First, Rachel heads to Exeter, England to talk about John Lee: The Man They Could Not Hang. Then, Emily shares the story of Warren Clough, the first person convicted of murder in Seward, Nebraska. Hopefully, you’re horrified!
Story 1 – John Henry George Lee
Our story today begins in 1864, when John Henry George Lee was born in Devon, England. I couldn’t find a ton on his early life, just multiple sources saying he was a petty criminal. But in 1884, at the age of just 20, he would be sentenced to death.
Let’s back up.
John committed theft, was imprisoned, and then was released in 1884. Seemingly trying to make an honest man out of himself, he got a job alongside his half-sister, Elizabeth Harris. She was a cook for a kind, older woman – called a “spinster” in most of my research, which, rude – Emma Keyse. She lived at a residence called “The Glen” in Babbacombe Bay. This all sounds really fancy, but Emma was not wealthy – quite the opposite, and it seems she had a hard life. Her father died in 1820, when she was only 4. When her mother died in 1871, Emma inherited the property. Also, pretty much every source I read made her sound decrepit – she was 68 years old.
Emma was a family friend of John’s family. She had even sent a letter to the prison’s chaplain when John was still imprisoned to ask if he was reformed yet, because she wanted to give him a job. So she hired him.
But, on November 15, 1884, upon the discovery of Emma Keyse’s brutally murdered body, the only suspect was John Lee.
Emma was found lying in her home, beaten. Her throat had been cut, and several fires had been started, presumably to burn her body and cover up the evidence.
John ran to a local pub, telling all the patrons that “Miss Keyse is burnt to death.” And when the fire was extinguished, John Lee was arrested.
Obviously, this is a gruesome murder of a sweet lady, but you know our brains cope with humor, and all I could think while I was writing this is how it seems like a game of clue. Old spooky house, multiple servants. But who has motive?!?!?
So, let’s talk circumstantial evidence.
- John Lee was the only male servant, and we all know ladies don’t commit heinous crimes (ah, the 1800s).
- Emma Keyse had recently told John that she was selling “The Glen” and would be cutting his pay.
- He had a criminal record.
- His socks smelled like paraffin, allegedly.
- John Lee had an unexplained cut on his arm.
And that’s it. But also, his half-sister immediately threw him under the bus. She testified that after Emma told him she was going to pay him just 2 shillings a week, John ran sobbing into the kitchen to share his woes with Elizabeth. Then, she said that her half-brother told her that he would have his revenge.
This was enough for John Lee to be convicted and sentenced to hang, even among his proclamations of innocence. A few days before his scheduled execution, he told the chaplain at Exeter Prison, John Pitkin, that there was another man at the Glen on the night of Emma’s murder. He said it was a fisherman, Cornelius Harrington, probably, but he was there late at night screwing around with his half-sister, so Elizabeth would know his name for sure.
Police investigated this claim, but essentially said it was bullshit. Elizabeth Harris said that Cornelius Harrington was a respectable fisherman. He had never been seen at the Glen, and he had an alibi – it was confirmed that he was at his home on the night of the murder.
So then everyone was all, “This guy isn’t just an old-lady murderer – he’s also a liar. Let’s hang him!”
On February 23, 1885, John Lee climbed up on the scaffold, stood above the trap door, and waited for his fate.
The executioner, James Berry, pulled the lever.
It didn’t work. So, James Berry was all, “okay bud, step on down, we’re having some technical difficulties.” He tried pulling the lever again without John on it, and everything worked well. So, John got back on the scaffold, noose securely tied around his neck, watched the executioner pull the lever, and then:
Here is a quote about this kerfuffle:
“On the prisoner reaching the place of execution he was placed by Berry, the executioner, immediately under the cross-beam, over which was carried the rope; he was faced outwards towards the door, with both feet standing transversely on the junction of the two flaps or shutters which formed the drop. The executioner, with considerable skill and rapidity (as it appears to me) strapped the culprits legs above the ankles, drew the cap over his face, adjusted the noose round his neck, stepped back and pulled the iron handle or trigger, to let fall the foot-boards, to my intense astonishment, however, these latter deflected only about a quarter of an inch and appeared to be tightly jammed together about the centre. The executioner and some of the prison officials standing by endeavoured, by stamping on the boards, to get them to move, but without avail. After some seconds the prisoner’s face was uncovered, and he was led away to an adjoining cell or room in the prison.”
While John waiting inside, the scaffold was getting a full renovation. Prison officials cut the wood to create a bigger gap between the to doors, and one of the men stood on it to make sure it would open. Everything worked as intended, so they were all, “third time is the charm!”
Amazingly, when John Lee returned to embrace his fate for a THIRD TIME, it failed again.
At this point, the medical officer attending the hanging was like, “THAT’S IT! NO MORE PSYCHOLOGICAL TORTURE. WE’LL TRY AGAIN ANOTHER TIME.”
