Lee was born in Abbotskerswell, Devon, served in the Royal Navy and was a known thief. In 1885, he was convicted of the brutal murder of his employer, Emma Keyse, at her home at Babbacombe Bay near Torquay on 15 November, 1884. The evidence was weak and circumstantial, amounting to little more than Lee having been the only male in the house at the time of the murder, his previous criminal record, and being found with an unexplained cut on his arm. Despite this and his constant claim of innocence, he was sentenced to hang.
On February 23, 1885, three attempts were made to carry out his execution at Exeter prison. All ended in failure, as the trap door of the scaffold failed to open. This was despite the fact it had been carefully tested by James Berry, the executioner, beforehand. As a result, Home Secretary Sir William Harcourt commuted the sentence to life imprisonment. Lee continued to petition successive Home Secretaries and was finally released in 1907. The only other man in history known to have survived three hangings was Joseph Samuel.
Many theories have been advanced as to the cause of the failure, but Home Office papers show that the official report stated incorrect assembly of the gallows mechanism allowed the trap-door hinges to rest upon an eighth of an inch of drawbar, preventing them from opening when the doors were weighted. This incident helped to lead to a standard gallows design to prevent a reoccurrence.
After his release, Lee seems to have exploited his notoriety, supporting himself through lecturing on his life, even becoming the subject of a silent film. Accounts of his whereabouts after 1916 are somewhat confused, and one researcher even speculated that in later years, there was more than one man claiming to be Lee. It was suspected that he died in the Tavistock workhouse sometime during World War II. However, one recent piece of research concludes that he died in the U.S. under the name of "James Lee" in 1945. According to the book titled The Man They Could Not Hang by Mike Holgate and Ian David Waugh, Lee's gravestone was found at Forest Home Cemetery, Milwaukee.
Dave Swarbrick, fiddle-player in the English folk-rock band Fairport Convention, came across a series of old newspaper articles about Lee and was inspired to compose the folk rock opera Babbacombe Lee which was recorded and released by Fairport Convention as an LP in 1971.
Folk song collector Gwilym Davies was given a notebook in 1971 by a Mrs Hunt, of Greywell in Hampshire, in which the words of a poem, The Death of John Lee, were written. The words, with a composed tune, were published in 1972 by Davies in A Hampshire Garland.
For the American television series Alcoa Presents: One Step Beyond, scriptwriter Alfred Brenner fictionalized John Lee's story under the title The Devil's Laughter. It was aired as the series' 11th episode in March 1959. In the drama, the main character (here named John Marriott) survives multiple attempts to hang him for the murder of a woman, first as the gallows rope snaps, then as the trap door fails, as in Lee's case. Unlike Lee, Marriott admits to the slaying. However, like Lee, Marriott is dubbed "the man who can't be hanged" and is released from prison. During the first execution attempt, Marriott had had a vision that he would die somewhere in London "at the foot of a lion." Because Marriott regards this as impossible, he openly exploits his seeming ability to defy death, as Lee did, and defiantly survives another attempt to kill him. Ultimately, he dies in a careless fall, breaking his neck at the foot of one of London's many lion statues. This fatalistic ending – Brenner's invention to give his fictional version a moral conclusion – has no counterpart in the original account of Lee.