The Botched Executions of the Man They Could Not Hang

Exeter and Plymouth Gazette - Friday 27 February 1885

The Exeter and Plymouth Gazette – Friday 27 February 1885

Following the “amazing scenes at the scaffold”, the Home Secretary, under extreme pressure from within Whitehall, ordered an enquiry. The results make fascinating reading, especially for those who, over the years, have had their own theories.

This is the report with inclusions from all those immediately involved in John Lee’s thrice failed execution.


  • The following records appear courtesy of The National Archive
  • I cannot take responsibility for any error in the following as every effort has been made to ensure this is as true a transcription from the original handwritten court records as possible.
  • These records describe a brutal murder. You might find the contents of this archive disturbing.
  • Spelling and general language remain unchanged from the original documents. Brackets are placed around a phrase or word where difficulty is experienced in understanding the original text.
  • These documents can be located at the National Archive, Kew, filed as follows: Home Office and Prison Archive references: HO 144/148/A38492 XC12399 and PCOM 8/87 XC12455.

Home Office Report Index


Feb 1885

“Home Office, Whitehall, S.W.

Governor Exeter,

Please report the detail what was done exactly by the Artizan Warder when he examined the scaffold on Saturday last – Was any one with him?


AD W Hardy

25 Feb 85


“Reports of the examination and test of the scaffold by the two officers employed by my direction on Saturday last, the 21st instant as requested and confirmed by myself.

Edwin Cowtan




For this purpose it will only be necessary to ascertain the facts, which should be done by taking statements from the persons best to describe what happened, and the defects from which the miscarriage of the execution arose.

This can be done in any such which he judges best. The Prison Commissioners will render all the aid they can in the inquiry, and a copy of a report by Major McHardy, Surveyor of Prisons, is enclosed herewith for the Sheriffs assistance.

I am etc. (signed AFO LIDDEL)

Henry James, Under Sheriff of Devon,

The Close, Exeter.

Enclosure in No. 5

Prison Dept., Home Office, Whitehall SW

25 Feb 1885


The scaffold was fixed originally in 1879, in an Old building which was afterwards demolished, and the scaffold was re-erected in 1882 in it’s present position in the van-house.

It had been used on several occasions in it’ s original position, but no execution had taken place at Exeter since it’s removal to the van-house. A sketch showing the construction is enclosed: it will be seen that there are two wooden flaps or doors which form the platform, having two hinges each, and those of one—half of the platform stretch right across the whole width of the opening, and have their ends supported on the draw-bolt. These two long hinges therefore practically support the floor of the scaffold.

By moving the level the support of the draw-bolt may be withdrawn from the ends of these long hinges, which are then brought over cranks or bends in the bolt, and so the ends are allowed to drop down, and the flaps or doors of the platform should be at once open downwards.

It appears that the machine was worked on Saturday the 21st by the artizan warder of the prison. It was also by the executioner on the same day, and was considered by the Governor, artizan warder, and executioner as fit for use, the executioner having made some remark about future scaffolds having the flooring boards thicker.

On Saturday it was altogether tried five times, without, however, any weight being placed on it. It does not appear that it was again worked until Monday the 23rd, when the prisoner was placed on it for execution.

When the lever was then pulled it moved the draw-bolt, but the platform did not give way.

As it was thought that this was due to the wooden flaps fitting too tightly where they met in the centre, the warders tried to cut away the edges of the boarding, but this easing did not have any effect in allowing the machine to work.

It was not until the Under Sheriff left that it was discovered there was something wrong with the ironwork.

A careful examination of the scaffold was made by Messrs Libby and Cuthbert, clerks of works who visited the prison on Tuesday morning.

They found the apparatus under cover in the van—house and apparently quite dry. They then examined the details of the apparatus from beneath the platform.

On looking at the draw-bolt from the top where a board of directors of the platform had been removed, the signs of friction were apparent on the inner surface of one of the cranks in it.

