Murder at Babbacombe

On Saturday 15th November 1884, elderly spinster, Emma Keyse (pictured below right), was brutally murdered at her burnt out villa at Babbacombe Bay, South Devon, England.

John Babbacombe Lee

The person accused of this atrocity was her employee, 20 year old John Babbacombe Lee (image left), a young man from nearby Abbotskerswell. Lee was sentenced to hang, but after three attempts he survived and served a life sentence. In an instant, John Babbacombe Lee was to become notorious as ‘The Man They Couldn’t Hang’. No property or valuables were stolen on the night so the motive was to silence the victim for some reason.

On the surface, this looks like a relatively straight forward case of murder. There was little sympathy for John Lee and, on execution day, Monday 23rd February 1885, 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.

The Babbacombe murder was particularly violent and the case intensely shocking for locals. The brutal killing of Emma Keyse was international news as word spread of the ordeal of an innocent elderly spinster at her idyllic Devonshire seaside home.

The story of events according to John Lee. Published just after he left prison, this is very much Lee’s spin on events.

The story became indelibly etched in history when, in early 1885, the execution of the killer failed – not once, but three times. The man on the gallows, John Lee, survived death and in an instant became The Man They Could Not Hang. Lee was sentenced to life as a Victorian prisoner and released as an Edwardian personality.

The rise and rise of the John Babbacombe Lee story

In the end he was taken back to his cell while outside confusion ensued.

Emma Keyse

The story of Emma Keyse and her murder became even bigger news – the person accused of this was swiftly jettisoned into the limelight as ‘The Man They Couldn’t Hang’. Word reached London of this bungle and eventually the Home Secretary decided that John Lee should serve a life sentence.

“You say you are innocent, I wish I could believe you” (Sir Henry Manisty – Judge at Lee’s trial)

“They have not told six words of truth – that is, the servants and that lovely step-sister, who carries her character with her … ” (John Lee awaiting execution)

Stories filled the British and overseas press of this truly horrendous killing on a quaint, peaceful Devonshire bay at Babbacombe. This editorial (right) paints a fairly accurate picture of the events just after the Babbacombe Murder – however the story was to take on a whole new twist as the years passed by. This web site tries to unravel the actual facts surrounding the crime, failed execution and aftermath so frequently misreported in books and the press.

Before the Babbacombe murder – Emma Keyse’ home – the delightful ‘Glen’ sitting on the waterfront at Babbacombe Bay. After the Babbacombe murder – Wrecked by fire and immortalised as the scene of dreadful carnage where employee killed employer.

This is where 68 year old Miss Emma Ann Whitehead Keyse was hacked and burnt to death. John Lee was, in 1884, the guilty party – but was he actually the killer?

The almost hidden simple grave stone of Emma Ann Whitehead Keyse at St. Marychurch graveyard. She was buried with her mother, Elizabeth Whitehead, who had died 13 years earlier.

‘The Man They Could Not Hang’, John Henry George Lee, could well have died on the 19 March 1945 at Milwaukee. John Babbacombe LeeHe is allegedly buried at Forest Home Cemetery, 2405 West Forest Home Avenue, Milwaukee, WI 53215, USA (image: Kurt Prinz)

Throughout the following twenty odd years, from prison, John Lee pleaded his innocence, claiming another party was involved in the murder.

John Lee 1907 book coverHe 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 explaining, in various forms, his story, his innocence, his life in Victorian & Edwardian prison and his experience the day he was due to hang. There was even a silent feature film outlining his alleged ‘incredible life’. Later he was to shun the public life he appeared to crave and slipped into obscurity in another country – of which more is revealed on this site.