In 1907 a company called ‘Daisy Bank Publications’ released a *penny dreadful to coincide with the release of John Lee from prison. This overdramatic and, today quite rare, 32 page publication gives a fascinating insight into how the story of John ‘Babbacombe’ Lee was viewed by Edwardians. This is a full transcription of this tiny, almost 100 year-old book. Until about the 1930′s, Babbacombe was still frequently spelt ‘Babbicombe’. *An explanation of the term, ‘Penny Dreadful’ is here.
In that part of the country which is justly been termed the garden of England, and known as Devonshire, is situated and now notorious village of Babbicombe. Although a quarter of the century has passed since the startling weird events occurred that are Chronicled here, interest in the unique crime known as the Babbicombe tragedy, with its strange sequel, has never for a moment of lost its absorbing interest, and theory upon theory has been advanced to account for the seemingly miraculous preservation of John Lee from a violent and dishonourable death in the hands of the hangman.
The crime for which John Lee, or “Babbicombe Lee,” as he was afterwards known, was tried for, was a particularly brutal and dastardly one — the attack of a strongman on an enfeebled and inoffensive old woman. The victim of this terrible crime — Miss Emma Ann Whitehead Keyse– was 68 years of age, and Lady well-known in the district for her refinement, philanthropy, and as a friend of the then reigning sovereign, and the last one for anyone to suppose to of had an enemy.
The Glen, as her little compact residence was called, was situated in the village of Babbicombe, within easy reach of Torquay.
This peaceful household consisted of, besides Miss Keyse, three domestics, two of whom were sisters, Jane and Eliza Neck, who were devoted to their mistress, having served along and faithfully. The cook, Elizabeth Harris, was younger than her fellow servants, and was other less staid disposition. She had a younger half brother, who was anxious to commenced work, and knowing Miss Keyse was requiring a boy to look after an old favourite pony, asked for the place for her stepbrother. Miss Keyse had an interview with the lad, and being taken by his prepossessing appearance, he engaged in and a weekly wage of three shillings.
Young Lee remained at the Glen for 18 months, after arriving at that age when the sea irresistibly calls, unhesitatingly obeyed her mandate. Having the advantage of being near and naval station, the boy offered himself and, after being accepted by the authorities, became one of the crew of the good ship “Circe”, but it is not our intention to follow Lee’s career in the Navy; it will be sufficient to say that 18 years of age, he had served on HMS implacable, and the training brig “liberty”, and the “Foudroyant”, he had the great misfortune to be discharged as unfit, coming to an attack of pneumonia, which left him with weakened lungs. In this misfortune, he applied to Miss Keyse to use her influence on his behalf in getting in employment. This she did, and the situation as a foot month was found for him with Col Brownlow, a well-known resident of Torquay. But how did he repay the noble lady for her confidence? Why, my robbing his employer, and bringing discredit upon her. Crime is easy, and, in this case, detection was easier! Lee was arrested, and though efforts were made to save him from prison, he was sentenced to six months hard labour. Then, even when he left the prison gates, a penniless outcast, it was Miss Keyse who offered once again to give him a shelter, and what was of greater moment, the chance to regain his precious character. He was set to do hard work about the house and help with the garden, and at the end of each week she gave in two shillings and six pence pocket money.
But, instead of being cheerful and happy, he became sullen and morose, and when Miss Keyse told him she was disappointed in him she pointed out to him that that if only he behaved himself and trying hard, she would again give him a character, and so enable him to get a situation more suitable to his age; and to show her displeasure in him she told him she should reduce his pocket money from two shillings and six pence to two shillings till he improved.
Leaving his benefactor’s presence to make his way to the kitchen, and a meeting Elizabeth Harris on the way, he stated her mistress was a tyrant, and that he would be even with her. “She had better mind, or I will do for.” His companion laughed at such seemingly wild and ungrateful remarks. “Go on with you; you ought to be thankful you have a roof over your worthless head!” “We shall see”, angrily retorted Lee, and he dashed from the house. Later, he met the village postman, whom he accosted and demanded give you know of any work likely to suit him.
“Plenty, John,” answered the official. “But you will require a character, and I’m afraid your mistress will not give you one.”
With a snarl Lee turned, saying, “if I don’t get one, somebody will suffer. Why! I would burn the house to the ground.” No notice was taken at the time, but how soon were his words to have terrible significance!
before proceeding with the ghastly events which followed each other in a terrible panorama of horror, it will be as well to describe the interior of the little cottage. The house was but two stories high. The ground floor, comprising and dining room, drawing room, conservatory, and kitchen, with a small butler’s pantry. Attached, as usual, on the far side of the wall of the pantry were cupboards, which had originally been intended as as receptacles for the plate, but when now used to store various household utensils. Here were Lee’s sleeping quarters, a camp bed, capable of being folded up in the daytime, completely filling the room, or rather passage, when in use, and thus making it impossible for anyone to have access to the cupboards except by disturbing the occupier.
