Last week, I covered the sad case of Gloria Pointer. Gloria was a 14-year-old Cleveland girl who was abducted and murdered on her way to school. This week, we look at the mysterious case of John Lee, a condemned prisoner who survived three execution attempts.
John Lee, Condemned Murderer
John Henry George Lee was born on August 15, 1864, in the English village of Abbotskerswell in the county of Devon. His early life was a mystery, although he was known to have served in the Royal Navy. He also had a reputation as a thief.
In 1884, Lee worked for a woman named Emma Keyse in Babbacombe Bay near the seaside town of Torquay. On November 15, Keyse was killed with a knife, and Lee was charged with murder.
Lee went on trial the following year. There was little evidence against him other than his prior record and an unexplained cut on his arm. However, he was the only male in the house at the time of the crime. Weak as the case was, and despite his claims of innocence, a jury convicted him of murder. His sentence was death by hanging.
They Can’t Hang John Lee
Lee’s execution date of February 23, 1885, arrived, and warders at HM Prison Exeter led him to the gallows. Everything was routine until the executioner, James Berry, pulled the lever to open the scaffold’s trapdoor. The trap failed to open. A puzzled Berry, who had tested the apparatus earlier, tried again, and again the trapdoor refused to open. Berry tried once more with the same result.
At this point, the medical officer refused to participate in further attempts to hang Lee.
Executioner Berry couldn’t explain why the trapdoor failed to open. He describes the incident in detail in his memoir, My Experiences as an Executioner, although he only mentions two attempts.
The Home Office ordered an investigation into the malfunction. It revealed that the drawbar became misaligned when the gallows moved from the old infirmary to the coach house. As a result, the trapdoor hinges did not drop cleanly through.
Home Secretary Sir William Harcourt commuted Lee’s sentence to life in prison. After serving 22 years, the Home Office agreed to release him.
After his release, Lee traded on his celebrity, lecturing on his life and becoming the subject of silent film. His whereabouts after 1916 are murky, but recent research concludes lived in the United States as “James Lee.”
John Henry George Lee died on August 15, 1945.
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