The Man They Could Not … Find

tavistock times Lee article treated

Two graves, two continents, a lot of research and one John ‘Babbacombe’ Lee. Between the late 1990’s and the mid 2000’s there was finally growing actual documented evidence of what became of The Man They Could Not Hang.

Several things are for sure, thanks to revealing archive. John Lee, the alleged killer who thrice escaped the gallows, who for a brief period in time was the admired personality was in fact an appalling ruthless ‘love rat’. He was also, until the day he finally died, a dreadful liar who fooled his young wife, dragged another strange woman (Adeline Gibbs) into his web of deceit and who kidded the trusting public at large and the American authorities that he was a ‘decent citizen’.  John ‘Babbacombe’ Lee may not have dealt the fatal blow that killed his elderly mistress – but he was for sure a truly despicable man who went to any lengths to gloss his shadowy character.

There has been terrific speculation about John Lee’s last years. And, I have to admit that I was totally convinced that I had found John Lee ending his days in Tavistock at the Workhouse, in the South West of England.

John Lee death Tavistock 1941

I traced an incredibly revealing death certificate (left, click image to view in full). Quite substantial enormous speculation grew at Tavistock and even an actual burial spot in that Devon town (at Plymouth Road cemetery). I even spoke to retired cemetry workers and the surviving family of the Tavistock undertakers. They were convinced that the man from the workhouse they buried in 1941 was John ‘Babbacombe’ Lee.

John Lee death Tavistock cemetery letter 1941 useIn 1999, when I discovered this death record, certain people who were alive at the time of Lee’s ‘Tavistock Death’ came forward and provided me with certain evidence that the man they buried at Plymouth Road Cemetery was that of The Man They Could Not Hang (left: click image to view in full).

Once again the local media was filling up with speculation (fuelled partly by me tipping off The Tavistock Times!) below (click image to view in full). It was assumed that Lee used a pseudonym (George Walters) during the latter part of his life to disguise his previous experiences – maybe, if true, even John Lee had had enough of the stories and the legend.

Tavistock Times 31 January 2002
In the early 2000’s the research took on a certain urgency with my collaboration with the Torbay Historian, Mike Holgate. This in turn led to the book we co-authored a few years later. It was Mike’s discovery that again altered the story of John Lee. This new research revealed that Lee had ‘escaped’ the British limelight that was already beginning to wane somewhat, for a new life in America. Theories that John Lee had fled Britain were not new – but in this case the evidence grew.
lee ship

right: A brave new life and yet more deception from Emma Keyse’ killer! Prinz Friedrich Wilhelm* at New York. Convicted killer, John Lee travelled on board this ship from Southampton to New York in late 1910 – early 1911 with Adeline Gibbs who falsely claimed on the ships ‘Manifest for Alien Passengers’ to be Jessie Lee.

left: Document evidence of John and the alledged “Mrs” Lee recorded as passengers (click the image to see the full size). In fact, very little of what they stated on arriving in America was true. Adeline (or Adelina) was only recently married herself to a man called William Jones. Both Lee and Ms Gibbs (aka Lee or Jones) stated they had been born at Newton Abbot and were allegedly living at 117 Copenhagen Street, Kings Cross, London. John Lee’s occupation was apparently a ‘Dealer’. They had, according to the ships archive, more than $50 in cash and were travelling second class.

Lee declarationleft : At the age of 75 and after living in America since 1911 this is John Lee’s Declaration of Intention to become a citizen of the USA (click the image to see the full size). This revealing archive clearly states his identity,  and his place and date of birth. He refers to Adelina as his ‘wife’ – his real wife Jessie was left destitute with their two children in Lambeth Workhouse in 1911.

Lee where

This convicted killer lived another life after slipping quietly (and illegally) into America where he lived for 28 years before this application. The man who, in 1909, relished the notoriety as The Man They Could Not Hang was miles away from the glare of publicity, his family and the truth.

John Henry George Lee (right), born Abbotskerswell, Devon, England 1864, died Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA 1945.

Evelyn Lee

John Lee’s daughter, Evelyn Lee (left) born in America.

Never really out of the news – this time the tragic story of his daughter, Evelyn, in 1933.

My colleague Mike Holgate is the . Mike was following yet another lead in 2003 – it was this pointer that led us to find John Lee’s other extraordinary life.

John ‘Babbacombe’ Lee had travelled to New York in 1911. If Lee had remained in the USA, he would have qualified for citizenship after a residential qualifying period of five years.

