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There are as many theories about why his execution went so badly wrong as can be invented and there have been many subsequent attempts to solve the riddle through films, TV programmes, books and articles.


John Lee was originally condemned to death for the murder of his elderly employer, a Miss Keyse, who lived, together with a small staff of live-in servants, including John Lee's sister,  in a pretty house almost on the beach at Babbacombe, in Torquay.


After his reprieve by the Home Secretary, he  remained in custody for 23 years, finally being released in 1907 from the prison on the Isle of Portland. He then made the journey to Abbotskerswell - the village where he was born -  to see his mother, Mary Lee,  who was still living there.

One local reporter got wind of his plans and followed him tenaciously and his newspaper published this, the most definitive account of his movements, on 20 December 1907:


"No one in Abbotskerswell, a village near Newton Abbot,  was aware on Wednesday that John Lee had returned home to his aged mother's cottage. A cab was seen to drive into the village during the afternoon and it pulled up a few doors away. From it, two ladies and a gentleman alighted, the latter carrying a small black bag. They went straight to Mrs Lee's cottage, but beyond that, the unsuspecting villagers attached no further importance to the visit although it was unusual for Mrs Lee to have any callers.


Our representative called on Mrs Lee in the evening and she quickly answered his knock, but no sooner had she opened the door, and before there was any chance of saying anything to her, she said, as if in anticipation of the question about to be put to her, " I have nothing to say and you can't come inside." Mrs Lee had carefully drawn a curtain behind her before opening the door and this cut off an open peep into the kitchen where John was, presumably, sitting by the fireside. "I don't wish to come inside, said our reporter " but I should . . . . " Mrs Lee did not wait for him to complete his sentence. She interrupted with the observation " I shan't say anything". The old lady, although it was plain that she did not wish to be interviewed, had an evidently more delighted expression than had been seen on her face for many a year. Our reporter, not wishing to trouble her further under the circumstances, congratulated her on her son being restored to her again after so many years and held out his hand to bid her "Good evening", She feelingly observed as she grasped it, "Thank you, sir. They kept him too long - a lot longer than they ought to have done."

It was gleaned in the village that someone saw a man arrive in a cab. The porter at Kingskerswell confirmed that John Lee had arrived by train and that he had been driven to his old home by cab. There could be no doubt that he had been released from prison. "


From the very beginning of his story, John Lee protested his innocence and indeed the only evidence ever produced against him was that a male must have been  responsible for the crime and that he was the only male who was there. He had previously been convicted for a minor theft from Emma Keyes but she soon forgave him and took him back to live in her house and work as her servant. He neither expected or received any compensation for his appalling experience in Exeter prison ( not only did the trapdoor fail on three occasions, hours later, he was carried in on a chair for a fourth attempt , virtually unconscious from the effects of fear and it was only at this point that the prison doctor stepped in and stopped events on medical grounds) so even if he was guilty, he seems to have been punished very severely anyway - what if he was innocent after all?


He married a nurse in Newton Abbot in 1909 and they had two children - a boy and a girl. But it was not they who gave us the remainder of John's story. This was provided by  Allan Elliott, a descendent of the wider family of Lees. It makes fascinating reading. Go to:



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