What The Media Said

IPN cover completeThere has been a tremendous amount written about this case and a very limited degree of material transmitted in the broadcast media. Here is a very small taste of the vast news collection of items which have been located over the years.

Left: “The murder of a lady near Torquay”. Headline news – 6 December 1884 (click image to see full page in PDF).

‘Format’ feature Westward Television
Was John Lee Guilty ? Herald & Express – 16 March 1936
Remember that John Lee?
Mr. Pike wants to know
The Herald Express – 12 August 1959
New light on murder mystery
Was Lee read the guilty person?
The Herald Express – 15 November 1962
John Lee may not have been a killer The Herald Express – 23 August 1966

‘Format‘, Westward Television Programme

Transmitted in the Westward Television region: 08 February 1972

“Westward Television was the ITV franchise holder for the South West of England from April 1961 until December 1981. A mainly rural region of the country, the South West had no ITV broadcaster before 1961. Based at purpose-built studios at Derry’s Cross in Plymouth, Westward was one of the smallest ITV operators and produced very little output for the UK commercial television network, choosing instead to concentrate on regional programmes of particular interest to the South West’s rural and agricultural communities, as well as regular regional news bulletins. Westward’s flagship news programme was Westward Diary, which went out at 6pm every weekday for the entire duration of the franchise. Westward ceased broadcasting on 31 December 1981, being replaced the following day by TSW (Television South West), which took over the Derry’s Cross studios and retained most of Westward’s staff”.

The following transcript and three images appears courtesy of the South West Film & Television Archive to whom I recommend as a good source of historic material relating to the South West of England. I am grateful for their support and assistance over the years in relation to this project.

Above: ‘Our man in Babbacombe’. Westward Television reporter, Tony Adams, on the scene of the crime, 88 years after the event, for Westward’s regional ‘Format’ programme, transmitted in February 1972.
Above: Bill Shepherd faced the Westward cameras to tell the story of his grandmother’s acquaintance with John Lee. “On one of the occasions that she met him he actually said that I’ll do for the old so and so”.
Above: John Pike, Head Librarian of Torquay. His news articles also appear on this page. “The most fascinating story of all is the story that Berry (the hangman) was got at. This had considerable circulation in St. Marychurch before the execution day. And there was so much money changing hands that in fact there was enough in hand to buy off anybody.”
‘Format‘, Westward Television Programme originally transmitted on Independent Television in the Westward Television region: 08 February 1972Feature Transcript:TONY ADAMS (Westward Television Reporter):The murder happened in a house that faced one of the prettiest beaches in Devon, Babbacombe, or Babbicombe as it was known in those days. The house belonged to Miss Emma Keyse and was called ‘The Glen’ and it stands on what is now the site of this car park.


Miss Keyse lived here with four servants, two maids, a cook and footman John Lee, a young man of rather doubtful character. When Lee entered Miss Keyse service he had already lost several jobs and spent six months in jail for theft. A few days before the murder he had stolen a guitar belonging to Miss Keyse and sold it at a shop in Torquay. The guitar was traced but Miss Keyse did not discharge him perhaps because he was the half brother of the cook, Elizabeth Harris. Instead she reduced his wages from half a crown to two shillings a week.

Towards midnight on Friday November the 14th 1884 the doors of ‘The Glen’ were bolted and the servants went to bed. Lee slept on a bed in the pantry. At about half past three in the morning Elizabeth Harris was awakened by the smell of burning. She ran out of the bedroom and found Lee standing there covered with blood stains. She woke up the other two servants and rushed down stairs. In the dining room she found the body of Miss Keyse. Her throat had been cut, her head battered and she’d been set on fire with paraffin. Someone had started fires with paraffin in three different places. One of the servants, Jane Neck, ran out on the lawn and screamed for help. For some odd reason John Lee smashed one of the windows from outside. He claimed later it was to let out the smoke. He also explained that his blood stained condition was due to cutting his arm on the window. Several men came on the scene including the landlord of the ‘Cary Arms’ next door and helped put out the fire. It was the landlord who asked Lee for a hatchet to cut through a burnt rafter. And Lee produced one that was stained with blood. Later this hatchet was found to fit the wounds in Miss Keyse’s head. It was usually kept outside in the wood shed.

The evidence against Lee looked pretty black. A very sharp blood stained knife was found in a drawer in the pantry where he slept. A paraffin can in a cupboard near his bed was found to be empty and stained with blood. It had been full the day before. Lee claimed that he had been fast asleep and that the women had to wake him up, which was a lie. The next day Lee was arrested on suspicion of murder.

