold it to Lloyds Weekly News for a small fortune. Four years later, still famous as The Man They Could Not Hang and threatening the Home Office with a ‘kiss and tell’ story about life in British prison, Lee, who had married Newton Abbot nurse, Jessie Bulled, crept out of Britain with a barmaid who claimed to be his wife. Meanwhile Jessie was left malnourished and pregnant as an inmate of Lambeth workhouse. John Lee, uncharacteristically,  lived a lie and illegally in America. He died there in 1945.

looking good

Right: Looking good! A dapper Edwardian personality – John Lee, the Babbacombe murderer. This is 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! Whatever the case – 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, John Lee was a free man – free 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 Victim

Emma Keyse came from a reputable Victorian background. Some say she even had connections with the British Royal Family, although this has been vigorously denied in certain quarters. It has been suggested that a family member was a tutor to Queen Victoria’s son, the future Edward VII. This is denied by the Deputy Registrar, The Royal Archives, Windsor Castle. Queen Victoria visited Babbacombe Bay in August 1849 and the 19th July 1852 although she did not land on either occasions, but her husband, Prince Albert, did in 1852. There is no evidence from Windsor that Mrs Whitehead (Emma Keyse’ mother) actually met Queen Victoria.

Born at Edmonton in 1816, Emma Ann Whitehead Keyse was well known throughout Devon and when news broke that she had died under such dreadful circumstances, there was little delay in finding a culprit and bringing the alleged murderer to trial to face his inevitable execution at Exeter in early 1885.

The Fall-out


On the surface, this looks like an uncomplicated case of brutal killing. There was little sympathy for John Lee. On execution day, the crowds waited in anticipation outside Exeter Prison. The throng though were not to see justice complete. Three times they tried to hang Lee and three times it failed. In the end he was taken back to his cell while inside and outside Exeter Prison confusion ensued.

(image: The Beginning – The Home Office Prison Commission)

Word reached London of this bungle and eventually the Home Secretary, Sir William Vernon Harcourt, a relative of the owners of the Babbacombe Cliff, at the top of Beach Road, decided that John Lee should serve a life sentence of penal servitude. Questions were asked in Parliament and throughout the media about this incident. The story of the Babbacombe murder became even bigger news. John Henry George Lee, the person accused of this slaughter, was swiftly jettisoned into the limelight as ‘The Man They Couldn’t Hang’.

Throughout twenty two years, from prison, John Lee pleaded his innocence, claiming another party was involved in the murder. He petitioned the succession of Home Secretaries until 1907, when he was finally released from Portland Jail. After his discharge, John ‘Babbacombe’ Lee toured the country amplifying his story, his innocence, his life in Victorian & Edwardian prisons and his experience the day he was due to hang. Naturally people were fascinated to hear his yarns ¦ there was even a silent feature film outlining his ‘incredible life’! In 2000 I traced this film to the British Film Institute who managed to produce the first ever copy to viewable video. For the first time since the early 1920′s the film is available on public view at Torquay Museum. Viewers should be aware though that it is very much John Lee’s side of the crime, but even so it is fascinating to watch a production of the story made in 1912 ” just five years after his release.

Home Office archive has revealed that John Lee was last seen in Brighton in 1916. After that the trail becomes increasingly vague. Until research started on this work, there were numerous, doubtful stories about him ending his days in America, Canada, Australia ” anywhere except this country or his county of origin.

Until now, the real story seems to come to an apparent end. By the early part of the 20th century most of the people involved in the case had either died or refused to make any further serious comment.

Lies, damn lies


The extensive newspaper reports make compulsive reading. Some of the articles are outrageous in the extreme but why let the facts get in the way of a good story! As for the truth, well, there seems to be limited detail. As the years went by the number of those on the ‘Babbacombe Murder Bandwagon’ grew to an inexhaustible number of people who knew people, people who ‘knew something’ and people claiming and later disclaiming information each tale more scandalous than the next!

