John "Babbacombe" Lee was an Englishman famous for surviving three attempts to hang him for murder. Lee served in the Royal Navy, and was a known thief.
On 23 February 1885, three attempts were made to carry out Lee's execution at Exeter Prison. All ended in failure, as the trapdoor of the scaffold failed to open despite being carefully tested by the executioner, James Berry, beforehand. The medical officer refused to take any further part in the proceedings, and they were stopped.
Berry provides a detailed account of the failed execution in his memoirs, My Experiences as an Executioner, noting that the trapdoor was adjusted with a saw and axe between the attempted executions, although in Berry's memoirs and letter to the Under-Sheriff he only mentions two attempted executions.
As a result, home secretary Sir William Harcourt commuted the sentence to life imprisonment. The Home Office ordered an investigation into the failure of the apparatus, and it was discovered that when the gallows was moved from the old infirmary into the coach house, the draw bar was slightly misaligned. As a result the hinges of the trapdoor bound and did not drop cleanly through. Lee continued to petition successive Home Secretaries and was finally released in 1907.
The only other man in history known to have survived three hanging attempts was Joseph Samuel, in September 1803.
An alternative theory, raised by Ernest Bowen-Rowlands in his book In the Light of the Law, suggests that the trap was blocked by a wooden wedge that was inserted by a prisoner working on the scaffold, and removed when the apparatus was tested.Note that Bowen-Rowlands only cites an anonymous "well-known person", citing an equally anonymous prisoner confession, and this would contrast with Berry's reputation (noted by prison governors and surgeons) as a meticulous professional.
In 1885, he was convicted of the murder of his employer, Emma Keyse, at her home at Babbacombe Bay near Torquay on 15 November 1884 with a knife. The evidence was weak and circumstantial, amounting to little more than Lee having been the only male in the house at the time of the murder, his previous criminal record, and being found with an unexplained cut on his arm.
Despite this and his claim of innocence, he was sentenced to hang. Having survived three attempts at hanging, his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. He became popularly known as "the man they couldn't hang".
After his release, Lee seems to have exploited his notoriety, supporting himself through lecturing on his life, even becoming the subject of a silent film. Accounts of his whereabouts after 1916 are somewhat confused, and one researcher even speculated that in later years there was more than one man claiming to be Lee. It was suspected that he died in the Tavistock workhouse sometime during the Second World War. However, more recent research concludes that he died in the United States under the name of "James Lee" in 1945.