The year was 1884 and, in the month of November, Babbacombe near Torquay in Devon had found itself at the centre of a murder.
The story of John Lee has placed itself among some of the more intriguing cases in crime history. Known as the Man Who Could Not be Hanged, Lee had been charged with the murder of his employer, Emma Keyse, and sentenced to death. Although they attempted to hang him three times, John Lee continued to live, be released from prison and ultimately escape death.
The story of John Lee has circulated far and wide, with many playing the role of detective in the murder at Babbacombe. Some research suggests that perhaps John Lee wasn’t the murderer after all and that he was simply placed in an unfortunate position of having a criminal history.
Some say that the act was done by a local fisherman who held a grudge against Emma Keyse, or perhaps Keyse found her cook, Elizabeth Harris, and the young lawyer and regular visitor to the Glen, Reginald Gwynne Templar in a compromising position.
The evidence for both of these cases is entirely circumstantial, although that does not stop people from wanting to dress up the affair as a series of Whodunnits. Indeed, even back then, the witnesses, police officers and suspect were presented as though characters in a play.
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As with similar stories of gruesome crimes, it is easy to find yourself tangled up in the drama that comes alongside such a horrific event. Britain’s obsession with murder is not a new ideal and nor was it then. Media attention followed by rumour and the nation’s love for the mysterious create a hotspot of sensationalism which ultimately leads to the interest being places on the accused – such as it has with John Lee. The years of research that many have undertaken into this crime only highlights the public’s curiosity with the macabre. But what do we really know about this murder that isn’t rumour or hearsay? Below is an outline of what happened and who was involved:
Born on 15th August 1864, the son of John Lee Sr and Mary Lee. Mary Lee had a child previous to this relationship – the aforementioned Elizabeth Harris. John can be found in naval records as a teenager before being found in the employment of Emma Keyse. He also had a theft conviction in 1883, for which he served hard labour in prison. Following Emma Keyse’s murder and the three failed attempts at hanging, Lee was released from prison, married a woman called Jessie and eventually moved to the USA to start a new life.
Emma Keyse was an elderly spinster who lived at The Glen in Babbacombe. She was, by most accounts, an astutely religious woman and had inherited The Glen from her parents. She kept a small staff – two elderly maids, Eliza and Jane Neck, a cook, Elizabeth Harris, and she also employed John Lee as her butler. It appears as though John Lee had been employed by Keyse for a short while, having come into her employment as a butler – although some accounts label him as footman – following his theft conviction in 1883.
Some accounts of Emma Keyse have her down to be a cold woman. However, this seems to fit the bill of allowing John Lee, or in fact whoever else may have murdered her, some empathy. By restricting Emma Keyse to her strict religious ways, not only do we see her in an unlikable light, but we distance ourselves from her as a human being that took in a man with a known criminal history. Albeit, this may have been to do with her Christian values or in fact that John Lee’s half sister, Elizabeth Harris, was also employed at The Glen as the cook. All the same, failure to recognise the victim as human is something that happens often in the creation of murder sensationalism. Recent research into the lives of victims, rather than adding to the numerous accounts of murderers and serial criminals, is becoming a hot topic possibly to the momentous success of Hallie Rubenhold’s ‘The Five’ which has shed more light on the lives of the women murdered by Jack the Ripper and allowed the readers to open their mind to learning about the plight of those that were murdered.
Emma Keyse’s body was discovered in the early morning of 15th August 1884 at her home. Keyse was found with her throat cut, multiple head injuries and, in the middle of that, someone had attempted to burn down her home with her body inside. Some accounts say that it was Elizabeth Harris, Lee’s sister, that raised the alarm and others say that it was one of the Neck sisters. Either way, being the only known man in the house – they determined that man needed to have the strength to inflict the head wounds – a relatively unexplainable cut to his arm and with insufficient information as to his movements that night, Lee was arrested.
Murder is the subject of great attention and will no doubt continue to be in the future. What can be surmised from the murder at Babbacombe is that there is still some skepticism over whether John Lee committed the murder in the first place and that, as the years go on, pinpointing exactly why Emma Keyse was targeted will become blurred in the attempt to understand the life of John Lee and why he didn’t meet his end when he did. Lee’s failed hangings propelled the Babbacombe murder into the story that is is today but further research into the life of Emma Keyse may help to absolve some of the rumours and would lend a hand in adding rich context to the lives of victims throughout history.