THROUGHOUT the past 100 years, the myths surrounding John 'Babbacombe' Lee's story have taken on a life of their own.
Urban legends, ghostly sightings and tales of supernatural intervention have grown far beyond what anybody in 19th century South Devon could have imagined for the lowly manservant.
Lee, nicknamed The Man They Could Not Hang, came to prominence when he was convicted of murdering his employer, Emma Keyse, and setting fire to her Babbacombe home, called The Glen.
Mike Holgate, of Torquay, an expert on John Lee, said: "During his trial, the prosecution portrayed Lee as a depraved lunatic capable of smashing an old lady's head with an axe, then slashing her throat with a knife.
"The judge, in passing sentence of death, remarked how calm Lee's demeanour had been throughout the trial.
"Lee is said to have leaned forward in the dock and replied firmly: 'The reason why I am so calm is that I trust in the Lord, and He knows I am innocent.'
"In the days leading up to the date of execution, Lee read the Bible prodigiously and proclaimed his innocence.
"It is said he told the prison chaplain the real culprit was the lover of his half-sister, Elizabeth Harris, who was cook at The Glen and expecting a child which was later delivered out of wedlock in Newton Abbot Workhouse."
The prison governor's logbook states on the morning of the execution, as Lee approached the gallows trapdoor, he told two prison guards he had dreamt 'three times the bolt was drawn, and three times the bolt failed to act'.
Lee was a lonely figure on the gallows — but each time an attempt was made to open the trapdoor, it stuck.
After each failed attempt the trapdoor was tested and it opened normally, but when Lee stood on it again the door would not open. Three times this happened, each with the same outcome.
It is rumoured that throughout the ordeal on the scaffold, a white dove perched on the gallows until the condemned man was led safely back to his prison cell.
The Home Secretary told Parliament he could not expect a man to 'twice face the pangs of imminent death'.
Lee began a 23-year prison sentence in Exeter, and from that day the myths about his life spread across the world.
Witchcraft and devilish incantations were often talked of when people tried to reason Lee's escape from death.
Friends of Lee claimed they had paid a white witch handsomely to save him from the noose.
Other people told stories of how Lee's mother had visited the church graveyard near her home at Abbotskerswell, recited the Lord's Prayer backwards and summoned the Devil to save her son.
Also, an old woman called Granny Lee, from Ogwell, is said to have told locals 'they shall not hang him' as she walked to Exeter on the morning of the execution and cast a spell on the gallows from a spot overlooking the prison.
In 1905, the witchcraft theory gained credence from a surprising source — the Archdeacon of Westminster, Basil Wilberforce.
At the time of the murder he had been a regular visitor to Babbacombe, where he addressed temperance meetings organised by a distinguished neighbour of Emma Keyse, Lady Mount-Temple of Babbacombe Cliff.
The churchman was chaplain to the House of Commons and vehemently opposed a growing campaign for Lee's release.
He informed the Home Office that he 'knew the Lees well' and said they were 'a well-known witch family on Dartmoor'.
Whether miracle or sorcery, the events on the scaffold cast doubt in many people's minds about Lee's guilt.
The editor of The Times, who poured scorn on the Home Secretary's decision to eventually reprieve Lee, said Lee's story would 'encourage foolish and superstitious people to believe, in spite of evidence as clear as noonday, that Lee was wrongfully convicted'.
Mike added: "The Home Office didn't help themselves, because they refused to release details about the trapdoor malfunction for 100 years, so the myths grew.
"There were even questions asked in Parliament at the time. I can't understand why they wouldn't announce the details, and they had all the speculation to go through again when he left prison 23 years later."
After his release, Lee went to London, where he then eloped with a barmaid, abandoning his wife who was expecting their second child.
He then seemingly disappeared without trace — having reportedly visited Australia, America and Canada — and Mike Holgate only recently discovered that Lee died in 1945.
Mike traced the grave to a cemetery in Milwaukee, America. Records show Lee died, aged 80, on March 19, 1945.
The legend certainly did not die with Lee, however, because Mike recently recorded a number of spooky tales about The Man They Could Not Hang.
He said: "A strange event added to the mystery more than a century later when a pub named the John Lee opened on Babbacombe Downs at Easter, 1989.
"At the beginning of June, the swinging pub sign bearing the logo of a hanged man fell to the ground on three consecutive nights for no discernible reason.
"That same week, Steve Harley and his band Cockney Rebel were appearing in concert in Exeter. It had just been announced the talented singer-songwriter was to play the role of John Lee in a forthcoming movie.
"A tiny bay just outside Brixham was selected for the setting of the film, where a mock Victorian villa was to be built to re-create the scene of the murder.
"Extensive and dedicated research by the filmmakers had reportedly uncovered new facts about the murder and they had been incorporated into the script, which had two possible endings.
"The producer told the press: 'I've lived and breathed this for so long now that I'm not going to give up until I have discovered the truth.'
"Unfortunately, the 'truth' never came out because the film was abandoned, soon followed by the closure of the Babbacombe pub. Perhaps the two projects had earned the displeasure of John Lee's troubled spirit."
Mike Holgate will give selected talks and book-signings about John 'Babbacombe' Lee as part of the inaugural Sleuths crime-writing festival in Torbay, from April 1 to 4.
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