John Babbacombe Lee  

John ‘Babbacombe’ Lee

of Abbotskerswell, Devon

His Family History

  John Lee
  John Henry George Lee
b. 1864 Abbotskerswell
d. 1945 Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA.


This is the family history of the convicted murderer John Henry George Lee of Abbotskerswell and the recent discovery of the later years of his life in America.

  His grandmother Elizabeth Elliott of Abbotskerswell, who was to marry twice, was aunt to Joseph Elliott, my migrant ancestor.

  What remains unsolved is the mystery of later lives John Lee’s first wife Jessie and their children John Aubrey Lee and Eveline Victoria Lee.

The Murder

  On the 15th November 1884 Miss Emma Ann Whitehead Keyse was brutally murdered and her home "The Glen" at Babbacombe, Torquay was set on fire .
Among those in service to Miss Keyse were John Henry George Lee and his half sister Elizabeth Hamyln Esterbrook Harris

  Death Certificate
  Death certificate of Miss Emma Keyse  

His Grandmother's Marriages

In the spring of 1821 Elizabeth Elliott of Abbotskerswell married William Begby, a wheelwright, on the 10th May to be precise.

  Elizabeth b.1802 was the eldest child of Thomas Elliott b.1776 and Mary Underhill, both of Abbotskerswell,

  Elizabeth and William Begby had 3 children, William, Thomas and Maryanne, all born in Abbotskerswell between 1821 and 1825.

  This appears to have little to do with the Lee family except that 10 years later William Begby and his 3 children had disappeared without a trace and Elizabeth was to marry again.

Elizabeth next married John Lee b.1804 of Ipplepen, cordwainer (shoemaker) on the 17th October 1831 in Abbotskerswell.
John was the eldest child of John Lee and Mary Lamb of Ipplepen
Ipplepen is a small village just 2 miles SW of Abbotskerswell
Elizabeth and John had 4 children all born in Abbotskerswell.

  John and Elizabeth resided at 4 Elm Cottage, Abbotskerswell; Elizabeth died 1868, 4 years after her soon to be famous grandson was born and John died 1887 just 3 years after the momentous events that captured the attention of all of England.

His Father and Mother

John Lee Jnr b.1834, a miner, married Mary Harris of Trusham in 1859 in Newton Abbot.

Mary Harris
b.1832 Trusham, Devon.
d.1918 Abbotskerswell, Devon.

At the time of their marriage Mary already had a daughter.

  It is interesting to note that the British 1851 census shows a Mary Harris in service to a Mr Esterbrook of Newton Abbot, a name that some time later was included in the forenames of Elizabeth and for the rest of her life she was known as Elizabeth Hamlyn Esterbrook Harris.

  John and Mary together had 2 children, both born in Abbotskerswell.

  John and Mary resided at 5 Elm Cottage, Abbotskerswell; John dying 1902 and Mary 1918.

His Half Sister

Elizabeth Harris
Elizabeth Hamlyn Esterbrook HARRIS
b.1855 Torbrian, Devon.
d.1926 Maryborough, Queensland, Australia.

Elizabeth b.1855 to Mary Harris, her father unknown, spent the first years of her life with her maternal grandmother Betsy Stevens of Pepperdon farm, Kingsteighton and when at a suitable age went into service in the district.
  At some later stage she followed her half sister Amelia and commenced working as a cook for a Miss Keyse at The Glen, Babbacombe and later was instrumental in having her half brother employed there as a butler.
Elizabeth was pregnant at the time of the murder and gave written evidence to the trial of John that “we have the same mother, but different fathers".