Upstairs rooms, with the exception of the writing room, were entirely used as bedrooms, one-room being occupied by the two sisters, Eliza and Jane neck; then came the spare room, then the room in which Elizabeth Harris, and which could be reached from both sides of the house, and a small room near to Harris slept the ill-fated Miss Keyse.
And now to return to the night of the murder, the 14th November, 1884. The cook retired early, being somewhat indisposed. The two sisters, Eliza and Jane remained within doors, as also did their mistress, who, in the early part of the evening had been engaged in writing some letters. These is she entrusted to Lee compost, which he did, and afterwards called on Miss Farmer, with whom he was passionately in love. He returned to The Glen at 10 PM, hand, after supper, he and the two domestics went to Miss Keyse room, it being her pious custom to have family prayers each night. It must have been an edifying sight — the good old lady reading a chapter from the Bible, to all servants who has spent their lives in her service devoutly listening, and the young man, with all the grace of use, kneeling by their sides.
one by one, little household went to bed. First, Lee retired, shortly to be followed by Eliza neck. Her sister Jane remained a little while behind, to make her mistress a cop of cocoa. Having done so, she placed did it on the kitchen hob, as was her custom. For Miss Keyse sat up usually long after midnight, and she liked a cup of cocoa last thing. It was her habit to come down to the kitchen, take the beverage from the hob, and after extinguishing the lights, return to her room.
The silence falls on the house, darkness envelopes each room. Yet, in all that silence and gloom someone is committing a deed that a fiend from the bottomless pit might recoil from.
Presently the pungent smell of burning steals from room to room. The licking sound of hungry flames not yet sure of their prey may be faintly heard, only waiting till do building is in their grasp to roar forth into all their fury, and in one fiery holocaust devour all.
Another sound is heard: it is a sleeper stirring uneasily on her bed. Suddenly, the girl awakes with a start. Sleep for a moment holds her in it’s leaden grasp, but only for a second, when the awful truth bursts upon her — the house is on fire! With a cry of agonising terror she leaps from her couch.
In a moment she is in the room of the two yet sleeping and perhaps slowly suffocating women. But it is the work of a moment for Elizabeth Harris — it was she whoso opportunely awoke — to arouse her two fellow servants.
Eliza Neck, springing from the bed and hastily seizing a shawl, rushes to the rescue of her mistress. Flinging open the door of Miss Keyse room with a loud warning cry she dashes in, only to find the bedroom empty. Thinking her mistress might be in the dining-room, and perhaps overcome by the fumes, the brave woman darts down the now almost blazing stairs. Dense volumes of smoke, intermixed with flames, poor in the devoted face, and threatened set fire to her flimsy drapery. As she struggles down, she can hear Lee moving about, but in which direction she cannot guess. At last she reaches the foot of the stairs, just as Lee emerges from the smoke.
“What is the matter?” He cries, in a thick, choking voice.
“Where is Miss Keyse? Where is Miss Keyse?” Sobs the terrified maid. Dashing into the dining-room, with Lee and her heels, she beholds there, lying on the floor with a hideous, gaping, jagged wound across her slender throat, almost severing the head from the trunk, with eyes starting from their sockets, showing with what intensity must have been the death agony, lay Miss Keyse, most foully and brutally murdered. Round the corpse, shavings and all newspapers had been placed, and after saturating all with paraffin, the miscreant had ignited the unhallowed pyre in the vain hope of destroying and damning evidence of this crime. But he had not achieved his purpose, the body, was frightfully charred, was still recognisable.
Her faithful maid stood dumb with horror at the appalling sight, and by her side stood John Lee, apparently no less affected.
“Run!” Cried Eliza, gathering has scattered senses, “to the Cary arms, and fetch Mr Gaskin, the landlord.”
As Lee silently left the apartment, Eliza frantically flung open the shutters and windows of the dining-room, and rushing upon the lawn, gave vent to her pent-up feelings in loud screens for help. But only the shrill echo of her own despairing cries, and hoots of the sinister night birds mockingly answered her.
Meanwhile, John Lee had gone out to the hall, and was in the act of unfastening in the front door, when Elizabeth Harris and Jane Neck appeared on the scene, and as the latter seemed in the state of collapse, Lee hastened her assistance, and placing his arm round her waist, thoughtlessly led the way to the dining-room. The two women gazed with grey-hued faces at the horror lying at their feet, and Eliza having returned from her futile efforts to summon assistance, and seeing Lee had not started on his errand, a gain implored him to hasten forth for help. quickly he returned with the landlord of the inn, to whom he told the harrowing details as they hurried back. “Indeed,” said Lee, to his companion, “I have lost my best friend!”