Believing that the bearing of the end of the hinge at this paint was the cause of the failure in the machinery they tried to move the lever with a weight equal to 168 lbs on the platform, and the platform would not fall.

They discovered that the end of the long hinges was resting on one-eighth of an inch on the draw-bolt at the crank. They then tried to work the lever without any weight on the platform and found that when the lever was drawn quickly the platform fell. If drawn slowly, on one trial it remained fast, and on another trial it fell, but seemed to bind or grate at the end of the long hinge, already referred to. They were then perfectly satisfied that the cause of the failure to act was due to the fact that one of the long hinges rested on the draw-bolt one-eighth of an inch too much.

It is probable that in the re-fixing of the scaffold the two sides were placed one-eighth of an inch nearer than they had been before, or that the long hinge had been very slightly bent in some way at that time.

(signed) AB Hardy 25 Feb 1885

No. 8

The Sheriff of Devon to Under Secretary of State, Home Dept.

Exeter, 10th March 1885


I have the honour to report for the information of the Home sec, that I have caused inquiry to be made of the persons taking the chief part in the attempted execution of John Lee in HM Prison at Exeter, on Monday 23rd February last, and beg to forward reports from the following persons:-

  1. The Governor of the prison
  2. The Chief Warder
  3. The Acting Engine
  4. The Artizan Warder
  5. The Assistant Warder
  6. The Chaplain of the Prison
  7. The Surgeon of the Prison
  8. The Chief Constable of Devon
  9. The executioner employed (James Berry)
  10. My Under Sheriff
  11. Other Material

These reports, coupled with that of Major McHardy, of the 25th February, to which I beg to refer, appear to explain fully what happened, and how it was the drop failed to work at the important moment it was required to do.

In the absence of any special instructions to the contrary, to seems to me that the Home Secretary would be best informed by the means I have adopted.

I have, etc.


Sheriff of Devon.

The Hon. Sir AFO Liddell,

Home Office, Whitehall, London.

Report index

Enclosure 1, in No.8

Her Majesty’s Prison, Exeter.

9th March 1885


In compliance with your request of 6th March, I have the honour to report, for the information of the Sheriff of Devon, the particulars and circumstances in connection with that failure of justice in the case of John Lee on 23rd February 1885.

On the morning of Saturday 21st February, the apparatus was by my order thoroughly overhauled, cleaned, and tested by the engineer officer, and a warder carpenter.

On the afternoon of the same day the apparatus was again tasted by the artizan warder and Berry the executioner, the latter, after trying it twice over, reporting to me verbally that he was satisfied with it for the present use.

On Sunday the 22nd the van-house was closed and locked throughout the day: Berry, the executioner, remaining in the prison all day.

On Monday 23rd the van-house was cleared and prepared: at 7.l5am I went with the executioner to see the rope fixed to the beam; the drop was not tried on this occasion.

At 7.55am I accompanied Berry to the condemned cell and saw Lee pinioned; conducted the procession to the place of execution, the condemned man was placed under the beam, every preparation complete, and Berry pulled the lever; it would not act to release the drop; Lee was moved back at once, the drop tried and found to work; he was again placed under the beam, the lever again pulled, but it did not act; again he was removed for the preparation of another attempt; brought back prepared and placed in position, when for the third time it did not work.

I removed Lee at once into an adjoining room, and after consultation with you took him back to his cell.

I enclose herewith reports from the chief warder, the acting engineer who completed the apparatus in 1883, the present engineer officer, and a warder carpenter.

I have etc.,


The High Sheriff of Devon.

Report index

Enclosure 2, in No. 8

Her Majesty’s Prison, Exeter.

9th March 1885


I have read the report made by the Governor of the prison with reference to the failure in the execution of John Lee on 23rd February last; I confirm all the particulars, and have nothing additional to add.

I am, etc,

(Signed) R. RAINFORD Chief Warder

The Under Sheriff County of Devon.