John's Young Life

John Lee's Birthplace, Abbotskerswell

John b.15 August 1864 a 1 Elm Cottage Abbotskerswell by the time of the 1881 census was a Boy 2nd Class on the vessel HMS Implacable in the port of Devonport. He next joined the training brig Liberty until at the age of 18yrs he contracted pneumonia. When he had recovered he was considered no longer fit for Naval duty and was discharged. He then had a variety of jobs in South Devon until he took up the position as footman to Colonel Brownlow at his Torquay residence. Some 6 months later, in 1883, he was arrested for stealing from the Brownlow family and jailed for 6 months, with hard labour, at the Exeter Assizes. After his release from the Exeter Prison he was assisted in obtaining the position of butler to Miss Keyse by his half sister Elizabeth Harris who was already employed at The Glen as a cook.

Drawing of Babbacombe, 1885

His Arrest

On the night of Saturday 15th November 1884 at her home at The Glen, Babbacombe, Torquay, Miss Emma Keyse was bludgeoned to death with an axe, her throat slashed with a knife and her house set on fire. Of the 3 servants in the house at the time, which included Elizabeth Harris, it was John Lee, whose behavior and appearance was described as very suspicious and together with his recent record of imprisonment and the fact he was under notice to quit the service of Miss Keyse, was arrested and charged with the murder.

The Trial

Lee Sketch

Initially John was unrepresented in court, much to the concern of many, however a solicitor R.Gwynne Templer eventually offered to assist and the trial was set to take place on Monday 2nd February 1885. Only two days before the trial Gwynne Templar became ill and was replaced by his younger brother Charles. On the side of the prosecution were two eminent counsels who presented the weak and mainly circumstantial evidence against John which amounted to little more than he having been the only male in the house at the time of the murder, his previous criminal record and unexplained blood on his clothes.
John Lee was represented in court by an MP who had earlier prosecuted him when he was convicted of theft from Colonel Brownlow. The defence was poorly prepared, it did not cross examine some witnesses for the prosecution nor did they call any witnesses on John's behalf.
Throughout the trial John Lee made constant claims of innonence.
The judge in his summation to the jury suggested that they must approach the case with an assumption in favour of innocence of the prisoner, and, whatever might be the result, he had never met a case where the evidence had been more fairly given, or its conduct had been more efficient.
The jury returned a verdict of guilty within 40 minutes.
The judge then passed the formal sentence of death.

The Hanging

The date for the hanging was set for the 23rd February 1885 at the Exeter Prison. This was spectacularly unsuccessful due to the failure of the trap to release - not just once, but three times. Amid the confusion of these botched attempts John was returned to his cell and at some later time the Home Secretary reduced his sentence to life imprisonment with the recommendation that he never be released.

  Cert of Inspection
  Certificate of Inspection of Trapdoor  

The Notoriety

The constant media attention of the murder and his narrow escape from death propelled John Lee to instant notoriety, not only as a murderer, but as John 'Babbacombe' Lee, The Man They Couldn’t Hang. Musicals, songs, poetry and plays were written and even a silent movie was made in Australia. These played almost continuously for many years to audiences throughout England and many other countries and even today these productions are still repeated.

His Release from Prison

After some 23 years in prison John, by now aged 41 and due to constant pressure to review his case, was released in December 1907. Ironically it was suggested that this was not because the merits of the case justified a review, but because of the infamous bungle which was made in attempting to hang him. Two years after his release he married and had children.

  Certificate of Release from Prison  

John's Wife & Family

On the 22 January 1909, John who by this time was the proprietor of a general store in Abbotskerswell and living at 3 Town Cottage in the village, married Jessie Bulled at the Congregational Church, Newton Abbot.

Jessie Augusta Widger Bulled, b.1875 Harwich, Essex was a Head Attendant in Female Mental Wards, residing at 68 East Street, Newton Abbot. She was the daughter of John Bulled an officer of the coastguard and Caroline Willcocks, both of Devon.