The news soon spread, and quickly the representatives of the law were on the scene. The medical, methodical methods had a more or less soothing effect on the destracted household.
firstly, they found that all the doors and windows have been bolted and barred night previously, and so make in-house secure against any prowling marauder. This pointed almost conclusively to the fact that the murderer had not entered from outside. Was the pleas were making their investigations, Mr Gaskin, the publican, asked for an axe to cut down the beam that still smouldered. Lee, who was standing near when the request was made, fetched him one, and it was notice that the hatchet he brought was one that had never been seen in the house before, are kept in an out house in the grounds.
The publican noticed as he took the axe they were suspicious stains on the blade, and which he took acquired opportunity to point out to the police superintendent. Jane Neck, who had by now somewhat recovered from the shock she had sustained, was horrified to notice that on her nightdress, round the waist, were the marks of blood. Where he had they come from? And then, like a stab with a knife, the thought through her mind– John Lee had placed his arm round her when she had turned faint. She also, later, made known to the please her discovery.
It was apparent all that the fire was the work of an incendiary. Traces of how the fire had been deliberately started could be traced in both the dining room and the murder lady’s bedroom. In both rooms everything wreaked of paraffin, and naturally the police inquired if there was any paraffin in the house. Jane Neck, to whom the question was put replied that there was a large can in the pantry cupboard, against which was placed John Lees bed, and that on the previous day had been filled. On the constables removing the bed, the can was found to be empty and smeared with blood.
“Where you in bed, Lee,” as the police superintendent, “when the alarm was first raised?”
“Yes, I was fast asleep when they came down and aroused me,” he replied. Here he eventually forgot that no one could possibly get at the oil can except by disturbing him, and also that Eliza Neck had heard him stumbling about when she was flying from the flames. The police made discovery upon discovery. In one of the drawers of the kitchen dresser was found a hidden bloodstained knife, and by it’s side was a piece of paper, which also bore streaks of blood, as if the murderer had made an effort to clean the weapon that he had used when hacking at this victims throat. The life, it was proved, was always kept in the conservatory, and only one of the household would be likely to know of its existence. I gained, a life and death struggle had taken place quite close to Lee. Was it possible, they argued, for anyone on the ground floor to have slept through such a pandemonium, for everything pointed to the intensity of the struggle? Was the murderer, after all, in that melancholy group? Already Lee’s fellow servants began to look askance at him. although he must have been aware of their sinister glances, he never flinched. Tension was dramatically relieved by the police.
“John Lee,” said the Superintendent, “I arrest you on suspicion of the wilful murder of Miss Emma Ann Whitehead Keyse.”
“On suspicion!” Answered Lee, in a surprised tone.
“Yes,” continued the officer. “You are the only man in the house.” Without another word, Lee turned on left the house in custody.
The inquest was held at the town hall, Torquay (in actual fact it was held at St Marychurch– author”.
In the interval between the discovery of the crime and the coroner’s Court, local indignation against the accused man was simply terrific. The all absorbing scene from the morning to night was the Babbicombe tragedy; every other item of news was too insignificant to even be tolerated.
From an early hour a large crowd gathered around the town hall, Torquay, in the hope of catching a glimpse of the prisoner as he is brought from the police station. Inside the limited accommodation of the call is packed with the more favoured townsmen.
“Here he is! Here he is!” The crowd shout, has a long, van-like conveyance draws up in front of the town hall steps.
But no, it does not contain the prisoner.
It is the coroner and the jury returning from viewing the body. Meanwhile the accused has been quietly driven got back entrance, as to prevent any chance of a hostile demonstration on the part of the awaiting throng.
In a few apt words the coroner opens the inquest. from the commencement is apparent how damning is the evidence.
The police gave their account of finding of the body and the circumstances that caused them to make the arrest.
The clothes that the accused man wore on the night of the murder are produced. Medical evidence is given that the stains upon the trousers have been examined under the microscope, and also have been analysed, with a result of remarks are found to be human blood stains.
The socks Lee wore on the fatal night still were saturated with blood, as if the where I had been paddling in pools or gore. again, on the trousers were some long grey hairs had corresponded with those of the murder ladies head.
The bloodstained chopper that the prisoner had produced on the night of the crime, which had never before been seen in the house.
The finding other fatal life in the kitchen, which had always been kept in the conservatory pointed conclusively that someone living in the house would know of its whereabouts.
Stress was also laid on the fact that the house was securely fastened overnight, and that police were unable to find any traces of an entrance having been forced.
