In November 1884, Ellen Keyse was found dead in the pantry of her hangingExeter, England, home. She had been beaten and her throat had been cut. John Lee, who worked for the wealthy victim was charged with the crime. The 19-year-old was found guilty and was sentenced to be hanged on February 23, 1885.

On the day of his comeuppance, Lee was led to the gallows, where his executioners placed a noose around his neck. They pulled the lever that would release the floor under him and drop him to his death. The big oops: John Lee was not dispatched — red faces all around. The apparatus had been thoroughly tested the previous day and had been in fine working order. They tried once again. Nothing. And again. Still a no-go. Flabbergasted, they returned Lee to his prison cell, while they pondered the situation.

The authorities remained mystified, so they did what authorities often do when mystified. They attributed the malfunction to an act of God, and rather than risk God’s anger, they commuted his sentence and removed him from death row. He spent 22 years in prison, and upon being released, promptly set sail for America.




2 thoughts on “February 23, 1885: Hanging Around in England

  1. I see that his story was made into the first folk rock opera, “‘Babbacombe’ Lee” in 1977 by the folk group “Fairport Convention”.

    There is also a book, “The Man They Could Not Hang” about his life.

    Both the folk rock opera and the book claim his innocence, but isn’t it always the case that the butler (his job for Ellen Keyse) did it?

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