  John and Jessie had 2 children

At the time of their son’s birth the family was living at 54 South View, Newcastle and John was employed as a barman.
Just prior to the birth of his daughter John disappeared from public view, no doubt suffering from the constant and unrelenting media and public attention from the brutal murder which was attributed to him plus the notoriety from his now famous brush with death on the gallows.
When Eveline was born the family address was given as 88 Lansdowne Road, South Lambeth, John was still described as a barman, but he was not present-- he had left for America with another woman in the February of 1911 ! and had left Jessie abandoned in the Lambeth Workhouse with one child and pregnant with the second.
What fate befell Jessie is not known, suffice to say that life would have been extremely difficult in one of those wretched places.

John's Escape to America

As recently as 2004, researchers in England discovered records in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA of John’s later life.
On the 25th September 1939 he completed a Declaration of Intention, the first step in the process of becoming an American citizen. In this document he declared that he and his wife arrived in New York on the 28th February 1911 on the “Prinz Friedrich Wilhelm”.
It was then subsequently found that his “wife” was the barmaid Adelina Gibbs, who on the 20th November 1910, just 3 months prior to their departure for America, had married a William Jones at St Michaels Church, Litchfield.
Adelina was born 24th December 1874 Canterbury, Kent, to William and Evelyn Gibbs.
To date there is no record of John's divorce from Jessie Bulled or of a subsequent marriage to Adelina.
Also in this Declaration, John declared that he did not have children, however in the 1930 USA census there was a daughter Evelyn who was born on the 1st August 1914 to John and Adelina. She died suddenly on the 12th October 1933 whilst employed as a maid for Dr and Mrs Kovacs of 1803 West Wisconsin Ave, Milwaukee.

  John was employed in Milwaukee as a shipping clerk and died on the 19th March 1945 aged 81 yrs, his “widow” Adelina died on the 9th January 1969, both in Milwaukee.   For the 34 years John and Adelina had lived in Milwaukee, they had lived there illegally as their citizenship application had never been processed.
John was buried at the Forest Home Cemetery, Milwaukee.  

More about John's Half Sister

Soon after the trial Elizabeth Hamlyn Esterbrook Harris gave birth to a daughter Beatrice at the Union Workhouse in Newton Abbot on the 24th May 1885.
In December of 1886 she emigrated from Plymouth on the ship “Eastminister” to Maryborough, Queensland, her daughter Beatrice was not with her on the ship. No further record of this child has been found.
In Maryborough she married Robert Dukes, labourer of Yorkshire in 1892.
Robert Dukes was born 1866 in Northburton, Yorkshire, England to Michael Dukes & Jane Constable
Elizabeth & Robert had 3 children, all born in Maryborough or nearby Brooweena Elizabeth died in Maryborough, Queensland, Australia on the 26 Feb 1926. At that time she was living with her husband in March Street, Maryborough.
On the death certificate her parents were declared as John Harris & Mary Stevens & that she was born in Kings Steighton, Devon. This is a variation to the details recorded at the time of her birth which confirm that she was born in Torbrian, Devon to Mary Harris, her father was unknown.

More about John's uncle

George William Lee born 1841 was a miner; he married Ann Napper of Ashton in 1866.
They had 7 children, all born in Abbotskerswell. George and Ann lived first at 1 Burrow Road and later at 3 Sunnybank, Abbotskerswell when George was a gardener.
Ann died 1913 and George 1916, both at Sunnybank.


The recent discovery of the evidence of John Henry George Lee’s emigration to America in 1911, where he lived until his death in 1945 completes most of the mystery surrounding this man after his release from prison, but questions still surround the fate or otherwise of his wife Jessie and his son John Aubrey. Of his married daughter Eveline, it can only be hoped that she and her husband lived a full and happy life.

  More detail of the murder of Miss Keyse and the subsequent trial of John Henry George Lee can be found on the internet by searching for ‘John Babbacombe Lee’ or by connecting to Ian Waugh's webpages at johnlee

For any further information on any of the people or families on these pages
contact Alan Elliott

To return to the Elliott Home Page


Special thanks to The Public Record Office and The National Archives, London
and to historian Ian Waugh & author Mike Holgate, England.

Date Created: 1 December 2003
Last Modified: 9 February 2011