Report index

Enclosure 3, in No. 8

Her Majesty’s Prison, Exeter.

9th March 1885


In the absence of the engineer officer (about September 1883) I was appointed to act in his place, during which time I was instructed to go with the new van-house and execution apparatus, which I did. The frame and trap, with their fitting, which I used were those used on a former occasion in the old hospital, being refitted to a new pit, which is about 2 feet 6 inches shorter than the old one. After having finished the apparatus I tested it with weights, and without weights; the former, by tying three half hundred weights in a piece of canvas, suspended from the beam, and placed on the trap where a person would stand, with about 3 feet drop, and found the apparatus to work all right without the slightest jerk or strain to the lever.

I remain, etc.,

(Signed) A.W. GORMAN acting engineer

To the GOV. (Signed) EDWIN COWTAN

9th March 1885

Report index

Enclosure 4, in No. 8

Her Majesty’s Prison, Exeter

9th March 1885



I beg to state, for your information, that according to your instructions that myself, assisted by Assistant Warder Titford, carried out the necessary preparations of the execution apparatus, on Saturday 21st February, which was afterwards tried and inspected by Mr. Berry, and found satisfactory; but I regret to say it turned out a failure at the time of the execution, February 23rd, morning, and from careful inspection find the cause of its not working is from the iron baring bars of trap doors being too light, and lengthening with the weight of the body caused to it to lock. I would add, that I carefully examined this same apparatus for the execution of Edwards, in November last. I then considered it fit every respect, as it worked satisfactorily upon trial.

I am etc.,


Artizan Warder


9th March 1885

Report index

Enclosure 5 in No. 8

Her Majesty’s Prison, Exeter,

9th March 1885


By your orders, I assisted the artizan warder on Saturday, the 2lst of February, to remove the van and shift bearing, etc., oil all bearings of scaffold, clean out pit and give trap three distinct trials; this was done, and found to work satisfactorily with ease, and was restored to, proper order.

(Signed) AJ TITFORD Assistant Warder

(Signed) EDWIN COWTAN, Governor

9th March 1885

Report index

Enclosure 6, in No. 8

Her Majesty’s Prison, Exeter,

9th March 1885.

My dear Sir,

I beg to report to you that I attended at the condemned cell at 7.55 on the morning of the 23rd February to read the Burial Service at the execution of John Lee. I commenced the service outside the cell, and preceded the condemned man to the scaffold, reading the service meanwhile.

Having reached the place of execution, I took up my position on the right of the building; I expected to hear the fall of the drop while I was concluding with the grace. Having concluded the service, I found the man had not been executed. I then turned to the Psalms appointed for the burial of the dead.

While these were being read Lee was taken off the drop by the executioner, and when he tried the drop, which seemed to work, Lee was placed on the second time; I had nearly read through the service the second time before the second attempt was abandoned. During this time there seemed to be much confusion among the officers, and I felt that I ought to go on reading to keep the painful scene as quiet and orderly as possible.

After the second attempt the Governor removed Lee to the “A” basement. I followed; on one uttered a word. In about two minutes the executioner summoned us to the scaffold. When the rope had been again placed on Lee’ s neck a great noise was made in attempting to move the bolts of the drop, but the effort failed.

With this third attempt I began the service at the Lord’ s Prayer, and when I had finished I asked the Governor if the execution had been performed, and having a negative reply, I began the service for the fourth time.

For some minutes this third effort was tried, and when I saw that the condemned man was again removed from the drop I appealed to the Governor to stop all proceedings.

The Governor said that the Sheriff was responsible.

More than 30 minutes had elapsed since I first began the service at the condemned cell. Then, when I saw the helpless confusion that prevailed, the great mental suffering through which the culprit had passed, and the improbability of the scaffold working, I joined with the medical officer in an appeal to the Under Sheriff to postpone the execution for that day. Great cruelty would have characterized further effort to carry out the sentence that day.