Richards, the village postpone the Babbicombe, gave evidence as to the prisoner having use threats to him against Miss Keyse; and what he was having his account of what to place between them a remarkable incident took place, which we record here as showing how popular feeling was against the accused. Richards had just said that Lee had uttered the threat to ban the house down, when one of the jury interrupted and rebuked the witness as to why he had not informed the police, added that he done so valuable life would have been saved.
In a moment, Lee’s solicitor was on his feet, and dramatically holding his arms in front of him, said:
“I strongly protest against that remark, Mr coroner. Is it not premature, sir, for one of the jury to have arrived at the conclusion of the prisoners guilt before half the evidence has been heard. And also let me remind the public, who have, to say the least of it, shown since the rest of my client, the most biased mind. They should remember the axiom — the man is innocent until he is found guilty.” He concluded by appealing to the love of fair play which should be so dear to an Englishman.
The coroner said: “I strongly agree with the remarks have just been made by the prisoners solicitor. Mr Templer was quite right in protesting. It was a most improper remark for one of the jury to make.”
“There is,” he concluded, “nothing more stupid than jumping to conclusions.”
The jury man having expressed his regret the incident closed.
The defence was well urged. “Did not,” said Mr Templer, “the accused assisting carrying the murdered woman from the dining room? Well, then! The blood and here on his clothes are accounted for!” What motive could he have? Surely not because Miss Keyse had deducted a miserable sixpence from his wages. “Gentlemen,” concluded the solicitor, “people do not nowadays commit such sanguinary crimes for such trifles. Besides, the prisoner had everything to lose by the death of his employer.”
The police formally asked that Lee should be sent for trial.
The jury having brought a verdict of “guilty” the coroner committed the accused to take his trial at the next Exeter assizes.
The proceedings before magistrates were other similar character to those of inquest. The justices ordered Lee to stand his trial.
In dead silence sits an expectant court. The jury had just returned. The foreman stands erect, awaiting for the momentous question from the Clerk of the Arraigns. Facing him unflinchingly stands the prison. Oh, the pity of it! And me a youth who, had is lot been cast on a more affluent sphere of life, with scarcely have left his school books. All eyes for the moment leave his face to turn and gaze with searching looks upon the foreman. How eagerly yet how differentially their eyes bent upon him. He seems to be, on that impressionable occasion, a higher caste of man than a mere spectator who plays no part in this drama of dubiety. And when he might, what does he not hold in his hands the power of life and death. Was the fate of the prisoner is still unknown except to the grim twelve “good men and true,” there are in that crowded hall of justice many ghouls who, in their secret hearts, hoped that the verdict will be an adverse one. They have sat through the long trial, closely packed in hot and odoriferous atmosphere, with parched lips, and nerves at the highest pitch, and now the supreme moment is upon them — shame be upon their manhood! — they fear that the post of having heard the death sentence passed over the wretched creature standing motionless in the dock will be plucked from them.
Long and skilfully as the prisoners counsel pleaded the cause, and raising the point as a plea for the defence that the girl Elizabeth Harris, who was cook at the Glen, had a lover who had often visited the premises unknown to the virtuous occupier of the house. “Gentlemen,” cried and learned counsel, “here is a young and attractive girl, shortly expecting maternity. We know her paramour visited the house clandestinely. suppose, gentlemen of the jury, on a fatal night he and Miss Keyse met face-to-face, “like a thief in the night”, fearful of the consequences, and perhaps was the lady was upbraiding him, threatening him with prison and dismissal for his lover. Arousing his worst passions, he ferociously attacked a defenceless and unsuspecting woman, foully and brutally murder her, and in his attempt to destroy all traces of his dastardly deed, fired the house. These points out to grave to be lightly passed over to you, gentlemen of the jury, in the momentous issue at stake, and as these points raised the highest doubts as to the guilt of my client, I must ask you unhesitatingly for a verdict.”
Mr Collins, QC, who prosecuted for the Crown, advise the jury against such a wild and improbable defence, and strongly wove a web of apparent guilt around the prisoner with the eloquence and acumen for which he was so well noted.
A cultured voice breaks in upon the terrible silence which now prevails in court, a silence which has no equal except either in the death chamber of those that are near and dear to us in a court of assize when a man is being tried by man for his very existence.
“Gentlemen of the jury,” Clark inquires, “do you unanimously agreed on your verdict”.
The foreman, with deep emotion, replies “we do”.
“Do you say that John Lee, the prison at the bar is guilty or not guilty of the murder of Emma Ann Whitehead Keyse, spinster?”
With a supreme effort foreman forces from his trembling lips the fatal word, “guilty!”.
“Prisoner at the bar,” asks the clerk, “have you anything to say why sentence of death shall not be passed upon you?” And that dramatic moment the sun fatally shone out, and cast a golden beam, as if in protection, across the youthful head.