He was tried on February the 2nd in Exeter and there seemed to be no doubt of his guilt. Several people testified that he had uttered threats against Miss Keyse and talked about burning the house down.

TONY ADAMS (Westward Television Reporter):

Bill Shepherd, I believe your Grandmother, who died at the age of eighty nine, knew Lee.

Can you tell me about it?


She knew him quite well actually, her name was Eliza Maile(?) she was the daughter of a Teignmouth or Shaldon horse trader. And she was in service in a house adjoining Miss Keyse house. She described Lee a being a man of quite striking appearance. They used to meet quite frequently on one of the seats on the road up from the beach to the downs. On one of the occasions that she met him he actually said that “I’ll do for the old so and so”. Or words to that effect. He said that he was fed up with being told to do this and do that and he hated the sight of her. She told him not to be so silly and we all know what happened from then on, of course.

TONY ADAMS (Westward Television Reporter):

Do you know how long this was before the murder?


I wouldn’t know exactly but he must have made his mind up to it and I wouldn’t think it was more than a day or so before the murder.

TONY ADAMS (Westward Television Reporter):

Did she see him after the murder?


She saw him once after the murder. Incidentally I think he was character of ill repute. Prior to that because the postman used (used to see?) my grandmother when he saw her on a seat waiting for him. Her mother wouldn’t like her to be mixed up with a character of that sort. She actually saw him, in fact, on the day of the preliminary hearing at St. Marychurch Court House. She went up and stood outside and appeared at the window. He must have been a sort of nervous character because he took the window cord and wound around his neck and gave it a tug and laughter at her. After that she was quickly whisked away and she was sent up to London for three weeks. Presumably by her employers. She certainly didn’t give evidence any way.


The jury returned a verdict of guilty and the judge sentenced him to death. Before he left the dock Lee told the judge “The reason I am so calm and collected is because I trust in the lord and he knows I am innocent.”

TONY ADAMS (Westward Television Reporter):

On February the 23rd a gallows had been built in the yard of Exeter gaol and a hangman called Berry came down from Bradford. Lee was led out, a bag was put over his head, the burial services was read and the hangman pulled the lever. Nothing happened. They moved Lee off the trap, tried it and it opened. They stood him back on again, put the bag over his head again and pulled the lever. Nothing happened. So this time they moved Lee off the trap and took him back into the gaol. The carpenters got to work on the trap door with a saw and plane, tested it with a bag (filled with concrete or something) — this time it worked. So they took Lee back put him on the trap door again, pulled the lever – again nothing happened. So this time they took Lee back into the gaol and the carpenters settled down to work again. It was quite late in the day when the Prison governor suddenly decided that Lee had probably had enough and contact the Home Secretary.

The Home Secretary commuted the sentence to life imprisomnent. Lee spent the next twenty two years in gaol. He said that he was kept there so long because he talked about murdering the prosecuting counsel and his half sister when he came out. But he did nothing of the sort.

He returned to Babbacombe in 1907 and later became a publican for a short time. Later he went to America where he died in about 1930. To the end of his life he maintained he was innocent of the murder of Miss Keyse. And there were very few people who can study the evidence and still believe that he was innocent. But there is a student of local history who believes Lee was innocent, Mr. Pike the Head Librarian of Torquay.


The evidence is circumstantial and there is some doubt in my mind whether in fact a modern, court of law would of convicted him on that evidence.

TONY ADAMS (Westward Television Reporter):

But assuming that he was innocent, who could of committed the murder?


There is one story, and it was repeated here that there was a mad party in ‘The Glen’ in the early hours of the morning and that while Lee was involved and his half sister that in fact he did not strike the fatal blow.

TONY ADAMS (Westward Television Reporter):

As far as I can see, an interesting point to this story is, first of all, that the servants were in the house the whole evening. So how could there have been a mad party in the house? Second, the doors were locked and the doors were not open until after the murder when Jane Neck went out on to the lawn. It seems to me, that surely, if someone in the house did do the murder, apart from Lee, the only other person could have been, for example, Elizabeth Harris, his half sister.