Lee suffered much, and seemed to be almost unconscious of what was going on. He would rather have died, I verily believe, and the first words he uttered after he had been led back to his cell, and recovered from his state of apparent semi—unconsciousness, were, “Why am I not to die?”. On looking back upon the events as they happened, one cannot help deploring them; and one is driven to the conclusion that if only thoughtful care and supervision had been exercised in the erection of the drop, and in its examination prior to the attempted execution, all this public scandal would have been avoided.

I have etc.,

(Signed) JOHN PITKIN, Chaplain

the High Sheriff of Devon.

Report index

Enclosure 7, in No. 8

Exeter, 9th March 1885

I have the honour to state, with regard to what transpired at the attempted execution of the condemned prisoner John Lee, that on the morning of 23rd ultimo, in compliance with an Act of Parliament known as the Private Execution Act, I attended the place appointed for the said execution; that I did not actually witness the original proceeding, but that on finding that a failure had taken place, I at once went to the front, placing myself by the side of the Chaplain, to encourage that officer in my presence; that I beheld the prisoner at the back of the coach-house, pinioned, a white cap over his face, and with the rope around his neck, while the prison officials and the executioner were trying the flap of the drop.

That Lee was again placed on the drop; that another attempt failed; that I then said he should be withdrawn; that a scene of confusion ensued. A hatchet being sent for, a chipping of the wood-work took place; that the prisoner was again put on the platform, the noose etc. being re-adjusted. That this third attempt having failed, I ordered him to be removed to a cell near, myself attempting to take him into my reception ward through which he had previously passed. That I am reported to have said to the prison officials, “You may experiment as much as you like on a sack of flour, but you shall not experiment on this man any longer.”

That he was accordingly taken into a passage near; that presently the Governor informed the chaplain and myself that the apparatus would not work; that I then desired that the man should be taken back and the execution postponed; that the said condemned prisoner was returned to his cell; that I offered the Under Sheriff a certificate, which he was glad to accept. That such certificate was drawn up in my office and signed by the GOV, chaplain, and myself, for the information of Her Majesty’ s  S of S (Secretary of State).

I beg further to report that I am of the opinion that no blame whatever can be imputed to the Under Sheriff, who came utterly unsupported, not accompanied as of yore by his subordinates.

And that the failure was entirely due to the faulty construction of the apparatus.

I think when a weight was placed upon the drop, the lever withdrawing the bolts could not act.


Medical Officer, her Majesty’s Prison, Exeter.

Report index


(CONFIDENTIAL)                        Enclosure 8, in No. 8

Proposed Execution of John Lee on 23rd February, 1885. Devon Constabulary,

Chief constable’s Office,

Exeter, 9th March 1885


I accordance with the request contained in your letter of the 6th instant, I have the honour to subjoin, for the information of the Sheriff of Devon, a description, so far as my recollections serves me, of the circumstances which fell under my observation, as an eye witness, on the occasion above referred to.

On the prisoner reaching the place of execution he was placed by Berry, the executioner, immediately under the cross-beam, over which was carried the rope; he was faced outwards towards the door, with both feet standing transversely on the junction of the two flaps or shutters which formed the drop. The executioner, with considerable skill and rapidity (as it appears to me) strapped the culprits legs above the ankles, drew the cap over his face, adjusted the noose round his neck, stepped back and pulled the iron handle or trigger, to let fall the foot-boards, to my intense astonishment, however, these latter deflected only about a quarter of an inch and appeared to be tightly jammed together about the centre. The executioner and some of the prison officials standing by endeavoured, by stamping on the boards, to get them to move, but without avail. After some seconds the prisoner’s face was uncovered, and he was led away to an adjoining cell or room in the prison. In the meanwhile, the executioner and the prison officials did their best to ascertain the cause of the machine not working. My own impression was that, the morning being very wet and damp, the foot-boards had become swollen, and were thus unable to free themselves when their top edges came in contact. I consequently urged the use of a plane, and pointed out the spot which I considered caused the impediment.

