The impact of this story was so great that questions were asked in the Houses of Commons and Lords just after the failed execution in early 1885 and later after John Lee had served 20 years penal servitude in 1905. Reading these Hansard reports you can really get a feeling of genuine discomfort and shock as both Houses debated Sir William Harcourt’s decision to respite Lee’s sentence, whilst at the same time fingers were pointed and questions asked, not only about events at Exeter, but about the actual role of the executioner. It is even suggested that James Berry, the hangman, had been under the influence of drink at the time of the botched hanging (“…he was also not in a very sober state at the time of the execution”). Regarding Lee’s stay in gaol, despite the coming and going of political parties and governments over the years, one thing is for sure that Home Secretaries were united and genuinely did not want to release the Babbacombe murderer. It wasn’t until 1907 that the then Home Secretary, Herbert Gladstone, caved in to public pressure and released John Lee on licence.
left: Home Secretary, Sir William Vernon Harcourt pictured in the House of Commons. “…there can be no doubt that the entire responsibility for the execution of capital sentences in all respects rests with the Sheriff”.
23rd February 1885 (Commons)
Criminal Law — The Babbicombe Murderer
Colonel Makins: I wish to put a question to the Secretary of State for the Home Department, of which I have given in notice; and therefore, if he wishes, I will give notice for it tomorrow. It is this – What steps are to be taken in respect of the very painful circumstances that are said to attended the attempt to execute the prisoner John Lee?
Sir William Harcourt: I have no objection to answer the question now. The under-Sheriff of Exeter came up to London afternoon to see me, and told me the facts of this painful case; and after considering them I thought that it would shock the feelings of everyone if a man had twice to incur the pangs of imminent death. I, therefore, this afternoon signed a respite in his case, to continue during Her Majesty’s pleasure.
Colonel Makins asked, whether the right Hon and learned gentleman would not take severe notice of the conduct of the gaol authorities, or of those, whether they might be, who were responsible for the proper working of the gallows machinery?
Sir William Harcourt: Yes; most certainly.
24th February 1885 (Lords)
Criminal law — The Babbacombe murder — Office of Public Executioner.
Earl Cowper said, he rose to call attention to the mismanagement attending a recent attempt at the inflection of capital punishment; and to ask, whether it is now the opinion of Her Majesty’s Government that there should be a public executioner and for the whole of the United Kingdom, appointed and removable by one of Her Majesty’s Secretaries of State? The attention of all must have been attracted by a piece of great mismanagement on the part of the executioner at Exeter. He would not enter into details; but he thought it was natural that he should take the present opportunity of once more bringing the matter forward. In this case, after repeated failures behind him, the prisoner has been respited, which, perhaps, made a matter less horrible then it would otherwise have been. Although the alternative of respiting a man who had committed murder in a most aggravated form what, no doubt, a difficult one to choose, he could feel that the Home Secretary had been placed in a position of great difficulty, and two evils had chosen the lesser. He did not wish to pre-judge the matter, into which, no doubt, an inquiry will be made; but they could hardly think that the Sheriff could be blamed, or the Under-Sheriff. As to the hangman, there was really no such office; a man who was only deputed for the occasion, and then disappeared. The Sheriff’s duty was to see the sentence carried out, and he had to find anyone that he could. As a general rule, it was true, the same man was employed by the different Sheriff’s in different counties. What he wished, however, was that there should be one man for the whole country, and that he should be under the Home Office and responsible to the Home Secretary. When he had brought forward this matter last year, he had been met by two objections. In the first place, he had been asked why it was likely that the Home Secretary would make a further selection than the Sheriffs? In answer to that, he maintained that he will be easier to get a good man for a permanent place of, say, Â£200 or Â£300 a year. Then another objection was that they could not expect to get a good man for the performance of such disgusting operations. But upon the last vacancy there had been no less than 800 applications, and it would surely be easy to get a man who can perform his duty out of so many. He might say, in passing, that there was such a general idea that it was a Crown office that the greater number of these 800 applicants had sent in their applications to the Home Secretary. He was in favour of capital punishment, and thought that it was absolutely necessary in order to put a stop to murder; but no criminal ought to be unnecessarily tortured. If, however, they were to have occurrences like this, it will be difficult to retain it. The noble Earl concluded by asking the question of which he had given notice.
Lord Monson said, he was very sorry that his noble friend (the Earl of Dalhousie), who represented the Home Office in that House, was absent through ill health, and therefore not able to answer the question. The noble Earl (Earl Cowper) had brought this matter forward in the last occasion, he had rested his arguments on the fact that the executioner was not a competent man in his profession, and he was also not in a very sober state at the time of the execution. The unfortunate (?) which occurred yesterday morning in Exeter rested upon altogether different grounds. He would not go into the matter now, because it must be inquired into by direction of the Secretary of State. What he had now to state was that the Secretary of State yesterday took steps to have a strict investigation made into all the facts, and it was not yet quite clear that the fault of what happened yesterday lay with the executioner.
24th February 1885 (Commons)
Criminal Law — The Babbacombe murder– Attempted execution of Exeter.