Well, now this is another version of the story. It first appears, as far as I can find out, as early as 1887 in a Midlands newspaper, which I am afraid I cannot identify any further. It says “It is reported that lately that one of the other servants died and before her death confessed to having her guilt.” That appeared there and then it appeared again in Lloyds Weekly News just after the turn of the century. The story there runs as follows. “Convicts advance the fact that Lee’s exceptionally good conduct in prison. His sister confessing the crime on her death bed as circumstances in favour of an early release.”

But it is what is more interesting is a letter, which I have a photostat here, so there is no doubt at all of it’s authenticity, sent from his address in Abbotskerswell which Lee, in his own handwriting says “I am going to London trying to find out about the confession of the cook, I do hope I can trace it back.”

TONY ADAMS (Westward Television Reporter):

Of course Lee did always claim to the very end that he was innocent. In fact he also claimed of course that the reason that the trap did not work was that he was innocent. Why do you think that the trap didn’t work?


Well, there’s a story that the prison carpenters made the mechanism is the prison work shop and they cunningly devised a little flange which, when the normal tests were made (they used sacks), then it worked normally. But as soon as a man’s weight was placed on it, it conveniently locked. This is one story.

TONY ADAMS (Westward Television Reporter):

What Berry actually says is in his account of it is: “The trap doors were placed in the coach house which is flagged with stones. On inspecting these doors I found that they were only about an inch thick. But to have been constructed properly should have been three or four inches thick. The iron work of the doors was of a frail kind and much to weak for the purpose”. And he ends by saying “It had rained heavily during the nights of Saturday and Sunday.” Implying the wood could have swollen. What do you think of that?


If you read his own life story, which he too wrote later, in fact he admitted that he didn’t inspect the mechanism again on Monday before the actual execution took place.

But perhaps the most fascinating story of all is the story that Berry was got at. This had considerable circulation in St. Marychurch before the execution day. And there was so much money changing hands that in fact there was enough in hand to buy off anybody. Now, this sounds sensational. It sounds far fetched. But in fact my source was an absolutely impeccable one, a gentleman of the legal profession, who in fact set up in practice only a few years after the murder took place.


The Following Courtesy of Herald Express Publications Ltd, Torquay

Herald & Express – 16 March 1936

The Man They Could Not Hang
Was John Lee Guilty ?

“For over half a century the world has thought that John Lee committed the Babbacombe Murder, although he declared to the court: “I am innocent”. To-night, for the first time, the Herald & Express is able to reveal John Lee’s own story of what happened on that terrible night. He had served over twenty years in prison, and as his crime was expiated in the eyes of the law, he stood to gain nothing by lying.”

“With the death of the late to Mr. Isidore James Carter, the well-known solicitor, of Torquay, who passed away at the advanced age of 87, there disappeared the last personal link with the notorious Babbacombe murder. Mr Carter was the prosecuting solicitor, and it was largely due to his own investigations on the spot that John Lee was arrested and accused of the murder. It was largely to Mr Carter that his conviction was due.

We reveal the story — which will prove that in truth fact is stranger than fiction — on the authority of a man whose name is respected by every citizen of Torquay, but who, for obvious reasons, cannot be identified. Nor, for equally obvious reasons, can any other names would be mentioned, for although none of the principal characters now survives, there may be descendants to whom pain might be caused.

Everybody has heard of John Lee, the man they could not hang, and some inhabitants of the district may have remembered seeing him after his release from prison. A lot of people in Torquay can point out the spot at Babbacombe where the Glen — the house where the murder was committed — stood, but the details of the murder are not well-known to the present generation and must be recited to allow of a proper understanding of the new revelations that we are to make.

John Henry George Lee, whose mother lived at Abbotskerswell, was a young man aged 20 years when, in 1884, he became the centre of worldwide interest. He had been a wild young man. Miss Keyse, a kindly lady whose home was at the Glen, Babbacombe, took a friendly interest in him. He was first employed by her as a page. Even then he was constantly in trouble, but she continued to take an interest in him and got him into the Navy, but after two years they were glad to be rid of him. He seemed unable to stay in any employment. Once he was a porter at Torre station that proved unsatisfactory. After that he entered of the service of Col. Brownlow, but stole his plate and went to prison.

Knowing all this, Miss Keyse, like the devout Christian lady she was, took him back again, all the while looking for better posts for him. His nominal position in the household was that of Butler. The other members of staff were two elderly maids and a young woman named Elizabeth Harris — a half sister of John Lee — who was cook.

