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Oft hung John Lee and an urban legend June 30, 2010

Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary, Modern , trackback











Beachcombing has recently had a bit of a thing about human sacrifice and capital punishment. But it is. he promises, a passing phase and has now reached its climax with a reading of Mike Holgate and Ian David Waugh’s superb The Man They Could Not Hang: The True Story of John Lee (2005). This book – a luscious, well-illustrated work from Sutton – tells the story of John Lee, the Briton found guilty of murder in 1885, who escaped execution because the trapdoor on the prison gallows would not open and ‘launch the criminal into eternity’ (as the Victorians would have put it).

The authorities can hardly be blamed for not trying. They tried, in fact, once, twice, then removed Lee from the vicinity and tried again without him. Confusingly the trapdoor opened when Lee was not standing there. The trapdoor also opened when a volunteer stood on the drop holding onto the rope for dear life. But, when Lee returned, noosed up, the trapdoor failed to open yet again. With the execution team in a complete flap Lee was sent back to his cell, offered brandy and later reprieved by the Home Secretary. Lee finally left prison in 1907 declaring his innocence. He is one of six individuals known to  Beachcombing whom survived a British execution and the only one to survive the long drop method of hanging.

Holgate and Waugh reveal in their well-researched book how Lee’s survival was a mere fluke. A secret government report stated, after experiments on the failing trapdoor, that a hinge was slightly out of place and interfered with the working of the trapdoor when a certain weight – e.g. Lee’s body – bore down on it. Mystery solved. But, as this report was classified, no one, other than the Home Secretary and his intimates, learnt the truth.

The result of this secrecy was a hundred years of rumour.

Beachcombing cut his historical teeth in a period where rumour is king and so he offers the following digest as an enjoyable warning about how falsities can elide with history.

i) In 1901 The Reporter carried a story from a prisoner who had spoken to an ‘old lag’ who had deliberately sabotaged the trapdoor using a flange on the sides of the flap.

ii) In 1927 in Thomson’s Weekly James Berry, the executioner – and a complete scallywag – claimed that a prisoner had revealed to a warder before the execution that a trick had been played on the mechanism by inmate carpenters.

iii) In 1931 the respected barrister Ernest Bowen-Rowlands quotes, in his autobiography, the letter of a ‘well-known person’  telling how an old prisoner had confessed – ‘I think when dying’ – that he had used a wedge to save Lee. The prisoner carpenter had removed the wedge when called in to put the gallows right and placed it there again when Lee returned to be hung once more.

iv) In the Western Morning News in 1945 an ex-inmate recalled how in the 1920s he had read – where? - a death-bed confession from a prisoner carpenter who had plotted together with Lee. The carpenter had used a warped board on the trapdoor and Lee had taken care to stand on the board in question thus blocking the downward swinging doors.

v) The last – the 1980s or 1990s? – was picked up by Holgate and Waugh in the course of their investigations. ‘A descendant living in Canada’ related a family tale. Thomas Philips, a joiner and poacher from Barnstaple had told his son that, while in prison in 1885, he had built the trapdoor for Lee in such a way that it would not open when Lee stood on it.

Now it is known that Lee survived because of a mispositioned hinge – there is no question of this hinge being a deliberate ruse because the hinge did not give consistent results when tested. There are also reasons for believing that prisoners did not help with the assemblage of the gallows – and they certainly had no access to the gallows in the days before the execution, let alone on the day itself. As facts then these stories need to be dismissed out of hand.

But as lessons in distortion these same stories are priceless. There is an authentic ‘urban legend’ here. A joiner prisoner saves Lee employing methods that change with the teller. Beachcombing notes how the story always comes at second or third hand. He notes too the extraordinary longevity of the story. It begins twenty years after Lee’s lucky escape and is still rolling along almost a century later.

Beachcombing will finish by asking the reader to imagine for a moment that the secret report was never made or, more credibly, that it was lost in a Whitehall flood/fire. What would historians today make of these tales?

Well, there would be a strong temptation to say ‘no smoke without fire’ and to accept that somewhere here there was a muddled memory of an act of sabotage on the part of inmates. There would be too references to the quality of some of the witnesses, especially Bowen-Rowlands, and that facile but all too familiar why-should-they-tell-a-lie line would be trotted out.  True, good historians – Beachcombing fears that he might not be among them – would point to the inconsistent nature of the reports. But then good historians would be in a minority.

So many histories are based on oral accounts of this kind passed across at least one generation. Beachcombing always tells his students (and with ever less conviction he tells himself) that as long as these accounts occur within living memory then they may be reliable. The urban legend here, however, is a reminder of how, equally, they may not be.

Indeed, the most terrifying fact for the historian in Holgate and Waugh’s book is that even immediately after the execution – an event that was of excruciating embarrassment for all involved and that would have been difficult to forget – those present disagreed about how many attempts had been made on Lee’s life: some said two, some said three, some said four!

At times Beachcombing wonders – with apologies to Calliope - if the entire historical profession should not, in despair, follow poor Lee onto the gallows and jump up and down on the trapdoor until the hinge budges…

It has been a long day.

Overly pessimistic? DrbeachcombingATyahooDOTcom