(image: The End and the beginning of a new life – After 22 years in prison, John Lee (General Register Number: L150) is released from Portland Prison.)

The fact is that many of those directly involved ” the servants, the doctors and trades-people ” mostly died while Lee was still imprisoned. Crucially, Lee’s Solicitor, an associate of Miss Keyse, Reginald Gwynne Templer, was taken off the case during the trial due to ill health and finally died at an early age at Thomas Holloway’s Sanatorium in 1886 ” the cause of his death being general paralysis of the insane. I spoke to someone from The Wellcome Institute in 2000 who informed me the ‘paralysis’ might have been some form of sexually transmitted disease.

Elizabeth Harris, who was ill in bed on the night of the murder, was in fact pregnant. She gave birth to an illegitimate girl, Beatrice, at Newton Abbot Workhouse on the 24th May 1885. Elizabeth was a half sister of Lee and her evidence throughout this is strangely inconsistent. Lee later claimed that she confessed to the killing on her death bed to a Major Pearson from the Salvation Army. In May 2000 I wrote to the Archivist of the Salvation Army International Heritage Centre in London who informed me that there was no record of this confession or even of a man called Major Pearson.

To add to the possibility of doubtful evidence, it was not until the 10th April 1935 that the Forensic Science Laboratory was opened at the Police College, Hendon. This was subsequently transferred to Lambeth (source: Metropolitan Police). So the constant references to ‘blood stains’ is interesting, especially as to whose blood the witnesses are referring. Apart from the dreadful loss of blood by the victim, John Lee had injuries to his arm, caused, he claimed, by forcing a window.

Interestingly, there are references to the smell of Petroleum or Paraffin Oil throughout. Herbert Chilcote, the much admired Medical Practitioner who worked with William Stott Steele, only notices these distinctive smells after the items have been in the hands of the Police. Surely, if these things had really been in contact with Petroleum or Paraffin, Chilcote and Steele, who were conducting these examinations, would have noticed so. Significantly, Chilcote states in Court, I notice now a smell of oil about them (the flannel trousers worn by Lee). Did not so notice it when (the) P.C. called upon me at my Surgery. So, who altered this crucial evidence and where did these alterations take place?

In the 1880′s there was no method of detecting crime with finger prints. On the 27th June 1902 the first conviction by fingerprint evidence was obtained. Harry Jackson was given 7 years penal servitude for burglary, whilst in 1905 the Stratton murders saw the first convictions for murder on fingerprint evidence (source: Metropolitan Police). Lee’s guilt is only based on witness statements, a general suspicion that he was the only man in the house by dawn on the 15th November 1885. You might agree with me, as you read this, there is little evidence that Lee was the killer at all.

It is likely the real culprit ran off into the night. Whoever it was, he was certainly a ‘crazed’, possibly out of control person to cause such dreadful injuries to the victim.

As for the motive, well, there’s a strange thing. Nothing was stolen. Lee was upset that his wages were reduced. Emma Keyse was in dispute with fishermen over rights. And smuggling was rife along the South Devon coast, especially at Babbacombe.

Miss Keyse was financially comfortable but was not well-off, unlike some of her neighbours in Beach Road who were very well to do with significant social and blood connections. More than likely Miss Keyse, a religious, straight forward person, knew at lot ” and a lot she was aware of she more than likely didn’t approve.

By sheer coincidence

I have found that the process of family research frequently produces a substantial crop of by-products. In this case I refer, briefly, to the folk who lived at the top of hill – the neighbours of Miss Keyse.

‘The Babbacombe Cliff’ was built in the mid 1800′s by Baron and Baroness Mount-Temple (Georgina Tollemache and William Francis Cowper). The building, which still stands today, is a monument to an age that disappeared in 1914 ” it has an architectural style that is quite unique to Torquay – it has recently been renovated.