On the morning of November 15th, 1884, one of the elderly maids smelled something burning. This was about four o’clock in the morning. She was at once called out and John Lee immediately asked her what was the matter. He then at once appeared, wearing his socks and trousers. At that time the whole place was full of smoke and she could not get down the stairs. He went to her assistance. He held her with his right hand. Later, bloodstains were found on her nightdress where he had touched her in giving assistance.

The maid urged Lee to run to the Cary Arms, just across the road, for help. The Glen stood on the corner of the present Babbacombe Court pleasure ground, facing the beach. But Lee was in no hurry to go. He first walked around the house and when the maid went into the dining-room she found the windows had been broken.

Lee told her he had broken them to let out the smoke. The prosecution alleged that he had deliberately put his fist through the windows to cut his hand so as to be able to account for the bloodstains. But although it was his left hand and arm which had been cut it was from his right hand and arm that the blood came which found its way to the nightdress of the maid who aroused the household.

Finally Lee went across to the Cary arms and summoned help, and coastguards and fishermen came at once to put out the flames. It was then the found that no fewer than five fires had been started in different places, and the whole place was reeking with the smell of paraffin. Later it was proved that nearly a gallon of paraffin had been used to help the fire, in spite of which it did not burned furiously.

In the dining-room was found the body of Miss Keyse. There were wounds on her head, evidently caused by a chopper, her throat was cut. Newspapers had been piled on her body and the whole had been set alight.

It was Lee who went to Torquay to report the matter to the police.

In a drawer they found a bloodstained towel. In another drawer a bloodstained knife. It was obvious that whoever had committed to crime must have been inside the house when the fire was discovered, because all the doors were locked and all the windows were fastened. In the circumstances is not surprising that suspicion fell on the Lee.

At the trial a police witness swore that Lee declared to him, referring to Miss Keyse: “now she is dead they won’t know how it occurred.” His half sister testified against him. She told the court that Lee had told her he intended to set fire to the house and sit on the hill and watch it burn.

The evidence called went to show that Lee went to bed at 11 o’clock PM and the cook and the elderly maids also retired before Miss Keyse, who was writing after midnight in the dining-room, where she was served a couple of cocoa. That cocoa was only half consumed. She was the night attire when found.

Lee was not permitted to give evidence on his own behalf and had no witnesses. He told police that he heard nothing after he retired until he was awakened by the maid shouting “fire.” The oil was kept in a cupboard behind his bed and whoever took the tin must have reached over his bed and disturbed him. But he declared that he heard nobody fetching the oil. And he was wide awake and dressed when the alarm was raised.

The position may be summed up as under:

Points against Lee

  • He was obviously lying about the window and the oil.
  • The blood from his right hand made a stain before he broke the window.
  • The window was broken with his left hand.
  • The blow which struck Miss Keyse was struck by a man.
  • Lee was the only man in the house.
  • Nobody had broken into the house.

Points in Favour of Lee

  • Lee stood to gain nothing by the death of Miss Keyse.
  • On the contrary, she was then giving him employment when nobody else would take him and he stood to lose very heavily by her death.
  • There was nothing of considerable value in the house.
  • Nothing had been stolen from the house.

At the trial Lee’s the counsel, Mr. St. Aubyn, addressing the jury, said that at first blush the case was one of the gravest and strongest suspicion against the prisoner, but it was purely one of circumstantial character. Proceeding, he pointed out that the cook was expecting to become a mother, and must have had a lover. He suggested there was nothing to show that is another might not have been the murderer, and although the cook herself might know nothing of the actual deed she would have the greatest inducement to screen her lover, supposing he was the murderer. It will be remembered that the cook was the half sister of Lee who gave evidence against him.

When the jury returned a verdict of “guilty” Lee merely protested that he was innocent. Then the judge proceeded to deliver the sentence. He entirely agreed with the jury. He commented on the calm demeanour of the prisoner throughout the trial and he continued: “he is calm at this moment.”

After sentence Lee put his hands on the rail of the dock, and in a perfectly level voice said: “I am calm, my lord, because of my trust in the lord and because I am innocent.”

On February 11th, 1885, 12 days before the date fixed for his execution, Lee wrote to his sister. In the course of a long letter he said:

“There is no doubt that the truth will come out after I am dead. It must be some very hard hearted persons to let me die for nothing … they have not told six words of truth, that is the servants, and that lovely stepsister, who carries her character with her.”

