Tuesday, February 1, 2011
February 23, 1885 --- The Man They Couldn't Hang
After the retirement of the "official hangman" Mr. Marwood, (see February 22) Britain struggled to find a sober and competent replacement. There were many disastrous incidents at the gallows but none more shocking than this day in Devon. In a display of shocking incompetence, the Exeter hangman fails not once, not twice, but three times to execute a convicted killer.
John Lee, an ex-convict hired out of pity by an elderly spinster, had violently turned on his mistress. 68 year old Emma Keyes was found in her home at Babbacombe, near Torquay, with her head crushed in by a hatchet. A clumsily started fire failed to cover the crime. Lee, covered with blood and reeking of paraffin, was quickly arrested, tried, and condemned.
On the morning set for his execution, Lee walks firmly to the gallows. The burial service is read, the noose placed around his neck, and the lever thrown. Nothing happens. His eyes closed in terror, Lee reopens them "as if from a nightmare." The condemned man is led away while Berry the hangman rechecks the equipment. Lee returns, an onlooker noting the man's attitude of "perfect physical surrender." Again, the deadly contraption fails. Berry even tries jumping up and down on the trap door, to no effect. The eyewitness continued: "It was very evident that [Lee's] spirit was very much broken, and those in charge of the gallows were very nervous." When Lee returns a third time and the machine again fails, he faints in a swoon and must be carried off. All this happening in the space of a half an hour. The hangman blames the problem on weekend rains that had swollen the wood. He recommends waiting several days for the gallows to dry.
Queen Victoria is horrified, she wires the Home Secretary: "Surely he cannot now be executed? It would be too cruel." Mr. Harcourt agrees, telling the Commons: "It would shock the feelings of everyone if a man had twice to endure the pangs of imminent death." The sentence is commuted to life. Not all agreed; The Times thought it displayed a "lamentable tendency to prefer sentiment to justice." "A Friend of the Murdered Woman" wrote The Times: "It should be announced that, in the future, executions will take place weather permitting." Most anger, however, is directed at the bungling hangman. The Spectator suggests that the Government consider employing a "tranquil, conscienceless, teetotal Chinaman, the nearest approach among man to a machine."
John Lee was now dubbed "The Man They Couldn't Hang." He was freed from prison in 1907 and emigrated to the U.S. where he died in 1933.
Posted by Tom Hughes at 4:44 AM