We have to go back more than 100 hundred years to bring you the strange tale of John Lee, but the trip is well worth the effort.
The setting was the picturesque fishing village of Babbacombe on England's Devonshire coast. Miss Emma Ann Keyse, a wealthy spinster, lived there in a comfortable but rather isolated cottage on a cliff facing the sea. She maintained several servants, including two sisters, Eliza and Jane Neck, who had been in her employ for 40 years. Elizabeth Harris had been her cook for two years. She was a half-sister to the footman, 18-year-old John Lee.
John was no angel. He had worked briefly for Emma when he was only 14-years-old, but left to join the Navy. Upon leaving the service, he was employed as an under butler in Torquay, but didn't last long. John was caught stealing the household silver plate and was sentenced to six months imprisonment. Despite his checkered past, Emma took a chance on him for the second time. It is believed she may have been influenced by his half-sister, Elizabeth Harris.
On the night of Friday Nov. 14, 1884, the Keyse home, known as “The Glen,” was occupied by 68-year-old Emma and her four employees. Emma ran a tight ship. Everything was done to a rather strict routine. That Friday night she retired to her bedroom on the second floor, where she read a book for some time. Jane Neck made her mistress a cup of cocoa and left it in the kitchen, as was her custom. Jane then checked the doors and went to her bedroom, which she shared with her sister. Elizabeth Harris was already in bed, as she hadn't been feeling well that day and had retired to her room earlier in the evening. John Lee came home around 11 p.m. and went to bed. He slept on a folding bed on the first floor in the pantry.
Some time after 12:40 a.m., Emma must have picked up her cocoa and returned to her bedroom on the second floor. She prepared for bed, putting on a nightgown and woolen jacket. Emma then left her bedroom for some unknown reason and went downstairs. About two hours later, Elizabeth Harris was awakened by smoke entering her room. She got out of bed and roused the Neck sisters. Eliza ran downstairs through dense smoke. She heard John Lee shout, “What's the matter?” She continued on to the dining room and almost stumbled over Emma's body. John ran from the house, seeking assistance. He found a few fishermen and was soon joined by the Coast Guard. They put out three fires in the house, which had been set with paper and paraffin oil.
Emma Keyse had been murdered and her killer had obviously set several fires in the house, not caring whether he killed all her staff as well. The fires had been quickly extinguished. When someone asked for an axe to chop away damaged rafters, John produced a hatchet, which normally was kept in an outside shed. The hatchet was bloodstained.
Investigators found a half cup of cocoa in Emma's room. They deduced that, after fetching her cocoa and returning to her room, she went downstairs again. From a haircomb and bloodstains found in the hall, it was ascertained that she had been attacked there and dragged from the hall to the dining room. The hatchet produced by John was compared to the wounds on the dead woman's head. They matched perfectly. Emma's throat had been slashed from ear to ear. A search of the kitchen uncovered a blood-smeared table knife in a drawer.
There was no way the murder could have taken place without John's knowledge. A can of paraffin oil was kept in the pantry cupboard within 2 1/2 feet of his bed. The can had been full prior to the murder. Now it lay uncorked and bloodstained. The door of the pantry cupboard could not be opened without disturbing John asleep on the bed.
John was arrested and charged with the murder of Emma Keyse. At the time of his arrest, the lining of his coat was found to be saturated with blood. The coat also reeked of paraffin oil. On Feb. 2, 1885, John Lee stood trial for murder at Exeter. In addition to the physical evidence, Elizabeth Harris testified that there had been bad blood between John and Emma. John had been planning on changing jobs and had threatened Emma if she would not give him a character reference. He told his sister, “If she does not, I will level the house to the ground.” After the English jury deliberated for only 40 minutes, John was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. The sentence was to be carried on Feb. 23, 1885. The hangman arrived in Exeter the day before that fatal date. Although the weather was wet, he conducted all the necessary tests on the scaffold. Everything was in readiness.
The night before he was to die, John confided to the prison chaplain, Rev. John Pitkin, that he had had a dream whereby he stood on the gallows with a rope around his neck when something strange happened which had stayed his execution.
The convicted murderer was led to the scaffold. The hangman placed the rope around his neck as the last words of the burial service were spoken. The bolt was drawn. Nothing happened. The trap door didn't swing open. In fact, it didn't budge. The hangman yanked the bolt a second time, with the same results. He tried again. Absolutely nothing happened.
John was removed from the trap door. The mechanism was oiled. Weights were placed on the door to test it. The bolt was pulled and the trap swung open. Everything worked. Lee, who hadn't winced during the whole exercise, was again placed on the trap door. Rev. Pitkin again commenced praying. The bolt was pulled. Once more, the door failed to open. The assistant hangman gave the door a swift kick. That did no good whatsoever. Later, John would say that he didn't really know what was going on, but figured he was still alive.
For the second time, John was removed. A carpenter was summoned to plane down the edges of the door so it would swing open freely. The door was tested, this time with weights equal to the weight of the condemned man. The bolt was pulled. The trap door swung open and the weights crashed to the ground. Just to be sure, the procedure was repeated. The mechanism worked perfectly.
All was ready. Rev. Pitkin began praying for the third time. John was placed on the trap door. The hangman pulled the bolt. Nothing happened. This time, Rev. Pitkin refused to continue. John, near collapse, was removed from the platform and returned to his cell. That same day he received a reprieve and was sent to prison for an indeterminate length of time.
After spending 23 years in prison, John was released in 1907. He married and emigrated to the United States. John Lee, who became famous as “the man they could not hang,” died of natural causes in 1933.
By MAX HAINES Toronto Sun.
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