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23-02-1885

A remarkable reprieve for a man sent to the gallows

Nineteen-year-old John Lee is sent to the gallows in Exeter, England. Convicted of murder despite insisting on his innocence, Lee was sentenced to death by hanging. Although the noose was brought around his neck and the lever was pulled, something malfunctioned and Lee was not dropped. The equipment was tested repeatedly and seemed to be in working order; weights used in a test run plunged to the ground as expected. But each time the lever was pulled when Lee stood over the trap door, nothing happened. Two more execution attempts were made without success, and Lee was returned to prison. Lee had been found guilty of killing Ellen Keyse, a rich older woman for whom he had worked. On November 15, 1884, Keyse, who had been a maid to Queen Victoria, was found dead in a pantry next to Lee's room. Her head was severely battered and her throat cut. There was no direct evidence of Lee's guilt; the case was made solely on circumstantial evidence. The alleged motive was Lee's resentment at Keyse's mean treatment. The authorities, mystified at the gallows' inexplicable malfunction, decided to ascribe it to an act of God. Lee was removed from death row, his sentence commuted, and he spent the next 22 years in prison. After he was released, he emigrated to America. The cause of Lee's remarkable reprieve was never discovered. Condemned prisoners no longer have a chance at such reprieves. Even when there are mishaps in carrying out an execution (in one case, an executioner failed to properly find a vein for a lethal injection), authorities follow through until the prisoner has been put to death.