Baron Mount-Temple was the son of Lord Cowper. He was also the stepson of Lord Palmerstone, the famous Victorian Prime Minister and nephew of another Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne. The Baroness had equally prestigious connections including John Ruskin, William Morris and Oscar Wilde. Between them there was little doubt they were most definitely part of a Victorian ‘in crowd’.

Exactly what Miss Keyse thought about having such exotic neighbours is open to speculation. From these records and from descriptions of the day, we can deduce that Emma Keyse was a religious person who most definitely had an opinion and stood her ground. Just before her murder she was in dispute with the local fishermen over rights and with Mr. Tollemache over the use of the name Å“The Glen (At the time of writing I am not completely sure if there was a blood relationship between this Mr. Tollemache and the ‘Babbacombe Cliff set’).

However, one interesting connection was the relationship of the Home Secretary, Sir William Vernon Harcourt, to this prestigious collection of people. It was Sir William who set on record that, despite the hanging fiasco in 1885 and Queen Victoria’s reaction in favour of the prisoner, Lee would be held at Her Majesty’s pleasure, with a proposal that he was not to be released. Sir William was a nephew of Georgina Tollemache’s brother-in-law.

John Lee was finally released from Portland Prison on the 18th December 1907 after a 22 year sentence, despite Sir William’s recommendation that life, in this case, meant life.

Until now, due to lack of genuine documented evidence, one matter that has been difficult to prove is the actual fate of John ‘Babbacombe’ Lee.

Some people have indicated that he escaped the Edwardian limelight and started a new, anonymous, life abroad.

It has been suggested that he was rescued from the London blitz, claiming that it was the second time in his life he had been saved.

In early 2001, I had a letter from a gentleman who remembered fishing with his father in the late 1930′s, just outside London. His father started talking to a stranger. When the stranger walked away, another man informed the father that he was just talking to ‘The Man They Couldn’t Hang’. I spoke to my informant about this and from the conversation there is no doubt at all that John Lee was still alive until the war years.

There was an outrageous proposal from a magazine writer in 1991 who tried to convince his readers that John Lee was actually ‘John Lea’- not Devonian, but from Hertfordshire. According to this article, when ‘Lea’ was released from prison he resumed his life as a Hemel Hempstead Publican! I always follow every lead and I politely wrote to the author of this piece in 1999, asking where he had obtained such stunning information and how he could substantiate his article. I received – no reply!

The facts, as usual, are considerably more humdrum than the fabrication. According to Home Office archive, John Lee threatened to reveal his ‘real story’ abroad if the Home Secretary did not recognise Lee’s innocence.


The Under Sheriff of Exeter came to London this afternoon to see me, and told me the facts of this painful case; after considering them I thought it would shock the feelings of anyone if a man had to twice incur the pangs of imminent death. I therefore signed a respite in the case to continue during Her Majesty’s pleasure.
Home Secretary, Sir William Harcourt, Hansard ” February 23, 1885

It appears that John Lee, who broke the skull and cut the throat of his benefactress, and then set fire to her body, is not to be hanged as, owing to the rain on Sunday night, the drop will not work easily the next morning. It should be announced in future all executions will take place ‘weather permitting.’
A Babbacombe resident, The Times – 1885

Mr. Fenick MP:
I beg to ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department whether his attention has been brought to the case of John Lee. Has there been any complaint against the character of Lee during the time he has been gaol?
Mr. Acker-Douglas MP, Home Secretary:
we have had to consider the original circumstances, and the fact that this man has threatened the lives of persons now living.
Hansard ” 27th March 1905

… the entire Lea family moved from the Hammerfield district, now part Hemel Hempstead, to Boxmoor – Lea was barely 17 when he left the fold for a Major Cutler, then resident in Cambridge. Cutler was very short of money at this time, but he had a wealthy aunt in Miss Emma Ann Keyes and hoped to inherit her fortune one day Lea took three days to reach her home (After imprisonment) he was eventually released and returned to Hemel Hempstead where he kept a public house and was well patronised.
Published by a Hertford magazine – 1991