The True Story of the Man They Couldn’t Hang

Anxiety on the scaffold

Joseph Yossarian
8 min readMay 26, 2022


Photo of a hangman’s noose with caption on the left  in large white capitals, saying John Lee: the man they couldn’t hang
the ‘hessian brake’ (pixabay)

In 1884, the Glen was a spacious two-storey villa, that stood just back from a stretch of beach in Babbacombe, a small fishing village, north of Torquay in Devon. A verandah on the front of the building faced the sea, offering the viewer a contrast between calming vista and stormy spectacle.

The owner of the villa was one Emma Anne Whitehead Keyse. a 68-year-old spinster who lived at the Glen with two servants, sisters Eliza and Jane Neck. These dedicated domestics were of a similar age to their mistress, and had been in her employ some forty years. Also abiding under the thatched roof of the Glen were a young cook named Elizabeth Harris, and her half brother, 20-year-old John Lee, who was employed as gardener and general servant.

While a household made up mainly of elderly women; firm friends seeing out their days to the sound of birdsong and the gentle lapping of waves, may appear quaint, the Glen’s location made it far from idyllic. The Torquay Times from November 1884 described the villa thus:

‘The spot is a weird and lonely one in the winter, and especially unsuitable for the living-place of an aged and solitary female. The approach to it is such that no vehicles can be got near it, and the occupant has to mount a very rough and steep hill in order to reach the high-road.”

While the Glen may have been an unsuitable location for its elderly occupants, in the young servant there was a pair of stronger legs that could climb that steep hill in order to maintain a line of supply and communication.

The life of John Lee

John Lee had initially worked as a servant for Miss Keyse when he was fifteen. The lure of the sea became too much for the youth, however, and he left the Glen to join the Royal Navy. This would turn out to be a short-lived enlistment, as he was invalided out after only eighteen months, following an attack of pneumonia. Back on civvy street, Lee was sentenced to six months’ hard labour after being convicted of stealing from his then employer, one Colonel Brownlow. Lee had obtained his position as footman with Brownlow, after being introduced to him by Miss Keyse. Yet despite having to bear the shame of lumbering Brownlow with a bad



Joseph Yossarian

Freelance writer and blogger from the north-east coast of England, specialising in true crime, childhood memories and whatever takes my fancy.