A few days before the date of the execution he was visited in prison by the Reverend V. Hine, Vicar of Abbotskerswell, and to him Lee stated that he desired to make a statement implicating at least two other people. The Vicar advised him to make his statement in writing and Lee told his sister, who visited him, that he intended to do so. He told her the names he intended to mention. It is believed he did send a statement to the Home Secretary, but a petition for a reprieve was rejected.

It was stated after the death sentence had been commuted to one of penal servitude for life, that before he went to the scaffold he left a written statement, covering two pages, mentioning the name of a woman and some other person. The statement made by the executioner Berry and reported later in this article proves that no such declaration was made by Lee.

The particulars of the three attempts to hang Lee at Exeter prison are generally known. It is not so well known, however, that the horrible proceedings occupied half an hour and that while warders stamped on the trap Lee stood unflinchingly waiting for death, or that he stood on one side while they made the trap work before making another attempt. At the end of half an hour he showed signs of fainting and was taken back to his cell. The under-sheriff went by train to London to report the circumstances to the Home Secretary, who ordered that the sentence be altered to one of penal servitude for life. This sentence was, normally, 20 years. Lee served 22.

While in prison Lee said he had a vision on the night before the date fixed for the execution. An angel, he said, told him he need have no fear and that he would not be executed as he was innocent. He protested his innocence throughout. As he went to the scaffold he said he was not responsible for the death of Miss Keyse.

When he was released, on December 18th, 1907, he returned to Abbotskerswell, where his mother lived, and he was a very good to her. Two years later he married a mental nurse at Newton Abbot. He died in the United States.

These are the facts which the world knows. We are now about to reveal facts which the world does not yet know.

About the year 1890 there stood at the side of an open grave, in a South Devon town, a well-known and local resident and his two sons. The man who had been buried was a public man of the town who had been very well-known, highly respected and very popular throughout South Devon. The young men were, also, in their turn, to become public men in the area. As they were moving away from the grave and the mourners were disbursing their father turned to them and said “we have buried this afternoon the secret of the Babbacombe murder.”

At the time they did not realise the significance of their father’s remark. It was nearly 20 years before they did, but long before that they were aware that their father knew a good many of the secrets of the dead man.

By an amazing coincidence John Lee himself gave them the explanation when he was released from prison.

Lee knew nothing of that funeral when the two young men stood at the open grave. He did not know that the brothers, to whom he went on his release, knew of the existence of a man who had been buried. All he knew was that he felt he had been suffering under the grave injustice for 22 years, he wanted to obtain the redress, and he had decided to talk the matter over with the two men — to have their advice as to what to do to get satisfaction.

The story he told them explained their father’s remark about the secret of the Babbacombe murder and their surprise as the facts were unfolded can be better imagined then described.

He started by declaring that he was not the Babbacombe murderer but that he knew who was, and that he had shielded him for over 20 years, only to discover, on his release from prison, that the murderer was dead.

The name of the murderer he gave. It was the name of the man at whose graveside the men on the opposite side of the table had stood.

Lee went on to explain what happened. The man in question was, he said, well-known to everybody for his public activities. He was much respected. Everybody knew him. What everybody did not know was that he was “carrying on” with a young woman who was known to Lee, and who had access to the servants quarters at the Glen. Thus it was that, with the assistance of Lee, the man in question had arranged a supper party for himself and the woman, and for Lee and another girl, in the kitchen of the Glen on the night of November 15, 1884.

Everything went well. The household was in bed and the party “below stairs” was proving a great success. Apparently they must have made more noise than they bargained for, because some time after midnight, without any warning, the door was thrown open and there stood Miss Keyse in her dressing gown. It was a dramatic moment as described by Lee. He declared that Miss Keyse was livid with the rage. She ordered them out of the house and told Lee to fetch the police.

High words followed. If the police came on the scene the public career of the man who had arranged the party was at an end. Lee at did not know what to do. His own future was anything but bright. Miss Keyse, in a rage, smacked the face of the man. There was a scuffle and a struggle. The man picked up a chopper and the next thing Lee knew was that Miss Keyse was lying dead on the floor.

Naturally everybody was very panic stricken, but according to his own account, Lee kept his head. His idea was that they should make it appear that there had been an attempt to burgle the house and that they should set the place on fire. He argued that, with a thatched roof and the house in such an isolated position, fire would wipe out all traces of what had happened before the flames could be extinguished.

Lee had a very carefully prepared the story that was to be told, and as he was to be the only individual who was to tell any story he did not imagine there would be very much difficulty about it.

