“If we were brought to trial for the crimes we have committed against ourselves, few would escape the gallows” – Paul Eldridge
Call it my own personal neurosis, but I’ve always had a preference for anomalistic phenomena that don’t lend themselves to a grand explanation. UFO’s may very well be driven by extraterrestrials with startlingly weird agendas. Bigfoot and sea monsters could certainly be elusive, undiscovered critters. Ghosts might haunt the sites where they met their traumatic end. Elaborate theories and conspiracies are easily envisioned that obscure or hide essential truths about reality, and in the words of William Burroughs, “A well-orchestrated cabal could easily manage such things”. The grand old tropes of strange phenomena are operatic in nature, vast sweeping things that capture our imaginations, who’s seeming ubiquity across time and space lend them a tangibility, and exhibit a willingness to pose for blurry portraiture. And they provide rather large targets for skeptics to debunk, deride and dismiss, proving to themselves and their fellow travellers that the Great and Powerful Oz is but smoke and mirrors, but somehow failing to pay attention to the man behind the curtain. To demonstrate the implausibility of UFO’s, Yeti, and the spirits of the dear departed seems to be enough, particularly when the persistence of uncouth folks in seeing these things can be equated with the ignorance of observers in a domain that is the narrow province of a learned skeptic. You see alien spaceships because you are poorly versed in meteorology or astronomy. You believe in gods and spirits because you are sociologically impaired. These are broad brush characterizations of both skeptic and believer, but that is because the headline-grabbing anomalies of our day are grand in scope, either embraced with loving and open arms, or ushered away with dramatic gestures. I’ve come to prefer the small details. The alien who asks for a Dr. Pepper. The cat that says “Hot enough for you?” and disappears in a sulphurous cloud. The Grim Reaper who for some odd reason was sighted wearing skis. These anomalies, bizarre eruptions of the unreal, fall into the murky realm of folklore and mythology, as what is reported is often so inexplicable that nobody bothers to try and explain it, but this is (or perhaps should be) the meat and potatoes of anomalistics, the small but strange vs. the unmanageable monstrosity of our existential yearnings (Are we alone? What happens when we die? What is life all about?). We are awash in a sea of a thousand points of weirdness, unlikely coincidences, synchronicities, and bizarre twists of fate. Yet we prefer to reach for alien brothers in the sky, offer outstretched hands to hermit hominids, and try to salve the torments of specters, while the Super-Sargasso Sea calmly laps the shore with the butterfly you just thought about, those lost keys and socks, and the winning lottery numbers that just popped into your head. Of course, one runs the risk of overindulging the temptation to identify impossibilities. It is butterfly season. The kids hid the keys. And well, the socks are still a mystery, but between the mundane mysteries of day to day life and the large conspiracies of credulity and incredulity, there are tangible oddities that make no sense, small vignettes that bear repeating precisely because we can really only shed our conspiracy theorizing, our desire to answer the “big questions”, and eschew our need to model unwillingness to be constrained by cultural norms, sit back and marvel in pure incomprehension. Consider the cases of John Babbacombe Lee (1864-1945) and Joseph Samuel (1780-1806), two men with little in common, separated by a century, who after repeated attempts, the universe simply refused to see hung.
Englishman John Henry George Lee (later known as John “Babbacombe” Lee), a former sailor in the Royal Navy, was convicted in 1885 of the brutal murder of Emma Keyse on what we would these days regard as circumstantial evidence , and sentenced to hang at Exeter prison. Three attempts were made, and in each instance, the trap door (that functioned flawlessly when Lee was not standing on it – having been tested with other individuals) that should have sent Lee to meet his maker with a noose about his neck simply refused to cooperate in full view of a crowd of reporters and morbidly curious onlookers.
