May 7, 2013


Throughout the past 100 years, the myths surrounding John 'Babbacombe' Lee's story have taken on a life of their own.

Urban legends, ghostly sightings and tales of supernatural intervention have grown far beyond what anybody in 19th century South Devon could have imagined for the lowly manservant.

Lee, nicknamed The Man They Could Not Hang, came to prominence when he was convicted of murdering his employer, Emma Keyse, and setting fire to her Babbacombe home, called The Glen.

Mike Holgate, of Torquay, an expert on John Lee, said: 
During his trial, the prosecution portrayed Lee as a depraved lunatic capable of smashing an old lady's head with an axe, then slashing her throat with a knife. 
The judge, in passing sentence of death, remarked how calm Lee's demeanor had been throughout the trial. 
Lee is said to have leaned forward in the dock and replied firmly: "The reason why I am so calm is that I trust in the Lord, and He knows I am innocent." 
In the days leading up to the date of execution, Lee read the Bible prodigiously and proclaimed his innocence. 
It is said he told the prison chaplain the real culprit was the lover of his half-sister, Elizabeth Harris, who was cook at The Glen and expecting a child which was later delivered out of wedlock in Newton Abbot Workhouse.
The prison governor's logbook states on the morning of the execution, as Lee approached the gallows trapdoor, he told two prison guards he had dreamt "three times the bolt was drawn, and three times the bolt failed to act."

Lee was a lonely figure on the gallows — but each time an attempt was made to open the trapdoor, it stuck. After each failed attempt the trapdoor was tested and it opened normally, but when Lee stood on it again the door would not open. Three times this happened, each with the same outcome. It is rumoured that throughout the ordeal on the scaffold, a white dove perched on the gallows until the condemned man was led safely back to his prison cell.

The Home Secretary told Parliament he could not expect a man to "twice face the pangs of imminent death." Lee began a 23-year prison sentence in Exeter, and from that day the myths about his life spread across the world. Witchcraft and devilish incantations were often talked of when people tried to reason Lee's escape from death. Friends of Lee claimed they had paid a white witch handsomely to save him from the noose.

Other people told stories of how Lee's mother had visited the church graveyard near her home at Abbotskerswell, recited the Lord's Prayer backwards and summoned the Devil to save her son. Also, an old woman called Granny Lee, from Ogwell, is said to have told locals 'they shall not hang him' as she walked to Exeter on the morning of the execution and cast a spell on the gallows from a spot overlooking the prison.

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