Babbicombe Lee, holding himself erect, cried in a ringing and manly voice:
“I say that I am innocent, my lord.”
The sound of rustling silk attracts all eyes to the judge, as he raises his hands to don the dread black cap.
Having placed this emblem of the Law’s profound majesty over his wig, and leaning slightly forward, in an impressive voice addressed the prisoner:
“John Lee, you have been found rightly guilty of a crime of the most revolting brutality. Not only did you sacrifice for life of one who had loaded you with kindness upon kindness, who gave you are fresh start in life when you returned an outcast from prison, that you must also place in jeopardy the lives of your fellow servants by fire, that your fell and ghastly work might be hid. I take you to prepared to meet your maker, for I can hold out to you no hope of mercy from man, and I exhort you to change that callous bearing yyou have maintained during the trial for one more fitting your terrible and desperate position.”
The terrible death sentence was then passed, the judge with great earnestness concluding with the words, “and made the Lord have mercy on your soul.”
The chaplain, with tears rolling down his cheeks, added, with a stifled sob, “Amen!”
For a span of time all were powerless to move. The hardened warders were first show signs of returning animation. One of their number, a black bearded giant, made a gruff exclamation, and grimly pointed to the steep stone steps which led to the dismal sales beneath the dock.
Lee, before obeying, turned once more to the judge Manisty, and in a firm voice said: “the reason why I am so calm is that I trusted the Lord, and he knows I am innocent.”
Without another word or look, the man with the angel of death by his side walked from the dock.
In the condemned cell of Exeter prison sits Babbicombe Lee. His head buried in his hands, ever thinking out schemes of how to cheat the hangman and regain the sweet freedom, the loss of which only the felon can fully realise; but, deceive himself as he will, the picture of the dangling noose and gaping pit keeps vividly presenting themselves to his tortured mind.
The two warders who set watching the ripening fruit of that black tree, the gallows, mark with morbid looks to the convulsive, involuntary twitching after his cordlike muscles, and so the sand in his life’s hourglass dwindles. One moment brings hope, the next black despair. Both his parents are his constant visitors. What a source of joy, not unmixed with mental agony, it was for him to see those dear ones! How unhesitatingly then assure him of their strong belief of his innocence. How pathetically his mother hangs lovingly on his Neck, while deep sobs shake her frame. His father, with emotion and terrible to behold, grasps his hands, and exclaims, “Oh Jack! My dear Jack, would that I could die to save you!”
On the last Sunday before the day fixed for his execution, Babbicombe Lee was taking exercise in the prison yard. Suddenly he became aware of the presence of the stranger, who eyes him curiously from a little distance. “Who is that?” He asked, in an undertone, of one of the attendant warders. “Oh, only a visitor!” Was the seemingly careless reply. Little did he think it was the hangman, who was quietly reviewing in the purpose of seeing what drop he would require. And so the day wore on, and the gentle evening, bearing on the breeze do sound of the grand old Cathedral bells summonsing to its holy precincts so many devout worshippers, who in their pride of health gave little heed to their doomed fellow creature. presently the moon, in all her virgin purity, looks down upon the sleeping city, alike upon the child smiling in its sleep am the condemned man, tossing uneasily in his cell.
At 6.30, Babbicombe Lee was gently awakened, and he found the Rev Mr Pitkin, the prison chaplain kneeling at the side of his bed.
“John,” he kindly said, for he had known the wretched man from his boyhood, placing his white, delicate hand on the prisoners arm, “you have, I sincerely trust, refreshed the body; a rise, with God help, we will refresh the soul,” Mr Pitkin cried.
Lee, grasping the good man’s coat, and speaking fervently said: “I have had a wonderful dream. I dreamt I was on the gallows. Three times the bolt was drawn and three times was I preserved from death. Mr Pitkin, I am positive I shall not be hanged exhibition mark”
Feelingly, the good clergyman stroked Babbicombe’s forehead, “my dear son, do not be deluded by a dream, but arise, and I will return when you are dressed.”
Hastily making his toilet with all but his collar, which had been removed whilst he slept, and having partaken of a little tea and dry toast the chaplain returned.
Having spent some time in earnest prayer, the clergyman took Babbicombe Lee by the hand, saying: “John, it will be a source of great consolation to you if you confessed your crime!”
“Mr Pitkin, will not you, at least believe I am innocent?”
“Would that I could, but, to your face, I must say I am afraid your not telling me the truth. Think well before you reply, for the time for earthly confession and contrition, which can only bring you pardon, will soon be past.”
“I swear I have told you the truth. I am innocent! Say not another word. I know you mean well, but to distract me, for my thoughts are with God!”
All the while time had been going on apace. Suddenly the prison bell begins to toll, alas! The knell of a man who is in the pride and vigour of manhood, and without one bodily ailment.
