Jersey Reflections: Parallels in Punishment


By Vince Farinaccio

A Columnist for the Grapevine

The attempt to hang John Lee occurred only nine years after Charles K. Landis’ trial in the shooting death of Uri Carruth had concluded.
Any Americans familiar with the legendary 19th century Englishman John Lee probably first learned about the so-called “Man They Could Not Hang” through Fairport Convention’s 1971 album “Babbacombe” Lee. And while Lee does not directly relate to local history, his tale is too fascinating not to retell. The fact that it occurred in the timeframe of Cumberland County’s most famous shooting and that its conclusion has a curious American twist only adds to its appeal.
For those not familiar with it, the story of John Lee concerns a former British sailor who took employment as a servant for Miss Emma Keyse, an elderly woman living in Babbacombe. While in her employ, he became the primary suspect when she was brutally murdered. He was tried, convicted and sentenced to hang but managed to cheat death when the trap door of the gallows failed to open, not once, but on three consecutive tries. English law only permits three attempts, so Lee spent the next 22 years in prison.
Fairport’s concept album about Lee was the brainchild of the band’s fiddler, Dave Swarbrick, whose passing in June deprived the world of a truly consummate musician. His work on the project was nothing short of an exercise in historical research. The band had already involved itself with musical history, having resurrected, in electric arrangements, a plethora of ballads and dance tunes from the British Isles that included “Matty Groves,” “Tam Lin” and “Sir Patrick Spens.” But “Babbacombe” Lee was an opportunity for the group to provide its own take on a legendary event.
The Fairport treatment presents Lee sympathetically, largely due to Swarbrick’s primary source in his research, an account of the ordeal written by Lee himself and published in Lloyd’s Weekly. The songs place the listener inside the mind and the situations of the subject as his life is recounted from his time at sea to his employment with Keyse and finally in his moments on the gallows, rendered fittingly in a panic-driven tempo.
The attempt to hang John Lee occurred on February 23, 1885, only nine years after Charles K. Landis’ trial in the shooting death of Uri Carruth had concluded. And this region was just as inclined to public executions as England. Capital punishment had been dispensed in Cumberland County beginning in 1758 when, according to the county website, a man was hanged on what is now Bridgeton’s Broad Street for stealing horses.
In 1799, in a scenario very similar to that of Lee’s, a man accused of murdering his employer was tried, convicted and hanged from an oak tree on Roadstown Road. In 1844, a servant girl received the same fate for poisoning her bosses, but the county’s use of capital punishment ended with the 1864 hanging of two men convicted of murder. Landis’ acquittal in his trial 12 years later averted even the thought of another county execution.
Swarbrick understood that Lee’s case had become steeped in legend over time and was careful in relaying the tale. In 2011, he qualified Lee’s guilt by telling an audience in Edinburgh, Scotland, “The theory goes that he didn’t do it.”
He also reported that Lee later went to Australia and they made a movie of him. That 1912 silent film, the first of three Australian features recounting his story, was based on a play Lee helped put together.
The films aided in the creation of a myth that incorrectly had him relocating to Australia. He did, however, travel to and settle in the U.S. by 1916. Research over the past 10 years has revealed that he remained here until his death in 1945 and is buried under the name “James Lee” in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
So, what saved Lee from death at the gallows on that February day? The most interesting theory has it that the townsfolk, believing Lee was innocent, constructed the gallows to include a warped plank of wood that abutted the trap door. The board was located where an attendant would stand, and his weight would wedge it against the trap door, which was then unable to open. When the executioner attempted to determine what had gone awry, the attendant would abandon his position and the door would open. It’s a rather ingenious way to prevent a hanging.