Old stories of last minute reprieves for condemned prisoners on the scaffold are legend. Gallows protocol had it that if the hangman was unable to execute his victim after three attempts, the prisoner was allowed to live. This is what happened at the Exeter jail in England in February 1885. John Lee escaped the hangman’s noose and lived to tell his tale to many a fellow prisoner and astonished journalists for years after.
Not many criminals who have been condemned to die survive to describe the awful experience of mounting the scaffold – but there were a few. An inefficient executioner, chopping a head off with an axe, had very little option but to carry on if the first blow did not achieve its intended swift purpose. With a hanging, if the rope broke, the scaffold collapsed or the trap door failed to open, a second or even third attempt could be carried out or abandoned altogether. In the rough and ready days of hangings, when some hangmen were not as professional as others, hangings were often botched. It became a tradition that if the victim survived three attempts as being hanged, he would be reprieved. On some occasions he was granted his freedom but more often he had his sentence commuted to life imprisonment.
In November 1884 John Lee was a servant in Babbacombe, Devon, when his employer, a Miss Keyse, was savagely beaten to death. Lee, protesting his innocence all the while, was convicted of her murder and condemned to death in February 1885. On the day appointed for his execution he was bound and blindfolded by the hangman, James Berry, and led out from his cell. The hanging was to take place in the coach house. Instead of a scaffold there was a pit in the floor, some 11 feet deep, covered by trap doors and operated by a lever.
Lee was positioned over the doors, the noose about his neck. He was calm and dignified. Asked if he had anything to say, he replied “No – drop away!”. He held his breath, clenched his teeth and prepared to die. Berry pulled the lever and, to gasps of astonishment from the prison officials, nothing happened. Berry kept pulling – but still nothing. Lee had the noose removed from his neck and was led away into the next room while the trap doors were tested. They seemed to work well, with no-one on them. Lee was brought back and again prepared to meet his maker. Again the executioner tugged at the lever and once again the trap doors refused to drop away. The officials decided to postpone the execution again, but Lee – perhaps with a traditional reprieve in mind – insisted on a third attempt. The lever was pulled but again to no avail.
The prison chaplain could bear it no longer and decided to leave. An execution had to be witnessed by the chaplain and without him the proceedings had to be stopped anyway. Lee was led away to his cell to wait the whole day in dreadful uncertainty. Late that evening the governor visited him. The message as that he was to live. He was officially reprieved and had his sentence commuted to a life term. There were no more such reprieves; the prison authorities learned their lesson from the incident at Exeter and built their scaffolds with more care. John Lee spent 23 years in jail, before walking out a free man in 1907. He then disappeared into obscurity, and is believed to have died under the name “James Lee” in the United States in 1945.
This website is an excellent overview of the murder at Babbacombe, and the botched execution.
The source for this blog post was “The Guinness Book of Lasts”, by Christopher Slee, Guinness Publishing, Enfield, England, 1994, p. 48-49