Surviving Executions

It is wrong to say that executions always go according to plan.

Although the condemned were reprieved in cases where equipment failed or the victim recovered, there was never any law that made this obligatory, either in America or England.

Nevertheless, when the death sentence was lawful in many countries, there was a sense of humanity which sometimes resulted in mercy for criminals who had survived botched executions.

JOHN BABBACOMBE LEE ( The Man they couldn’t hang )

Perhaps one of the most well-known English cases was that of notorious murderer John Babbacombe Lee, who is still remembered as “the man they couldn’t hang”. Three times, he stood on the scaffold at Exeter Gaol in 1885 when he was just 19, and each time the trapdoor under his feet failed to open. The trapdoor had functioned perfectly under tests.

John Babbacombe Lee (Image source: Babbacombe Lee)

The reason for this failure was thought to the presence of a warped board. The weight of the prison chaplain was also blamed as a contributor because he was present only at executions and not during the tests. This was thought to have caused the board to bend and jam the trap.

After a third unsuccessful attempt to hang him, his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment on humanitarian grounds. At times, he was thought to be “the man you shouldn’t hang” due to suspected divine intervention. He was later released in 1907 and emigrated to the USA, where he lived until his death in 1945 at the age of 80.


The case of Ann Greene is one of the earliest verified cases of a person being completely freed after an execution turned out to be unsuccessful. She was sentenced to death by hanging for infanticide at Oxford in 1650. After hanging for half an hour, she regained her consciousness as a surgeon was about to dissect her body. She recovered completely, married and even had three children.

Image Source: Wikipedia

The event was regarded as the special interference of the hand of God on behalf of the innocent, and called forth several pamphlets. The most notable of these was entitled Newes from the Dead, or a True and Exact Narration of the Miraculous Deliverance of Anne Greene – written by a Scholler in Oxford – whereunto are prefixed certain Poems casually written upon that subject, (Oxford, 1651)


In New South Wales in 1803, Joseph Samuels was sentenced to death for a crime he claimed that he did not commit. He continually protested, but it appeared as if all of that was in vain. He was still crying that he was innocent on the scaffold, and even accused another man of the crime for which he was wrongly convicted. Twice the rope snapped, and once it stretched so much that Samuel’s feet touched the ground below the scaffold. The governor reprieved him, and the man he had accused was later hanged in his stead. Joseph Samuels is one of the only two men who have survived three hanging attempts. Only John Babbacombe Lee could claim the same.


John Smith was sentenced for a ‘scandal’ in 1705 and had been hanging at Tyburn in London for 15 minutes when a reprieve arrived. The reprieve was a hoax, as it was later found out. But in the meantime, Smith had been cut down and revived. His life was spared and he spent the rest of his life celebrated as ‘Half-hanged Smith’. After this he was convicted three more times.

I remember a great pain caused by the weight of my body. My spirits were in a great uproar, pushing upwards; when they got into my head I saw a great blaze of glaring light that seemed to go out of my head in a flash. Then the pain went. When I was cut down I got such pins-and-needles pains in my head that I could have hanged the people who set me free.



Some thirty-five years later, 17-year old William Duell was hanged for raping a girl named Sarah Griffin. His body hung for about 20 minutes before it was cut down and sent to be anatomized for a medical training college, which was a common practice at the time.

Duell was stripped of his garments and laid on the board, about to be dissected. However,one of the servants noticed that he had breathing, which got quicker and quicker. He was able to sit upright after two hours. That night he was taken back to prison in Newgate. But during his trial, he suffered from a fever and delirium and had no recollection of the hanging incident.

Image source: The British Library

The public came to know of this and there was great excitement over this case. They decided to change his sentence to penal transportation and he was exiled for life.


No such mercy was shown to American murderer named James Bullen, who was sent to the electric chair at Sing Sing in 1932. He recovered on the way to the cemetery and leapt out of his coffin. He was caught and electrocuted again.

Image Source: Murderpedia

A curious case is that of Margaret Dickson, of Musselburgh, Scotland. She was hanged in 1728, and customers at an inn, it is recorded, were ‘greatly scared’ as they saw her climb out of the coffin on the way to be buried. Under Scottish law at that time, as she had been officially executed, her husband was now a widower. So, to legitimize their union, she was required to marry him again!



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