This is where Mike stumbled across a press cutting at the West Country Studies Library, Exeter, England, claiming that this option had been chosen in an unidentified newspaper dated  14 October 1916, “It is reported that John Lee, who served a long sentence of penal servitude after being convicted of the murder of Miss Keyse at Babbacombe, and is now living at Milwaukee, U.S.A., is about to become a naturalised American. He has been in the States five years”.

The Winconsin Historical Society conducted a search on our behalf with spectacular results! A record was found – not from 1916 as we had barely dared to hope – but 1939 when John Lee was alive and well at the age of 75!

For some reason, he had left it very late in life before making a Declaration of Intention – the first stage of the legal process in becoming an American citizen. His application confirmed his name as John Henry Lee, born at Abbotskerwell, 15 August 1864, who had entered into marriage at Newton Abbot in 1909 – the date of his wedding to Jessie Bulled. However, he named his ‘wife’ as Adelina, born on Christmas Eve 1874, at Canterbury, Kent. This lady was Adelina Gibbs  – the Miss A Gibb (sic) to whom Lee had sent a Torquay postcard as their illicit relationship was developing while they were working together at the London public house ‘Ye Olde Kings Head’.

The declaration recorded that there were no children from the ‘marriage’ although at the time of the USA 1930 census, John and Adelina had a 15 year-old daughter named Evelyn – a similiar name to that given by Jessie Lee to the child born after she had been deserted by her husband. Coincidentally, Londoner Eveline Lee was married early in September 1939, and her name was miss-spelt on the licence as ‘Evelyn’. Later that month the father she had never known made his Declaration of Intention to the Milwaukee County Circuit Court. The American-born Evelyn, was seemingly named after Adelina’s mother, for Lee’s partner was the third eldest of nine children born to brewer’s cashier William Gibbs and his wife Evelyn. At the time of the UK Census conducted in 1901, the Gibbs family were living in the London Borough of Croydon.

The economic Depression of the Thirties seemingly had little impact on John Lee who at an advanced age was employed throughout the decade as a shipping clerk for a motor vehicle company. In 1930, he owned his own home valued at $2,300 at 376 5th Avenue, Milwaukee. However, a terrible tragedy was to strike the family when Evelyn Lee died on 12 October 1933. The incident was reported the following day in the Stevens Point Daily Journal:

“A coroner’s autopsy was to be held today to determine the cause of death of Evelyn Lee, 19, a maid who was found dead, apparently from naphtha fumes, in a bathroom of an apartment where she was employed.

The girl was found by Dr. and Mrs. Arthur Kovak when they returned home late yesterday. The bathroom was filled with naphtha which Miss Lee had been using to clean drapes”.

Evelyn Lee press1

According to the Washeka Freeman, 18 October 1933: ‘Two post examinations were performed before the cause of death was definitely determined’. The Coroner, Frank J Schulz recorded a verdict of ‘accidental asphyxiation due to inhaling naphtha fumes’. The death certificate also states that Evelyn Lee’s birth occurred in Milwaukee on 1 August 1914, although no official record could be found to confirm this.

Reports of John Lee’s demise in Milwaukee in 1933, had been somewhat premature. Perhaps the untimely end of his daughter that year had been somehow misconstrued by sections of the press? At the time of their bereavement, John and Adelina were living in the city at 922 South 10th Street, where they still residing in 1939. Lee did not follow up his Declaration of Intention by formally applying for citizenship, as he was entitled to do so, a minimum of two years later. This led us to assume that he had not survived this period, but the Street Directories of Milwaukee show that the couple had moved to 454 East Holt Avenue by 1941.

We finally traced Lee’s death and have discovered that The Man They Could Not Hang died on the 19 March 1945 at Milwaukee (below: John Lee’s grave).

John Lee grave

Adelina Lee was recorded residing at the same address as the ‘widow of John H’ in 1947.  In actual fact this woman was Adeline Jones (nee: Gibbs) born Penkridge, Staffordshire in 1877. About a year before fleeing Britain with John Lee (and lying to the authorities that she was the real Mrs Lee), Adeline had married the banker William Edward Jones at Litchfield in Staffordshire (see below).

Adeline Gibbs marriage 1910

(below: Adeline “Lee’s” grave).

Adeline Lee grave


The story is not over.

To-date we still have not found out what happened to poor Jessie Augusta Lee (the real Mrs Lee) (nee: Bulled) who so very publicly married John Lee in 1909 (see below, click image to view in full).

John Lee marriage to Jessie Bulled

She was last heard of three years later, dumped by her husband, pregnant and fending for her life with their young children in Lambeth workhouse.

The, so far, incomplete story of this unfortunate woman is almost the bitter conclusion to this story, but not ‘The End’. Until we discover what became of this former Newton Abbot nurse who was fooled by the most infamous Edwardian ‘personality’ – this research remains open.