Sir R. Assheton Cross asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department, whether the account which has appeared in the attempted execution in Exeter is true; and, what course he intends to take in the present case, and also in the future, in order to prevent the recurrence of such a scandal? I assume that the answer to the first of my questions will be in the affirmative. With regard to the second, the Home Secretary had said he did not think public opinion will not uphold him in carrying out the execution if this person were brought to be hung again, in which statement I am bound to say I agree. But I should like to ask the third question — that is, as regards the future — whether the right Hon and learned gentleman means to take any steps to prevent the recurrence of such a scandal? I asked this, because I think it is of importance to be known whether the responsibility of finding the scaffold rests on the share of all the officers of the prison; and if, as I suppose the answer will be, it rests on the Sheriff, whether the right Hon and learned gentleman proposes a fresh legislation to make any alteration in his position?
Sir William Harcourt: I am extremely glad to receive the support of the right honourable gentleman in the decision and which I have arrived, because I am quite sure it will carry a great weight in public opinion. As regards the first question he has asked me to the cause of this deplorable miscarriage in the execution, substantially, I believe, the account has appeared in the newspapers is true. I have received this afternoon an account from men who were sent down to inquire into what happened in the gaol, and, of course there will be a more formal report of the investigation into the case. With reference to the question as regards the responsible authority in matters of this kind, there can be no doubt that the entire responsibility for the execution of capital sentences in all respects rests with the Sheriff. That is a fundamental part of the constitution of this country, and when various changes have taken place in the gaols, both in the Act of 1865 and the Act of 1877, great care was taken that the position of Sheriff in that respect should remain entirely an unaltered; and, therefore, whatever the officers of the prisons do in respect of these executions, they do simply and directly and the orders of the Sheriff; and there was a letter from the right honourable gentleman in December, 1878, to the Governors of prisons, ordering them, when the prisons came under the control of the government, to obey and to carry out the orders of the Sheriff in this respect. I confess myself, on the best consideration I could give to the matter, I do not see that there can be any advantage — that, on the contrary, considerable disadvantage — in altering that state of things. Though the right honourable gentleman has been good enough to express his concurrence in the decision I arrived at in reference to the respite, perhaps, as some doubt has been expressed on the subject, I may say a word upon the matter. Of course, the responsibility of a decision in that matter rests absolutely an entirely upon the Secretary of State. It is, of course, a very grave and very onerous responsibility: that I confess in this case I never entertained one moment doubt upon it. At the same time, it is desirable that the truth should be understood — I do not mean in this House, but outside this House. The tact is that is the exercise of the Prerogative of mercy does not depend upon the principles of strict law and justice; still less it depends upon sentiment in any way. It is really a question of policy and of judgment in each individual case; and, in my opinion, a capital execution which in circumstances courageous horror and compassion for the culprit rather than a sense of indignation for his crime, is a great evil, and when such events occur it becomes more and more difficult to maintain the punishment of death at all. This is a question that cannot be denied in precedents alone — it is not a question of precedents. But it is important to consider what we have done in cases of this kind in former times. When I had to decide this case, which I had to do and once, I had in my recollection of book I recently read –The Chronicles of Newgate — which contains a quantity of incidents of his character which have happened in former times, when executions were more carelessly performed and they are now. In those cases there were frequent instances of the rope breaking; and still oftener they were cases of persons being resuscitated after they were supposed to have been hanged. In many of these cases — indeed, in most of them– the practice was, when the execution had miscarried, not after an interval of time to revert it, and to carry it into effect. I do not know whether I should be taking up the time of the House too much; but I should like to mention the case which is very much like the present. There was a horrid scene at Jersey at the beginning of the century. The hangman added his weight to that of the suspended culprit, and having first pulled him sideways, he then got on his shoulders, and with his fingers loosened the rope. After that the Sheriff sent for another rope; but the spectators interfered, and a man was carried back to gaol. The whole case was referred to the King, and the poor wretch, whose crime had been a military one, was pardoned. That shows what in former times was the view taken in these cases; and I do not think that anybody would desire that our manners should be more savage and barbarous than they were at the beginning of the century.
27 March 1905
The Babbacombe murderer.
Mr Fenwick (Northumberland, Wansbeck): I beg to answer Secretary of State for the Home Department whether his attention has been called to the case of John Lee, who was convicted in February 1885, for the Babbacombe murder and sentenced to death, which sentence was afterwards commuted to one of penal servitude for life; and whether having regard to the fact that Lee has now served then period of 20 years imprisonment come out he can see his way to (?) That the clemency of the crowd the exercised into favour of this man’s release.
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr Ackers-Douglas, Kent, St Augustine’s): I have fully considered the facts of his case and regret that, having regard to the character of Lee’s crime, and to the circumstances under which the capital sentence was respited, my cannot advise any exercise of the Royal prerogative in the convict’s favour. I may say that while persons under original sentence of penal servitude for life are as a general rule released on licence when they have served 20 years, this practice does not necessarily apply to cases where a death sentence for murder has been commuted to penal servitude for life, but each case is considered independently on its merits.
Mr Swift McNeill (Donegal, South): Are there any periodical seasons for revision and reconsideration of these cases?
Mr Ackers-Douglas: Cases are brought out from time to time. This case was brought up. It was dealt with by Sir William Harcourt, who regarded it as a very bad case indeed, and every (?) after my predecessors have concurred in the opinion of the original Secretary of State.
Mr Fenwick: Has there been any complaint against the character of Lee during the time he has been in gaol?
Mr Ackers-Douglas: I do not know anything in that alone to justify the decision, but we have had to consider the original circumstances, and the fact that this man has threatened the lives of persons now living.