The cell door is slowly turned on its hinges, and the government of the jail,Mr Cowtan, enters, followed by the under Sheriff in his robes of office. Next comes a small posse of warders, with Berry at the rear.
The governor and the hangman simultaneously step forward to shake hands with the condemned man, Lee taking the outstretched hand of the governor in a firm grip, the pressure of which Mr Cowtan feeling the returns. A moment’s hesitation collapses before his repugnance allows him to take the proffered hand of his executioner. Berry, as he shook hands said, “my poor fellow, I am compelled the carry out my duty!”
Producing a wide belt from some mysterious part of his person, the hangman, with a custom fingers slips it around Lee’s waist, and deftly buckles it, next place in the wrists in a bracelet like contrivance. Whilst the prisoner is being pinioned, the officials have formed into a procession, and as soon as Lee is placed in their midst the procession starts in the following order: –
With measure steps, the funeral like party slowly wends its way towards the execution shed. Twenty-five years ago Exeter prison boasted of no proper gallows like it has now, and when the occasion arose the coach house was temporarily converted into the fatal room.
The prison chaplain, in an impressive voice, reads the burial service for the living man walking behind in. To add solemnity the prison bell adds its dirge. Faint murmur, from the mob without the prison precincts, is just audible, awaiting with morbid curiosity of wasting of the black flag.
Meanwhile the little party enter the transformed coach house, from which all view of the outside world is closed out by the grim prison, at the window of which that commands the interior of the building reporters with book and pencil ill readiness eagerly looked down.
Berry now takes for control of the ghastly proceedings. Pointing to a chalk mark drawn across the centre of the drop, he huskily orders to do man to take up his place.
“Put your legs together” he says, as he bends down. In a jiff he rises, leaving Babbicombe the helpless.
The hangman’s assistant, whom they found waiting them in the shed, meanwhile had adjusted the white cap, which is shaped like a bag and is held in position round the throat by strong elastic. The spectators notice of rapid movement of Berry’s hands and lo! the fatal noose is round the culprit’s Neck, with not pushing painfully of position his left ear, which the hangman fails to notice.
“Anything to say” he whispers
“No! Drop away!” answers the muffled voice.
With mouse-like tread, Berry creeps across to the lever with a glance at the Under-Sheriff , who nods permission.
As Byron says–
“Oh God! It is a fearful thing
“to see the human soul take wing
“in any shape, in any mood.”
With a swift pull of his arm, Berry draws back the lever hand
THE DROP FAILS TO GIVE
The terrified trembling officials gaze with an awful fascination on the white capped figure still standing in their midst. Berry into the first to regain his presence of mind. Rushing to the drop he frantically stamps with his whole weight upon it unmindful of the consequences to himself should the trap give. But no! It sinks about two inches, and there remains firm.
For over five never to be forgotten minutes, Berry aided by all warders present, furiously hammer on the boards, whilst his assistant draws the bolt time upon time, but without avail, and through the whole staging shakes under the repeated blows the trap refuses to open.
At last, the governor scene for moment nothing can be done, commands the cap, Roper, and straps be removed and the prisoner taken from the execution shed to a little storehouse adjacent, which is cleared in readiness for the inquest.
When Berry raised the cap, they saw with horror what terrible contortions the face of the wretched man had been undergoing — the wry motions of the jaw, which seemed to give the face a diabolical grin, the clenched eyelids, and the awful beads of sweat losing from every pore.
As soon as Babbicombe Lee was removed, the bungling and terrified officials began to overhaul mechanism attached to the drop, all of which, however, seemed in perfect working order. The perfect and harassed Berry, returning from his inspection of the underneath part of the scaffold, again tries the lever, and once more draws the bolt. But what a startling difference!
The track over the drop flies open with a crash!
Time after time they tried it, and each time it works without a hitch. But, to make doubly sure, a warder was ordered to stand on the exact spot that have been occupied by Lee, taking his position with arms outstretched and two fellow warders standing in readiness on either side, in case the trap should work.
“Are you quite ready?” Asks the Governor.
“Yes, sir,” answers the chief warder.
And well it was the two warders were alert, but no sooner had a hangman pulled the lever the trap flew open, and the man standing on the trap half vanished out of sight before he was wildly grabbed and all the sprawling to safety.
“A pity it didn’t work like that before ,Mr Cowtan?” Remarked the Under-Sheriff in a relieved silence.
“Yes, it is a most awkward affair, but thank goodness everything is working now!”
“Berry, you may bring your man back!”
The hangman left the scaffold made his way to the storeroom. He was a very different Berry to the cool, collected man of the morning. Now he plainly showed how acutely he felt his distasteful task. Going up to Babbicombe Lee, who hand, in a remarkable manner regained his composure, and who was dauntlessly awaiting his return, said: “my poor fellow! How I feel for you; but bear up, and all your sufferings will soon be over!”