On the 23d of February, in the year 1885, John Lee, a laborer, who had murdered an old woman for her money, was led from his cell in the penitentiary at Exeter, England, to be hanged. They draped the hangman’s noose around his neck and stood him on the trapdoor of the scaffold. Scores of witnesses stood by, strained and silent in the imminency of violent death. The sheriff of Exeter, representing British law, waved his hand. The bolt was drawn, but the trapdoor did not fall. John Lee stood there with the noose around his neck. It was annoying, embarrassing, unreasonable. They tinkered with the bolt, and investigated the trapdoor. Everything was in perfect order. Once more the sheriff of Exeter waved his hand. Once more the bolt was drawn. And once more John Lee stood upon the immovable trapdoor, unharmed. The sheriff ordered him back to his cell. Angry at the upset, the sheriff called upon a warder to stand upon the trapdoor—not, of course, with a noose around his neck, but with his hands clinging to the rope. The bolt was drawn. The door fell and down dropped the warder as he should have dropped, as John Lee should have dropped. And again they led John Lee from his cell in the old stone prison back to the bleak, stark scaffold. For the third time the sheriff of Exeter raised his hand as a signal for the bolt securing the trapdoor to be drawn. The bolt was drawn, easily and smoothly. But the trapdoor did not fall. John Lee still stood unhangable. Driven now to empurpled obstinacy, feeling somehow that the sanctity of the law was being made a jest of, the sheriff tried it again, for the fourth and last time. He waved his hand. The bolt was drawn. The trapdoor, half an inch of oak between John Lee, the murderer, and the death decree, stood as fixed and immovable as solid rock. The sheriff gave it up. The Home Secretary took it up. The matter was debated in the House of Commons. But execution was not attempted again. Lee’s sentence was commuted to imprisonment for life, and after a few years, and nobody quite knows why, he was turned loose (Hill, 1934, p132).
Another Englishman, Joseph Samuel, had the misfortune to be convicted for robbery in 1795 and was transported to the Sydney Cove penal colony in Australia, from which he escaped, reportedly killing a policeman named Joseph Luker (the first policeman to be killed in the line of duty in Australia, who incidentally had been a transported convict as well, freed in 1796) in a subsequent attempted robbery. Samuel and another unrelated criminal were taken to be hung in Parramatta. While the other unfortunate convict succumbed to the tender mercies of justice at the end of a rope, three attempts to hang Joseph Samuel inexplicably failed.
One hundred and fifty years ago to-day the drum beat of the New South Wales Corps invited the Sydney to watch the execution of two men who had been convicted of robbery. One Joseph Samuel, destined to historic fame as “The Man who Couldn’t Hang.” Three times was Samuel launched off the executioner’s cart. Twice the rope broke, and once it unraveled. Then, urged by the public clamor, the Provost Marshal sped off on horseback to report the extraordinary happenings to Governor King. An hour later he was back with a reprieve in his pocket. The half-throttled Samuel was laid carefully on the cart and jolted off to hospital, there to be re- stored to serve a life sentence. In the long and grisly annals of capital punishment there is no other record of a victim having cheated the gallows three times. There have been occasional bungles, when the rope has broken or slipped once (Sydney Morning Herald, September 26, 1953).
In each case, three attempts were made to dispatch John Lee and Joseph Samuel, and no amount of experimentation and testing on the mechanics of the process would explain their failure to hang. Both had their sentences commuted to life imprisonment, since obviously the universe had other plans, despite the fact that neither man had an especially remarkable past or future beyond their devotions to a life of crime, and certainly there was nothing to suggest that these men were possessed of Houdini-esque talents for escaping certain death. While some men may be “born to hang”, others obstinately refuse the honor, or perhaps nature simply wants to remind us the fine line between natural, preternatural, and supernatural exists solely in our minds and absurd attachment to the details of the real. As Charles Eames said, “The details are not the details. They make the design”.
Hill, Edwin Conger, b. 1884. The Human Side of the News. New York city: W.J. Black, 1934.
Scott, Geoffrey. “The Man They Couldn’t Hang”. Herald Saturday Magazine. The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954) 26 Sep 1953: 7.