Famous Reprieves and Stays of Execution Part 2

About a variety of people who were given reprieves or stays of execution from capital punishment including John Lee.


JOHN LEE (1864-1943?), English footman.

On Nov. 15, 1884, Lee's wealthy employer, Miss Emma Ann Keyse, was murdered. Her throat was cut from ear to ear and her head battered with a hatchet. Circumstantial evidence plus a criminal record and his known hatred of Miss Keyse pointed the finger at John Lee. Pleading innocent, he was tried, sentenced to death, and taken to the condemned cell in Exeter Jail.

On Feb. 23, 1885, at 7:58 A.M., the public hangman, Mr. Berry, pinioned Lee's arms, placed a white bag over his head, and led him to the newly constructed scaffold. As he stepped on the trapdoor, a noose was set around his neck. When asked, "Have you anything to say?" Lee replied, "No. Drop away!"

The sheriff of Exeter gave the signal. The hangman pulled the bolt that would release the trapdoor and would plunge Lee downward, strangling him to death--but the trapdoor failed to open. The hangman moved Lee off the trapdoor and tried the bolt again. The trapdoor sprung open. Lee was placed on the trapdoor again. The bolt was pulled again. The trapdoor would not open. This was strange. Lee was led back to his cell.

The hangman and sheriff tested the bolt. Every time they pulled it, with Lee not on it, the trapdoor opened perfectly. The hangman stood on the trapdoor, but instead of placing the noose around his neck, he held the rope. The bolt was pulled. The door fell open. The hangman dropped down, clinging to the rope. Quickly, Lee was returned to the scaffold. He was led to the trapdoor. The noose went around his neck. The bolt was drawn. The trapdoor would not open.

Someone suggested that because of recent rains, the trapdoor's parts might have expanded and this had made them stick. The edges of the two halves of the trapdoor were planed. Lee went back on the scaffold, noose around his neck. The bolt was yanked. The trapdoor would not budge.

Enough was enough. "Take him away!" the sheriff commanded. They took John Lee, the man who could not be hanged, back to his cell. The sheriff wrote the home secretary in London. Confused, the home secretary ordered a postponement. The House of Commons debated the unheard-of occurrence. Some shouted nonsense, superstition, just hang him. But no one tried to hang Lee again. His death sentence was commuted to life in prison. Twenty-two years later, in December, 1907, he was paroled and was free. Eventually he embarked upon an unsuccessful marriage and then became a London junk dealer.

Several curious facts emerged from this story. On the night before his execution, Lee was cheerfully singing and actually said to a warden, "They won't hang me. You wait and see." Frank Ross, an ex-convict, claimed that the gallows had been built by a master joiner who was serving a life sentence for murder after having been reprieved from hanging. Ross stated that the joiner had designed the gallows so that the trapdoor couldn't open during an actual hanging, because the chaplain would be standing on a board which jammed the trap. In the Annual Register for 1885, Lee's escape from death was ascribed to "the rains of the previous night [which] had caused the planks to swell, and hence the trouble." Regardless of which explanation was true, this was the last time prison labor was used to construct a gallows.

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