The prison engineer procured a plane and a tomahawk, and we eased the centre of the boards. A prison warder was made to stand on them, holding on by both hands to the rope; the trigger was pulled, and the boards fell. The prisoner was then brought out again, and the execution proceeded as in the first instance, but again the boards refused to fall. The same thing happened a third and, I think, a fourth time, between each occasion every effort being made by the officials (and I may also mention by myself personally) to discover and rectify the defect, but in the natural hurry and anxiety of the situation, without effect.

After the fourth attempt to carry out the sentence, the prisoner was taken back into the prison. I remained on the spot for a short time with the executioner and some of the prison officials, still endeavouring to discover the seat to defect the machine; after which I repaired to the office of the medical officer of the prison, where I found that officer, together with yourself, the GOV, and the chaplain of the prison, in consultation as to the course to be pursued under the circumstances.

I have etc.,

(Signed) C de COURCY HAMILTON Chief Constable of Devon.

To the Under Sheriff for Devon.

Report index

Enclosure 9, in No. 8

Re. John Lee

1 Bilton Place, City Road,

Bradford, YORKS.

4th March 1885.



In accordance with the request contained in your letter of the 3rd instant, I beg to say that on the morning of Friday the 20th ultimo, I travelled from Bradford to Bristol, and the morning of Saturday the 21st from Bristol to Exeter, arriving at Exeter at 11.50am when I walked direct to the county gaol, signed my name in your gaol register book at 12 o’clock exactly. I was shown to the GOVs office, and arranged with him that I would go and dine and return to the gaol at 2.00pm. I accordingly left the gaol, partook of dinner, and returned at l.50pm  I when I was shown to the bed­room allotted to me, which was an officer’s room in the new hospital ward. Shortly afterwards, I made an inspection of the place of execution. the execution was to take place in a coach—house in which the prison van was usually kept. Two warders accompanied me on the inspection.

In the coach house I found a beam, about four inched thick arid about a foot in depth, was placed across the top of the coach house, the ends being fixed in the walls on each side. Through this beam an iron bolt was fastened with an iron nut or the upper side, and to this bolt a wrought-iron rod was fixed, about three quarters of a yard long, with a hole at the lower end, to which the rope was to be attached. two trap-doors were placed in the floor of the coach house, which is flagged with stone, and these doors cover a pit about 2 yards by 1½ yards across and about II feet deep. On inspecting these doors I found they were only about an inch thick, but to have been constructed properly should have been three or four inches thick. The ironwork of the doors was of a frail kind, and much too weak for the purpose.

There was a lever to these doors, and it was placed near the top of them. I pulled the lever, and the doors dropped, the catches acting all right. I had the doors raised, and tried the lever a second time, when the catches again acted all right. The Governor was watching me through the window of his office, and saw me try the doors. After the examination I went to him, explained how I found the doors, and suggested to him that for future executions new trap-doors should be made about three times as thick as those then fixed. I also suggested that a spring should be fixed in the wall to hold the doors back when they fell, so that no rebounding occurred, and that the iron work of the doors should be stronger. The Governor said he would see to these matters in future.

I spent all the Sunday in the rood allotted to me, and did not go outside the gaol. I retired to bed about 9.45 that night.

The execution was fixed to take place at eight o’ clock that morning of Monday the 23rd ultimo.

On the Monday morning I arose at 6.30, and was conducted from the bed-room by a warder at 7.30 to the place of execution. Everything appeared to be as I had left it on the Saturday morning. I fixed the ropes in my ordinary manner, and placed everything in readiness. I did not try the trap­doors, as they appeared to be just as I had left them.

It had rained heavily during the nights of Saturday and Sunday.

About four minutes to eight o’ clock I was conducted by the Governor to the condemned cell, and introduced to John Lee. I proceeded to once to pinion him, which was done in the usual manner, and then gave the signal to the Governor that I was ready. The procession was formed, headed by the GOV, the chief warder, and the chaplain, followed by Lee; I walked behind Lee, and six or eight warders came after me.