This whole ordeal took over half an hour. John Lee went back to his cell.
At this point, no one really knew what to do. Here’s a quote from The Guardian:
“In spite of the peculiar atrocity of his crime, it is impossible not to feel some pity for a man who was thus doomed to undergo three times a great part—perhaps the greater part—of that penalty which the law condemned him to suffer once.”
And his sentence was changed from death to life in prison.
Prison officials also said they were only doing hangings in the future weather permitting. That’s right – there was a rain-delay for hangings, because initial speculation was that the scaffold wasn’t working because rain water caused the wood to swell. But, when they opened everything up, the boards were dry. It turns out that there was a tiny misalignment – 1/8 inch, of the big-ass bolt holding the trap door in place. For whatever reason, John Lee’s specific weight on the scaffold caused the hinges and the bolt to smush together, and the door never opened.
Side note – that scaffold was moved to a different building and used one more time at Exeter Prison – it worked properly.
John Lee spent 22 years in prison. At 42 years old, in 1907, he started touring around England as the infamous “Man They Could Not Hang,” telling anyone who would listen his story. And it seems that John turned his life around. He married a nurse, Jessie Augusta Bulled, in 1909, and they welcomed a son named John in 1910.
But then, in 1911, this Motherfucker left his PREGNANT WIFE, and disappeared.
But luckily for us, we know what happened next. John’s fame was fading and he wasn’t exactly a family man. He got on a ship that was headed for America with a young woman trying to get out of her own marriage, Adeline Gibbs. Adeline claimed to be Jessie Lee, John’s actual wife, in the documentation on the ship.
For a few weeks after he left her to start his new life in America, John Lee sent real Jessie money to take care of his son (and soon, his daughter, Eveline). But eventually he was all, “Yeeeahhhh I’m not sending any more money. Best of luck in your endeavors!”
John’s endeavors brought him to Milwaukee, WI. He and Adeline welcomed a daughter together in 1914, who was also named Evelyn. Spelled differently – but super weird.
Oh, and in a CRAZY twist, on October 12, 1933, when Evelyn was 19-years-old, she was found dead at the house of the man she was working for. She had been employed as a maid for only a week – she died from inhaling Naphtha, which she had been using to clean the drapes. Her cause of death was accidental asphyxiation.
The Man They Could Not Hang lived a low-key life in Milwaukee until his death in 1945. He was 80 years old. He was buried next to Evelyn, as was Adeline when she died in 1967.
John Lee continued to say that he was innocent. He tried to blame Elizabeth one last time, stating that she told a man from the Salvation Army, Major Pearson, that she had committed the murder. Apparently, there is no Major Pearson.
An absolute douche until his dying day.
And that is the story of John “Babbacombe” Lee, The Man They Could Not Hang.
Story 2 – Murder of Nathan Clough
Today I am talking about the very first murder conviction in Seward, Nebraska.
This homicide occurred in May, 1876, in the very sleepy little town of Seward. It was a Tuesday morning and Warren Clough, a well known member of the community and landlord and proprietor of the Blue Valley House (a hotel), went to look for his brother Nathan. Nathan must have been a bit of a vagrant because he pretty regularly slept in Warren’s stable. Anywho, this morning, Warren’s wife Harriet called them for breakfast and Nathan wasn’t there – which was odd – so Warren went out to the stable.
When Warren entered the stable he called out for his brother, but no one answered. So, he walked upstairs to where the bed was and called again repeatedly; still no answer.
Finally, Warren walked up to the bed and shook Nathan to try and wake him up. Nothing. It was right about now that Warren noticed that Nathan had his PJs pulled up over his face, and the PJs had blood on them. At first, Warren didn’t even connect the dots because Nathan had been prone to bloody noses.
But, after he pulled the PJs down and got a closer look… he saw that Nathan’s head was bashed in and mutilated. There was clotted blood everywhere. His brother was dead.
Warren called the police and this news spread fast through the community. Literally small towns find out information faster than anywhere else – and because this is a small town in the 1800s the morbid curious arrived in droves to the barn to check out the murder scene!
What they – and the police – saw was a gruesome scene.
It seemed that Nathan he gone to bed as usual the previous night. He had gotten undressed, laid his clothes out on the chair as he usually did. Everything indicated that he had gone to sleep healthy and alive. But then… someone snuck up to his bedside and hit him hard with the handle of an axe, crushing in his skull over the left temple.
Then the murderer struck Nathan again with the handle over the right eye, which caused a massive fracture of the skull. In the most overkill of overkills, the killer then followed this blow with a heavy cut with the sharp edge of the ax into the left cheek, laying open part of the chin, penetrating clear through the cheek and lower jaw-bone. This was super gruesome, but the head hits were what really killed him.
No other marks of violence or any evidence of a struggle were seen.
