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Stay of Execution

Dreamed 1885/2/22 by John Lee

Grayscale photograph of a balding man: John Lee c. 1885: though convicted of murder he could not be hanged.

John "Babbacombe" Lee... was a butler who was sentenced to be hanged in 1885 for the murder of his employer, an old lady [Emma Anne Whitehead Keyse]. On the night before he was to be hanged, in Exeter Prison, Lee had a dream in which he was led from his cell down through the Reception Basement to the gallows just outside, then placed on the "drop" (the trapdoor), and kept waiting there because the machinery opening the "drop" would not work. Finally, he was taken by another route back to his cell. He related this "very singular and strange dream," as he called it, as soon as he awoke, to the assistant warder and the supervising officer, who had watched him through the night. And these two officers reported the dream to the governor.

Everything happened as in his dream. He could not be hanged and [after three tries] the prison chaplain refused to witness any further abortive attempts. The Home Secretary withdrew the capital sentence and gave him life imprisonment. After serving about 15 years, Lee went to America, not dying until after the outbreak of the Second War.

The dream of course could have been born of a wish not to be hanged, but failures of the "drop" machinery were very rare indeed. Moreover, the route through the prison by which he was returned to his cell, which he described in his dream, was one he did not know in waking life. His prevision was clear and detailed; perhaps because it was so close to the terrible event.

Sources: J.B.Priestley's Man and Time (1964) with some details and corrections from crime-history websites (Lee really served 22 years not "about 15", emigrating to America as late as 1911). Was he innocent? He liked his employer, had no reason to harm her, and the case against him was entirely circumstantial. The killer tried to burn down the house (full of sleeping servants, including Lee's half sister); this suggests an outsider. Yet Lee's behavior was suspicious and his story inconsistent; several sites propose he was shielding someone. Incidentally, the hangman (despite a long career) after this case became an activist against capital punishment. The more I read of this murky mess--miracle or sabotage? psychic dream or sensationalism?--the more I agree with the hangman. Are we so sure we know who's guilty? Sure enough to kill?



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