On reaching the place of execution I found that you were there with the prison surgeon. Lee was at once placed upon the trap-doors, I pinioned his legs, pulled down the white cap, adjusted the rope, stepped on one side, and drew the lever, but the trap doors did not fall. I had previously stood upon the doors, and thought they would fall quite easily.

I unloosed the strap from his legs, took the rope from his neck, removed the white cap, and took Lee away into an adjoining room, until I made an examination of the doors. I worked the lever after Lee had been taken off, drew it, and the doors fell easily. With the assistance of the warders the doors were pulled up, and the lever drawn a second time, when the doors again fell easily.

Lee was then brought from the adjoining room, placed in position, the cap and rope adjusted, but when I again pulled the lever it did not act, and in trying to force it, the lever was slightly strained, Lee was then taken off a second time, and conducted to the adjoining room.

It was suggested to me that the woodwork fitted too tightly in the centre of the doors, and one of the warders fetched an axe and another a plane. I again tried the lever, but it would not act. A piece of wood was then sawn off one of the doors, close to where the iron catches were, and by the aid of an iron crowbar the catches were knocked off, and the doors fell down.

You then gave orders that the execution should not be proceeded with until you had communicated with the Home Secretary, and Lee was taken back to the condemned cell. I am of the opinion that the ironwork catches of the trap­doors were not strong enough for the purpose, that the woodwork of the doors should have been about three or four times as heavy, and with ironwork to correspond, so that when a man of Lee’ s weight was placed upon the doors, the iron catches would not have become locked, as I feel sure they did on this occasion, but would respond readily. So far as I am concerned, everything was performed in a careful manner, and had the iron and woodwork been sufficiently strong, the execution would have been satisfactorily accomplished.

I am, ect.,


Henry M. James, esq.,

Under Sheriff of Devon,

The Close,


Report index

Enclosure 10 in No.8

The Close, Exeter,

10 March 1885.


I have to report for your information the part I took in the recent attempt to execute, at Her Majesty’ s Prison in Exeter, the sentence of death on John Lee.

I ought to explain that, at the November Assize, a man of the name of Edwards was sentenced to death, and I then had the occasion to see Captain Cowtan, the Governor of the prison, with reference to the scaffold, the working of which he fully explained to me on the spot, so that on the recent occasion further explanation was unnecessary, and in addition to this the same apparatus had been used when I was the under-sheriff on the occasion of the execution of William Taylor in 1869, although it was then on a raised platform and in a different part of the prison.

On the day the sentence was passed on Lee I telegraphed to berry of Bradford, who I believed to be fully up to his work as an executioner, asking him to perform that office on Lee on Monday 23rd February.

On receiving his reply I immediately informed the Governor of the prison that the execution would take place on that day at 800am.

I arranged with Berry to be at the prison on Saturday the 21st, so that he might thoroughly acquaint himself with the sufficiency of the apparatus.

He arrived there in the forenoon, and I called at the prison about 12.30, but he was not then within the precincts of it, he having left for the purpose of getting refreshment, having travelled all night from Bradford.

On the following Monday morning I arrived at the prison shortly before 7.30. I was shown into the GOV’s office, where was the chief constable, and the Governor shortly after entered.

While waiting for the Governor I looked out of the window, which commands a full view of the place of execution, and there I saw Berry, the executioner, looking over the apparatus, and apparently making his final preparations.

When the Governor came into the office I enquired of him if everything was ready; he told me that it was all in perfect working order, and that Berry was satisfied, having only suggested some slight alterations, which might be improvements to the existing apparatus.

At five minutes to eight the Governor, the executioner, and the chaplain went into the condemned cell, returning shortly after in procession with several warders, and having identified Lee as the person sentenced, I joined in the procession with the Governor and the chief constable, and followed the prisoner to the place of execution, and saw him placed under the drop, or rather under the rope.

