Jean Lee: The Romantic Murderer
Even Valentine’s Day is over, there’s no harm in sharing the story of Australia’s last woman to be executed (and it happened at the Pentridge Prison!).
Born Marjorie Jean Maude Wright in Dubbo, New South Wales. Jean Lee met Robert David Clayton, who had some criminal convictions, and their relationship soon became abusive and Lee was subjected to violence. She began to work as a prostitute.
The couple found a method to extort money from unsuspecting men, and later called it "the badger game". Lee would lure a man into a sexually compromising position and Clayton would burst into the room, and surprise them. Clayton played the part of the outraged husband, and blackmailed the other man into giving him money in return for his silence. As many of the men were supposedly respectable married men, they would often give Clayton money, rather than risk his telling their wives. On occasion, the man would refuse and Clayton would then beat and rob him.
The couple were later joined by Norman Andrews, another criminal whom Clayton had met while in prison.
In 1949, the trio targeted an elderly man, William "Pop" Kent. Kent, 73, was an SP Bookie. Kent invited the trio to have a drink at his flat—6 pm closing time was law in Victoria. They had heard that he kept money in his home, and thought Kent would be a soft target. While Lee kept Kent busy by performing oral sex, the two men would search the flat for money. The trio later gave conflicting statements to police, but it is known that Kent was tied to a chair, by Lee, and over a period of hours all three kicked and beat him, while demanding to know where his money was kept; they took his money roll he had in his pocket but wanted more. Kent was at first defiant, but eventually insisted that he had no extra money. He was tortured then stabbed several times, before Andrews strangled him. Neighbours heard Kent's screams and called police, but by the time they arrived, Lee, Clayton and Andrews were gone, and Kent was dead. Kent was found under a pile of sheets and clothing, his furniture had been broken and his home had been ransacked. A later report claimed Kent's penis had been cut off and stuffed down his throat.
The three were soon apprehended in a hotel room, still wearing blood-stained clothing. Lee and Clayton had more blood on their clothes than Andrews and Lee had an abrasion on her nose. Lee confessed to the crime and in an effort to save her lover, claimed that she had acted alone and that he had no knowledge of the events. All three were charged with murder but by the time their trial began on 20 March 1950, they had turned on each other, with each person attempting to shift blame onto the other two. Lee was charged under the principle of "common purpose" which meant that although it was accepted that she had neither stabbed nor strangled Kent, she had played an active role in his death and was therefore equally culpable. The three were found guilty and sentenced to death on 25 March by judge Charles Leonard Gavan Duffy. Lee became hysterical as she heard the sentence.
On 23 June 1950, the Court of Criminal Appeal ruled that their confessions had been improperly obtained and ordered a retrial, but this was overturned by the High Court. In December 1950 the Victorian cabinet confirmed that the prerogative of mercy would not be used and set a date for the executions. Lee's mental state declined after this, and she alternated between violently attacking her prison guards and begging for mercy, while stating repeatedly that she was innocent and that they had never meant to kill anyone. Lee also commented that she did not believe a woman would be hanged. As the date for her execution drew near, she grew increasingly erratic.
On 19 February 1951, the morning of her execution in HM Prison Pentridge, she became hysterical and had to be sedated. She fainted when the executioner came to her cell and she was strapped semi-conscious to a chair. She was executed at 8am. At 10am her accomplices Robert Clayton, 32, and Norman Andrews, 38, were also hanged. Clayton's last words were "Goodbye Charlie" and Andrews's last words "Goodbye Robert".
Jean Lee was one of two women executed in Australia during the 20th century, the other being Martha Rendell, who was hanged for murdering her de facto husband's children in 1909.
She was the last woman to be hanged before the death penalty was abolished.
In Popular Culture
Lee's story was the subject of a musical, The Hanging of Jean Lee, which was based on a biographical book of poems by Jordie Albiston. The score was written by Australian composer Andree Greenwell and the musical played at Sydney Opera House in 2006 featuring singers Max Sharam and Hugo Race.
It was also the subject of a 2007 album by Australian rock musician Ed Kuepper, Jean Lee and the Yellow Dog.
Know more about Jean Lee by joining our Pentridge Prison Ghost Tour: