By Denis J. Hickey
Although the event occurred over one hundred and thirty years ago at Exeter Prison, ‘the man they could not hang’ is still a source of animated discussion. Was the man in question, John Henry George Lee, actually guilty of the murder for which he had received the death sentence? Learned opinion would later cast doubts as to his guilt.
On the morning of November 15th, 1884, horrified occupants of the hamlet of Babbacombe, Devon, learned of the violent death of a respected member of their community, Mrs Emma Anne Whitehead Keyse.
A former Maid of Honour and friend of Queen Victoria, Mrs Keyse had lived in ‘The Glen’ along with servants, sisters Jane and Eliza Neck, cook Elizabeth Harris, and her half-brother, footman and handyman, John Lee. Lee had worked at ‘The Glen’ on leaving school until he left to join the navy in 1879. Discharged under an invalidity clause, he found employment in Torquay, but was imprisoned for theft from his employer.
A deeply religious woman, Mrs Keyse took pity on the unemployed Lee following his prison release and employed him as a footman, paying him four shillings per week.
Suspicion for the brutal murder soon fell upon Lee – mainly because of his earlier conviction. When the police arrived, Lee confided to a constable “I have lost my best friend.”
The evidence was largely circumstantial; Lee was (apparently) the only male in the house at the time; he had a cut on his arm which he explained was due to him breaking a window to let out the smoke from the crude attempt to burn Mrs Keyse’s body. His blood-stained clothing, he explained, was from the wound to his arm.