The Unbelievable Story Of The Man Who Survived His Own Hanging

The death penalty has long been controversial, and it's not terribly hard to understand why: Among other things, to take someone's life is to take something you can't give back. There's no room for error there — even if it's just to kill a killer, it's undeniably unjust to kill an innocent person. And while an innocent person can be released from prison, he or she can't be released from the grave.

Perhaps this is why innocent people, when wrongly sentenced to death, so often appeal to the justice of God, karma, or the universe. "God / the universe / whatever won't let me die," they announce. "God, etc., is just, and I'm innocent!" Usually, this stoic optimism doesn't work out so great for them.

But for a few, it does. One of the few to have his wide-eyed faith in justice vindicated was John "Babbacombe" Lee, a man who managed to cheat the hangman's noose not once, but three times.

How John Lee cheated death

John Lee was arrested on November 15, 1884, for the murder of Emma Anne Whitehead Keyse, his half-sister and employer. The murder was pretty heinous: Keyse had several wounds to her head, her throat had been cut, and the murderer had attempted to burn the body (via BBC). There wasn't any evidence directly tying Lee to the crime, but the circumstantial evidence looked bad: He was the only man in the house at the time, he had a cut on his arm that he refused to explain (via Smithsonian Magazine), and he had a clear motive, as Keyse had decided to cut his pay (via Cult of Weird). Based on the facts, he was convicted and sentenced to hang.

Despite all of that, though, Lee maintained his innocence, and didn't even seem all that worried about the impending execution, telling the judge, "The reason I am so calm is that I trust in the Lord and he knows I am innocent." Coming from the average convict, such a platitude would hardly even raise eyebrows, but Lee's calmness proved strangely prescient.

A hanging gallows, if you're unfamiliar, is designed to kill a convict as quickly and humanely as possible: The prisoner stands on a trapdoor with a noose around his neck; the executioner pulls a lever; the trapdoor opens, and the convict falls several feet, allowing the rope to snap their neck — theoretically killing him instantly. When Lee stood on the gallows and the hangman pulled the lever, though, the trapdoor just ... didn't open.

The aftermath of Lee's failed execution

Obviously, mechanisms malfunction all the time, but what's truly strange about Lee's botched execution is that three separate attempts were made to kill him, and they all failed in the same way. After each attempt, they removed Lee from the gallows, checked all the machinery to make sure it was functioning, made modifications (cutting the trapdoors smaller to make sure they didn't stick together), and tested the whole apparatus. Each time, they found it to be in working order — until Lee got back on it, and the trapdoor refused to open again. After the three attempts, Lee's punishment was commuted to life in prison.

So was it divine intervention? Lee certainly saw it that way, and when he managed to get out of prison — having served 22 years — he went on tour to boast about how God had saved him. People looking for a naturalistic explanation, however, will almost always find a plausible one. According to the executioner, the culprit was Lee's weight jamming the iron catches (via The Infographics Show).

Guilty of the murder or not, though, Lee doesn't seem to have been a particularly nice or trustworthy guy. He was caught lying to investigators multiple times about the night of the murder, and after his star of fame began to fade, he abandoned his pregnant wife to flee to America with another woman. And no, lying and spousal abandonment aren't capital offenses. But still ... the word "innocent" is a bit of a stretch for the guy.