Lee gave him a compassionate look, and said, “I know it is not your fault,” and walked back to the gallows without support.
Once more the prisoner is pinioned, but not so expeditiously has the previous time. Whilst Berry at his gruesome work it was noticed that the chaplain was on the point of prostration, and the doctor who was present thoughtfully went and stood by his side.
At last, or was in readiness again, can Berry receiving the signal, drew back the bolt. A groan burst from all.
THE DROP FAILS TO GIVE.
Consternation and terror is depicted on all sides.
“FORCE IT!” Hoarsely cries the hangman, as he madly snaps backward and forward the bolt. The terrified warders with feverish energy obey him.
Again the terrible sound of stamping reaches the years of the hapless being whose life’s lamp is flickering on the verge of eternity; but they might as well beat on the solid rock as on those unyielding planks.
“It’s too uncanny!” gasped the perspiring chief warder. “Shall be move him off, Sir?”
“Yes!” Chokes out the governor in reply.
The Chief warder, who was a most humane man, was extremely distressed. With a handler trembled like an aspen leaf he led Lee two paces back; but this time the ever tightening noose was allowed to remain.
For full five minutes the wood was hacked with axes till large gaps were made, and it was possible to see through them into the vault below.
At the time, above the din, the prison bell kept calling mournfully on, and standing on the roof stood a wandering warder, speculating why the message to hoist the black flag was so long delayed.
As the time flew on, and the emblem of death was not unfurled upon the morning breeze, excitement and speculation as to the cause was at fever heat in the now thronged street.
to return to the terror haunted shed. Nothing now seems possible to prevent the drop from working. All-round the side pieces have been chipped away, and as Berry tries it time after time the trap opens and closes at his will.
For the third time, Lee, blindfolded and helpless, is half pushed and half lifted onto the drop.
All are sure that the moment has at last come. The clergyman, now somewhat recovered again intones the burial service.
All retired to the far end of the scaffold, leading the tormented man alone.
Berry, waiting for no signal — his one anxiety being to end of the blood freezing scene — with all his strength flings back the lever. The bolt flies back, and
THE DROP FAILS TO GIVE.
The white face and thoroughly sickened men have been tried beyond endurance.
The chaplain, speaking with agonising emotion, loudly protests further demonstrations of inhumanity, and speaking authoritatively, orders that the almost dead man be removed finally from the drop, saying, “the home secretary must be informed of what was taken place,” and concluded by saying –
“How dare we have the presumption to try and again carry out an execution him which Providence has ordained otherwise?” For we know –
“Though the mill of grind grind slowly,
yet they grind exceedingly small,
though with patience, he stands waiting,
with exactness grinds he all.”
All are too willing to end the distasteful scene. Willing hands hasten to remove the hempen noose, and the straps from the drooping limbs, and each in his rough way tries to perform some little act of reparation.
And how has Babbicombe Lee come through the ordeal of three anticipated depths? Has his reason fled?
No, thank heaven! Though he is shaken to the marrow, his intellect has been miraculously preserved.
Quickly he is removed from the scene of his agony. Brandy and hot stimulants are offered him, but Babbicombe Lee wants none of these things. He wants to be alone and returned thanks to his bursting heart to him who has him on the troubled waters of the scaffold as he did Peter on the sea of Galilee.
The news quickly spread through Exeter. The excited crowd outside the prison first received the news from two almost demented reporters tearing out of the prison shrieking–
“They can’t hang him! They can’t hang him!”
In a few minutes a telegraph was flashing the news to all parts of the country.
Feeling was at fever heat. Never had such sensational news being heard.
“It is a miracle!” Was the universal verdict.
The same night a question was passed in the House, and all wonderful circumstances were officially stated.
As was expected, nay, say rather demanded, the death sentence was commuted to one of penal servitude for life.
On the morning of the day that should have been Babbicombe Lee’s last one on earth, said his afflicted parents side-by-side in a little cottage at Abbotskerwell. The neighbours with kindly thought, as yet, do not intrude upon their sorrow with expressions of sympathy. Their grief, they know, is far too sacred to be disturbed, and though they all feel they would like to go to them with words of comfort they are afraid their compassion would be the ill-timed.
The husband sits holding his wife’s knotty toil warn hand in his. He tries in his kindly way to cheer and console her, whispering against into her ear all those little endearing terms he once used when they had walked the village street has boy and girl lovers. With what tenderness does he say that, though their dear boy, by the inscrutable will of Providence, has been taken from them, they still have each other. In the darkened room they kneel down side-by-side, and return thanks to Him that, at least, they have consolation of each other’s presence.