To make the scene even grosser, the blood from Nathan’s head had completely saturated the blankets, robes, quilts, and pillows, and run down into the corner of a small box standing under the bed. There was a bloody track under the front and head of the bed, and it seemed like the murderer had wiped his hands on a rug.
On Nathan’s body was a whopping $625 – which in 2022 would be about $23,000. So, the cops asked Warren what the heck that was all about and he told them that just a few days earlier he had actually given his brother a check for $1000 (aka $36,000). This check was meant to be for Nathan to go buy some horses and some other things like stocks and bonds – so the police speculated that whoever murdered Nathan must have known that he had money on him and that was the motive.
So, with a motive seeming more obvious they started to think about who would have known about the money. Here’s what they were thinking. Now, first, apparently, some man usually stayed in the barn with Nathan but that person left that day and didn’t come back that night so they didn’t think it could be him.
Warren DID say that he had heard Nathan talking to some men in the barn that night and when he went out in the morning the door was ajar – so he posited that these must have been the killers and they must have escaped out the barn door and not bothered to shut it behind them. How rude.
After some additional searching – in the yard – a few feet away – they found an ax. It was near a woodpile; at first, they didn’t think it was the weapon, from a casual glance it looked clean, but when they looked closer… blood and hair of the victim’s eyebrows were discovered on the handle and at different places on the iron. This was definitely the murder weapon.
This was another clue… It seems that after the murderer had killed Nathan and then went and washed the ax in some water near the well and chopped it into the ground near the woodpile. Whoever did this had to have been somewhat familiar with the location.
Several individuals that frequented the hotel were suspected, and a coroner’s jury was called in to try to unravel the mystery surrounding Clough’s demise.
Rumors began to circulate that the dead man’s brother, Warren Clough, was responsible for his own brother’s death. Warren vehemently denied that he had killed his brother, but despite the lack of definitive evidence against Warren Clough, he was pretty much blamed by his neighbors for the murder. And before long, the rumors about Warren put him in the spotlight and after much public pressure, they finally indicted Warren Clough of murder.
People in Seward were PISSED. They even had to put the biggest dude they could find to keep watch over the jail to make sure there wasn’t mob violence. Feeling against him was so strong in Seward that a change of venue was granted and the trial took place in the neighboring city of York.
This trial lasted for a full month and the courtroom was regularly filled to the brim with people. People would come from all over the state and even camp out to make sure they got good seats in court. It also seemed like everyone was divided – some people thought there was no way Warren could have done it and some people were like KILL HIM WITH FIRE.
After a long, tedious trial, Warren was convicted of murder in the first degree and was sentenced to be hung. O.P Mason, the defense attorney appealed with the state supreme court, but they didn’t overturn the conviction.
They actually built the gallows in the courtyard just a few yards from Warren’s jail cell, so he could watch it all happen and ponder his mortality. But, he had good friends. They were like NO, murder? Can’t be. And they flooded the governor’s desk with letters asking for his death sentence to be stopped. Luckily, on the evening before the execution was to take place, Governor Silas Garber commuted the sentence to life imprisonment.
After a few years, though, people cooled their jets and started doubting whether or not Warren was guilty. And then some interesting testimony came out about who may have had the motive and means to murder Nathan. You see, at the time of Nathan’s murder, Warren was employing two men named Jacob Trent and Charles Wilcox. And at some point, Jacob was talking to Judge O.P. Mason, who was the judge in Warren’s trial, and he said that “Warren was an innocent man and if the worst came he would tell all.” Of course, before he could “tell-all” he suddenly died of heart disease in the penitentiary.
But, nonetheless, this offered up a bit of doubt about the legal system. And then Judge Mason was like “Yeah, honestly, there wasn’t really enough evidence to convict him…”
And, after that, pretty much everyone was like “My bad.” Not only did his old acquaintances, but the prosecuting attorney that worked for his conviction, the judge that sentenced him for murder, and a number of the surviving jurymen that sealed his doom, all came together to ask the Governor (Governor John M. Thayer) to free Warren.
On New Year’s day in 1891, the Governor pardoned Warren after 14 years, saying, “The evidence that convicted Clough was circumstantial only, but somebody had to be punished for the crime and on the brother of the murdered man the blame was laid.”
Warren asked for $20,000 in reparations – or about $650,000 today – and I am not sure if he ever received them.
After his release, Clough went back to Seward, where he was given a reception and dinner, but he found it difficult to return to his former life. The hotel he once operated was now owned by others, and his wife had secured a divorce and married again, relocating with their son to Oklahoma.
Warren Clough reportedly went to Oklahoma to visit them and died there several years later. As one book said, “The prison bars had been taken away but his shattered life could not be put back together.”
- Exploding Bakery
- Ram Museum
- Exeter Cathedral
- Solo Sophie
- Cult of Weird
- Smithsonian Magazine
- Murder Research
- British Newspaper Archive
- County of Seward NE
- IAGEN Web
- History Nebraska
- Google Books