So the stage was set. The body was removed to the dining-room, where it was found, the midnight visitors went away, Lee soaked the place with paraffin and in due course set it alight and retired to the bedroom he put his hand through the dining-room window after he was aroused by the cries of the maid who had smelled the fire, and, in so doing cut his arm.

Lee explained how he went to give the alarm at the Cary Arms and afterwards to tell the police about the discovery of Miss Keyse body. He carefully told the story he had prepared and, having told it, never budged from a detail. Even when it was shown that the window was broken from the outside and not the inside he did not tried to explain it. He protested from beginning to end that he did not kill Miss Keyse and even now, after he had completed his sentence, he was here again declaring his innocence through confessing that part he played in the proceedings.

He did not explain who cut Miss Keyse throat.

It was the sole survivor of all the people referred to in this article who told these facts to a Herald and Express reporter and he gave some further particulars.

The man concerned, and who was declared by Lee to be the murderer of Miss Keyse, was known, says our informant, to have been critically ill for a long time after the murder, although nobody at the time — or ever — associated him with the crime. As a matter of fact, he never really recovered, and gradually became demented. He died in a mentally unbalanced condition.

The few people had the slightest idea that he even knew Lee, or Miss Keyse, or the Glen.

But there were a few who knew something, and when, in his madness, he shouted things which the doctors put down in to his state of mind, there were one or two people — our informant’s father was one — who knew what he was referring to, and what had driven him insane.

It was also, said our informant, afterwards discovered that the money for the defence of Lee was provided by the man in question.

Over 20 years ago the writer of this article had occasion to interview James Berry, the executioner, and asked him whether Lee made any statement to him. This is what Berry replied:

“When I went into the cell to pinion him I said: “Well, Lee, do you want to say anything?” Lee shook his head. Then he tapped his breast over his heart and went on: “what I know about this business will remain there. I am innocent.””

Obviously, if even after this lapse of time, names cannot be mentioned, but there is no question whatever that the statements referred to in this article were made by Lee and the other persons mentioned and if Lee spoke the truth — and the other events seem to prove that there was more than “something” in what he said — it looks as though after all this time the world has come to know what really happened at the Glen that night in November over 50 years ago.”

Courtesy of Herald Express Publications Ltd, Torquay


The Herald Express -12th August 1959

Remember that John Lee?
Mr. Pike wants to know

What happened to John Lee, “the man that they could not hang” after he left Britain more than 50 years ago?

One person who is particularly anxious to find out this, and to make contact with anyone who has personal memories of Lee, is Mr. John Pike, the deputy librarian at Torquay. He has long been interested in Lee as a man, and in his trial, and is continuing extensive research.

There has never been a comprehensive biography of Lee, who was convicted of the murder at Babbacombe, Torquay, although there has been a booklet about him.

On February 4th, 1885, Lee was convicted of the murder of his employer, Miss Keyse, at the Glen, Babbacombe, and was sentenced to die in 19 days later, at Exeter prison. But he went to the gallows three times, and three times the trap failed to work.

Lee’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, and he was released on December 18, 1907. He married Jessie Bulled, a mental nurse at Newton Abbot Workhouse, and went to Durham, and then America.

“To all intents, he then disappeared,” said Mr Pike. “From then on no one seems to know anything else about him.”

Lee was invalided out of the Navy and worked with the railway — being for a time at Torre station — before entering domestic service, first in the Warberries and then at Babbacombe.

Mr Pike has already contacted two people in Torquay who could reminisce, to some extent, about Lee, but feels there must be others, and would like them to get in touch with him.

The Glen no longer stands, but its site is still in use as a car park, and the garden room is now part of the Babbacombe Beach cafe.

Courtesy of Herald Express Publications Ltd, Torquay


The Herald Express – 15 November 1962

New light on murder mystery
Was Lee read the guilty person?

Seventy-eight years ago today a murder was committed at Babbacombe.

Later the murder, and the man held responsible, became world-famous when the condemned man escaped his sentence.

The man was John Lee, and ever since February 23rd, 1885 (the date of fixed for his execution), Lee has been known as “the man they could not hang”.

Three times Lee was led to the scaffold for the murder of Miss Emma Keyse, and on each occasion the trap failed to work.

After a fire

Lee, then aged 22 was a footman to Miss Keyse, who lived at the Glen, Babbacombe.