How terrible would have been if the mother had been left a widow, and had to face that terrible moment without the support of the kind and loving man by her side.
The blinds are closely drawn. They are mourning their dead who, though only separated from them by a few short miles. Their’s will not be the dear hands that lovingly fold his in his last sleep. They may not even print a kiss on the marble brow, or place a flower in his coffin.
For his mourners he will have stern faced warders. His shroud will be one of lime– his place of resting marked only by a number.
Suddenly the bereaved parents become aware of the noise hurrying feet. The excited talking of passers-by; then a cheer is heard outside the house. And loud knock upon the door. The husband, with strong emotion shaking by his frame – for he only grasps that the noise concerns them. Before he can reach the door it is flung open, and a neighbour, wild with excitement, with perspiration streaming down his face, rushes in, shouting –
“Saved! Say! They cannot hang him!”
The father, clasping his friends outstretched hand, exclaims, “thank God! thank God!”
The mother, sinking once more upon her knees, exclaims, “my heart is bursting! Oh, my boy! My boy!”
And as the neighbours pour in, with womanly words of comfort, one of their number reads the account of her sons wonderful escape from death, and a paper that have been bought post-haste from Newton Abbot.
Slowly the weary years drag on. Babbicombe Lee is still a prisoner. We hear of him being a prisoner at Pentonville, then he is removed to Wormwood Scrubs, but only remains there for a few months. His next move is to the Portsmouth public works, where he remains seven dreary years.
What a difference!
Last time he was at Portsmouth he was a happy Tar on one of HM ships. How dolorous is his position now!
Finally, he is removed Portland, and from all accounts, remains for 15 terrible years. On arriving at Portland he was put to work on the world-fames quarries, having for a fellow worker the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo – Wells.
Later, he was placed in the tailor’s shop, which was a great boon to him. Prisoners can and two shillings and six pence a month, of which they are allowed to spend one shilling and three pence in any of the following luxuries: –
Which they can keep in their cell, and eat as a desert to the prison fare.
It will be seen by the following table that the “menu” and Portland would not be spoiled by the addition of a little fruit: –
Breakfast each day consisted of –
8oz. Of dry bread
1 pint of Gruel.
For dinner –
8 oz of bread
12 oz of potatoes
5 oz of cooked meat.
8 oz of bread
12 oz of potatoes
12 oz of beans
2 oz of fat bacon.
8 oz of bread
12 oz of potatoes
5 oz of mutton.
8 oz of bread
12 oz of potatoes
1 pint of pea soup.
8 oz of bread
12 oz of potatoes
5 oz of cooked beet.
8 oz of bread
12 oz of potatoes
1 pint of soup.
8 oz of bread
12 oz of potatoes
12 oz of suet pudding.
8 oz of bread
1 pint of cocoa.
All week round, when 18 visited Portland prison, in 1892 he requested the prisoners should be given a special treat. The governor, at the different parades, announced this, and said it would consist of: –
1/2 lb of Suet Pudding, and 2 oz of Treacle.
On hearing this, all the hundreds of wretched men raised a cheer.
It shows how underfed the men must be when ordinary extra foods causes such enthusiasm.
Repeated efforts were made the Home Office for Lee’s release, but without avail; it being said the reason was that Lee had uttered threats against one of the witnesses, and whilst she lived he would remain in prison.
This may or may not be true — that Lee sentence was protracted past all reason.
He was in his 23rd year of incarceration before the authorities ordered his release our ticket of leave.
In justice to Lee, it must be stated that throughout his trial and long imprisonment he stoutly maintained his innocence.
December 17th, 1907, was the day fixed for Lee’s a long delayed release.
Early in the morning he was conducted into a private room, where he found a fresh suit of clothes awaiting him. It is the usual custom for prisoners on leaving to have their own clothes returned to them, but in Lee’s case this would hardly be practicable when we consider he was only a youth when he entered into prison, and now he was leaving a middle-aged man. Besides, the clothes of 23 years ago belonged to another fashion, and would stamp the wearer as a released convict.
When he had dressed once more into the clothes of a free man, all the chief officials of the jail came in and wished in farewell, the Governor of seeing Lee off at the station. At plainclothes warder was kindly sent to him safely home.
This was a wise precaution, for without his aid Lee would have been woefully at sea. After a man has been shut off from society for the number of years that Lee had it takes some little time to get accustomed to its ways. on the way to the station Lee had a tremendous surprise, and he had to turn to the friendly warder for an explanation.
He had seen his first motor car!
Going straight to the cottage and is now aged mother, who had patiently waited through all the long years for his happy reunion, he raises the latch. His mother totters towards him. She is held in his strong and loving arms, and in this supreme moment of happiness, gentle reader, we leave them.