I then placed myself to the left of the door of the building in which the apparatus is fixed, waiting the completion of the chaplain’ s duty.

I heard the lever pulled, but the thud of the fall not following I felt there was something wrong in the machinery. The prisoner was removed just off the drop, and a second attempt was made to hang him, but that also failed. He was then removed to a cell close by and a hatchet and plane were procured, and part of the woodwork was removed, and the drop was let down; the prisoner was again brought back, and a third attempt was made to complete the work, and that also failed.

The surgeon of the prison then represented to me that a stop should be put to these proceedings; I felt bound, agreeing with him as I did, to give effect to his representations, and ordered the prisoner’s return to his cell.

I then adjourned, with the GOV, the surgeon, and the chaplain, to the surgeon’ s room, where a certificate was drawn up and signed by them showing what had occurred.

With this certificate, I left by the first train for London, where I saw Sir Adolphus Liddell and afterwards the Home Secretary, and explained the circumstances as they had occurred.

I was unable at that time to account for the misadventure of the apparatus not working, but this has now been amply done by the report of Major McHardy of the Prison Department, Home Office, dated 25th February 1885, and it seems to me that no person but an engineer, or skilled mechanic, could possibly detect the defect in the apparatus.

The acting engineer, Gorman, in his report to the Governor of the 9th March, explains how it was he put up the apparatus, “and tested it with weights, and without weights, and found the apparatus to work all right, without the slightest jerk or strain on the lever”, and the Artizan Warder, Charles Edwards, finds the cause of the apparatus not working to be that the bearing bars of the trap doors were too light.

It seems to me quite impossible that the sheriff or his under-sheriff could provide against such defects as these in an apparatus erected by the prison authority, and if he is to be responsible for them it would be far better that he should employ skilled persons to erect the scaffold, when required, rather than rely upon what is so provided.

I have etc.,


Under-Sheriff of Devon

The High Sheriff of Devon.

Report index


The Under Secretary of State, Home Department, to the Under-Sheriff of Devon

Whitehall, 12 March 1885

Dear Sir,

I am directed by Secretary Sir William Vernon Harcourt to acknowledge receipt of your letter of the 10th instant, forwarding the report of the High Sheriff on the recent failure in carrying out an execution in Exeter Prison. With reference to the remark in the concluding paragraph of your report to the sheriff to the effect that the sheriff, and not the prison authorities, should erect the apparatus for an execution, I am directed by the Secretary of State to say that it follows from the responsibility of carrying out of the execution being wholly imposed on the sheriff, that if he thinks fit he should undertake the whole conduct of the matter, and the erection of the apparatus.

I am, etc.,

(Signed) AFO Liddell The Under Sheriff of Devon.

No. 10

The late under-sheriff of Devon to the under Secretary of State, Home Department.

The Close, Exeter,

13 March 1885


I have to acknowledge receipt of your letter of yesterday’ s date.

But for the fact that the prison authorities had provided the hanging apparatus, the sheriff would have of course, done so; but I appeal to the Home Secretary whether any sheriff could dare rise a misadventure by erecting a scaffold in a prison where one is already provided by the prison authority.

I am quite aware of the responsibility of the sheriff, or deputy, to do his best to carry out the sentence of the law, and am equally sure that in this case every possible precaution on his part he could reasonably be expected to take was taken.

I have, etc.,


late Under Sheriff of Devon.


The Hon. Sir AFO Liddell,

Home Office, Whitehall, London.

21 March 1885

Chief Constable of Devon states that he has personally made careful enquiries into the statements made by the convict, and the only conclusion he can arrive at is that they are fabrications.

Will call at Home Office on 23rd inst.


? Acknowledge with

“thanks and add that Secretary of State need not trouble him to call at Home Office on Monday as he is satisfied his present report”.

CM Kea(?c)le 21/85

Sir W. Harcourt

JWL 22 85

“Copy of letter from the Chaplain of Exeter Prison, in the case of John Lee dated 27 Feb 1885.

