1943: Sophie Scholl of the White Rose 1613: Ivan Susanin, a life for the tsar

1885: Not John “Babbacombe” Lee, the man they could not hang

February 23rd, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1885, a most inexplicable thing occurred on the gallows of Exeter.

It was there that John Lee, nicknamed “Babbacombe”, made his peace with his maker and faced hanging for the murder of an elderly spinster a few months before.

Lee still protested his innocence. He was not generally believed.

We’ll let Charles Hoy Fort, that renowned chronicler of the impossible, take it from here*:

It was a scene of the mechanism and solidity of legal procedure, as nearly real as mechanism and solidity can be.

Noose on his neck, and up on the scaffold they stood him on a trap door. The door was held in position by a bolt. When this bolt was drawn, the door fell —

John Lee, who hadn’t a friend, and hadn’t a dollar —

The Sheriff of Exeter, behind whom was Great Britain.

The Sheriff waved his hand. It represented Justice and Great Britain.

The bolt was drawn, but the trap door did not fall. John Lee stood with the noose around his neck.

It was embarrassing. He should have been strangling. There is something of an etiquette in all things, and this was indecorum. They tinkered with the bolt. There was no difficulty. whatsoever, with the bolt: but when it was drawn, with John Lee standing on the trap door, the door would not fall.

Something unreasonable was happening. Just what is the procedure, in the case of somebody, who is standing erect, when he should be dangling?

Three times they made the attempt. Three times the door failed to open — even though the apparatus performed perfectly when tested without the prisoner.

Lee was returned to his cell by the bewildered authorities, and Home Secretary William Vernon Harcourt commuted his sentence to penal servitude.

Eventually released in 1907, John Lee milked his bizarre celebrity by giving public declamations of his unaccountably aborted Calvary — and continued to maintain his innocence.

After this mighty stroke of — well, was it divine intervention? — that claim carried a lot more weight. Lee’s innocence is hardly an established fact, but the circumstantial nature of the evidence against him looks much weaker now than it did in 1885. The BBC’s Inside Out even speculates that Lee’s own lawyer did the deed.

But does one really care, by now? The principals are long dead and buried. What remains is that brief and timeless encounter with the uncanny.

The British band Fairport Convention cast a look back on Babbacombe Lee with an entire 1971 album.

There’s also a 2001 book, The Man They Could Not Kill (nothing to do with the Boris Karloff movie of the same title), whose online promotional site offers a bounty of information about the case.

* From Fort’s book Wild Talents.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Executions Survived,Hanged,History,Murder,Not Executed,Pardons and Clemencies,Pelf,Popular Culture,The Supernatural,Wrongful Executions

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6 thoughts on “1885: Not John “Babbacombe” Lee, the man they could not hang”

  1. KELVIN CHIFULUMO says:

    That was God’s justice we should learn

  2. ron adair says:

    the trap door had been repaired before the hanging and had been made from unseasoned lumber so that when there was no weight on the trap it operated ok but when weighted the unseasoned wood moved sufficiently to block it against its frame !! THis is the first comment I have made !!!

  3. ron adair says:

    the trap door had been repaired before the hanging and had been made from unseasoned lumber so that when there was no weight on the trap it operated ok but when weighted the unseasoned wood moved sufficiently to block it against its frame !!

  4. Steve says:

    They should have tried it with someone else standing on the trap door. :D

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