One morning the house was found to be on fire and Lee gave the alarm. The blaze was put out by coastguards and fishermen. Inside the house the body off Miss Keyse was found. Her skull had been fractured and her throat cut.

Lee was arrested, tried, and condemned. Throughout his trial he protested his innocence, and when the scaffold “drop” would not work after three attempts, his sentence was commuted to one of penal servitude for life.

Because it was alleged that Lee had issued threats against people while imprisoned, he was not released after the customary 20 years. Finally, he was freed on December 18, 1907, after nearly 23 years.

Went to America

He returned to South Devon, and married a mental nurse at Newton Abbot. They went to Durham and then went to America, where it is believed, the died in the 1933.

Few people at the time of the trial and after subsequent happenings doubted that Lee was guilty. In the eyes of many people he had somehow cheated justice.

The Torquay Borough Librarian (Mr J.Pike) has been trying to solve the mystery of what happened to Lee after he left this country.

In 1959 the Herald Express published an article about Mr Pike’s research, which was taken up by newspapers in other parts of the country.

As a result Mr. Pike and received information from people all over Britain. All of it appeared to be speculation.

“Got at”

But a local man came forward with information, not about Lee’s whereabouts after his release, but about the abortive hanging.

The name of Mr. Pike’s informant cannot be revealed, but this man was fully convinced that the hangman was “got out at”.

This was thought to be impossible, as Lee’s parents were yeoman farmers at Abbotskerswell.

Gradually Mr. Pike obtained more information. It seems that on the night of the murder three or four men, including Lee, were entertaining women at the Glen when Miss Keyse interrupted them.

Apparently one of the party was a “dealer” in silver and in a position to pay in the hang man.

Mr. Pike said he did not think that Lee was totally innocent of the crime, but he thought that someone else could have struck the blow and paid Lee to “carry the can”, assuring him that he would not hang. This could have been the dealer.

Before trial

Mr. Pike said that his research had shown that Lee was publicly condemned even before his trial.

Newspapers at the time blackened his character, and on the jury were people from Torquay, who were fully aware of the facts and the biased opinions of the town.

In their own minds Lee was guilty before the trial was over, and the rest of the jury was swayed by their knowledge of the facts.

According to Mr Pike, there is little doubt that Lee was at the house, but it was highly possible that he did not commit the crime.

The belief that the hang man, James Berry, was “influenced” is perhaps borne out by the fact that nothing was found to be wrong with the mechanism of the scaffold, and that it worked perfectly immediately before and after the attempts to hang Lee.

Courtesy of Herald Express Publications Ltd, Torquay

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The Herald Express – 23rd August 1966

John Lee may not have been a killer

John Lee, “the man they could not hang,” may not have been guilty of the murder of Miss Emma Keyse at Babbacombe 80 years ago. This is one of the points brought out by the Torquay Borough librarian (Mr J. R. Pike) in a talk to Torquay rotary club at the YMCA yesterday.

Lee was convicted of the November 1884 murder at a Babbacombe house (now demolished) called the Glen, but although he was taken to the scaffold at Exeter prison three times, the trap would not work although it operated perfectly when he was not standing on it. He served 22 years in gaol and on his release married a nurse from Newton Abbot workhouse and went to America.

Fresh light

Mr Pike read from a Herald Express article of 30 years ago which carried the revelations putting a fresh light of the case. Lee, he said, had maintained his innocence and after his release had named as the murderer, a man who had been buried in a local churchyard about ten years after the crime.

“Although I can never mentioned the name I have been told by two different people of the name of the person who could have committed the murder,” said Mr Pike yesterday.

Emphasising the different attitude towards accused people in the 19th century Mr Pike, who has made a special study of the John Lee case, said the man was convicted even before he was tried. The then vicar of St Marychurch had referred in the pulpit to him as a heartless cold-blooded, stealthy murderer. That vicar was also a member of the coroner’s jury for the inquest on Miss Keyse.

“The local paper went to town in the 19th century manner.” added Mr Pike, “describing him as he stood before the magistrates it said, “his lower jaw protruding and drops, he has thick lips and a half open mouth. There is a peculiarity about the eyes. They lack lustre and expression and are such as may be met with being in a lunatic asylum.””


Actually, said Mr Pike, photographs of Lee taken after his release showed a small, lean, clean shaven man.

His trial was not all it should have been and Mr Pike did not think the judge was justified in saying that the jury had reached their verdict “of evidence so conclusive” that he could not entertain any doubts about its correctness.

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