“For the information of the Home Secretary, I send you the following particular.

After pressing John Lee, for the 50th time almost, to tell me the name of the man, whom he states as being at the Glen with his half sister, on the night of the murder of Miss Keyse, he yesterday said he would not swear to him, but he believed him to be CORNELIUS HARRINGTON, a Babbacombe fisherman. His half sister, he said, can give you the man’s name.

(Signed) JOHN PITKIN.”


Devon Constabulary, Chief Constables Office,

Exeter, 20th March 1885.



In further reply to your letter of the 13th instant (A38492) respecting the written statements of the convict John Lee (papers returned herewith) I have the honour to inform you that I have personally made careful enquiries in order to ascertain if there is any truth in them and that I can arrive at no other conclusion than that they are absolute fabrications, for the following reasons:

1st Elizabeth Harris declares most positively that the allegations made by the convict respecting her and the supposed man are “lies” and having subjected her to cross examination I am unable to see any reason to doubt the truth of the evidence she gave at the trial, and which she declared she is ready at any time if called to re-iterate on her oath

2nd. Cornelius Harrington is one of a respectable crew of fishermen resident in Babbacombe, who was never known at any time ever to have been on Miss Keyse’s premises and who I am informed was in his quarters on the night of the murder, and against whom there does not seem to be the slightest ground for suspicion.

3rdly. The extreme circumstantiality of the convict’s statement defeats it’s own object and establishes it’s falsity, and is moreover contradicted on numerous important points by incontrovertible evidence of facts, as for instance, such a cash box and writing desk as described were never known by any of the old servants in the house to have existed, no property of any sort had been stolen, and the only cash box the deceased lady was in the habit of using was a small wooden one, which I found in it’s accustomed place intact, when I searched for room and wardrobe.

John Lee did not run up stairs and meet Eliza and Jane Neck saying, “What’ s the matter”. Elizabeth Neck’ s evidence at the trial clearly proves that when she came down stairs she found him standing near the pantry door which is some distance from the foot of the stairs.

The conversation described as between John Lee and Jane as to where Miss Keyse was did not take place.

His description of the position of the dead body in the dining room is the reverse of fact, as also of the mode of carrying it.

I would beg to call attention to the fact that the story now put forth by John Lee was only committed to appear by him on the Wednesday previous to the day fixed for his execution although he was represented by Counsel at the Coroner’ s Inquest, the Magisterial investigation and the trial at Assizes and it bears strong evidence of having been built up by the prisoner upon the foundation of the suggestions thrown out by his Counsel at the Assizes that there might have been a possibility of the half sister, Elizabeth Harris, having admitted a man who might have perpetrated the murder.

I purpose to do myself the honor of calling at your office on the morning of Monday 23rd instant and of placing myself at your disposal with a view to affording you any further information as to details which you may possibly require.

I have the honor to be,


Your obedient servant,


Chief Constable of Devon.


The Right Honourable,

Secretary of State,

Home Office,



28 May 1885

The Governor Exeter Prison,

Please report on the matter of the enclosed letter.

CDM 20.05.85



HM Prison Exeter, 27. 5.85

The whole of the clothing belonging to John Lee in the custody of the Governor, was given up to his parents on their first visit, after his conviction.


for Governor.



25 August 1885


“L150 John Lee. W. Scrubs (Wormwood scrubs)


Petition:- That his box of clothes may be given to his parents by Home Sec’ s orders.

Plea: — His parents cannot obtain them without an order.

Petition: – That something may be done for him

Plea:- Was falsely accused. “Did not do the murder.”

A letter has been received from Mr. Daniel Vile “East and South Devon Advertiser”, Newton Abbot, stating that the box of clothes will be handed to the convicts parents by Mr. Supt. Barber when he receives the written sanction of the press.


Deputy Governor

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John Lee – The Man They Could Not Hang