Less than a century ago, 20,000 people traveled to Kentucky to see a white woman hang a black man.
The United States has a long history of so-called “legal” public executions. The last one was carried out in Owensboro, Kentucky, in 1936 when Rainey Bethea was hanged after his conviction for the rape and murder of a 70-year-old woman. Florence Thompson was the sheriff. She had taken over the job from her husband, Everett, some three months earlier, after he had died of pneumonia. In law it was her duty to spring the trap herself, although she was allowed to hire someone to do it for her. The idea of a female sheriff carrying out an execution greatly added to the excitement and attention the case received from the press.
|Rainey Bethea photographed two weeks before his hanging. (AP Photo)|
|Local sheriff Florence Thompson was charged with seeing the public execution through. (AP Photo)|
Crime and arrest
During the early morning of June 7, 1936, Bethea entered the home of Lischia Edwards at 322 East Fifth Street by climbing onto the roof of an outbuilding next door. From there, he jumped onto the roof of the servant’s quarters of Emmett Wells’ house, and then walked down a wooden walkway. He climbed over the kitchen roof to Edwards’ bedroom window.
After removing a screen from her window, he entered the room, waking her. Bethea then choked Edwards and violently raped her. After she was unconscious, he searched for valuables and stole several of her rings. In the process, he removed his own black celluloid prison ring, and failed to later retrieve it. He left the bedroom and hid the stolen jewels in a barn not far from the house.
The crime was discovered late that morning after the Smith family, who lived downstairs, noticed they had not heard Edwards stirring in her room. They feared she might have been ill and knocked on the door of her room, attempting to rouse her. They found the door locked with a skeleton key still inside the lock from the inside, which prevented another key from being placed in the lock from the outside. They contacted a neighbor, Robert Richardson, hoping he could help, and he managed to knock the key free, but another skeleton key would not unlock the door. Smith then got a ladder. He climbed into the room through the transom over the door and discovered that Edwards was dead.
The Smiths alerted Dr. George Barr while he was attending a service at the local Methodist Church. Dr. Barr realized there was little he could do and summoned the local coroner, Delbert Glenn, who attended the same church. The Smiths also called the Owensboro police. Officers found the room was otherwise tidy, but there were muddy footprints everywhere. Coroner Glenn also found a celluloid prison ring, which Bethea, in his drunken state, had inadvertently left behind in the room.
By late Sunday afternoon, the police already suspected Rainey Bethea after several residents of Owensboro stated that they had previously seen Bethea wearing the ring. Since Bethea had a criminal record, the police could use the then-new identification technique of fingerprints to establish that Bethea had recently touched items inside the bedroom. Police searched for Bethea over the next four days.
On the Wednesday following the discovery of the murder, Burt “Red” Figgins was working on the bank of the Ohio River, when he observed Bethea lying under some bushes. Figgins asked Bethea what he was doing, and Bethea responded he was “cooling off.” Figgins then reported this sighting to his supervisor, Will Faith, and asked him to call the police. By the time Faith had returned to the spot on the river bank, Bethea had moved to the nearby Koll’s Grocery. Faith followed him and then found a policeman in the drugstore, but when they searched for Bethea, he again eluded capture.
Later that afternoon, Bethea was again spotted. This time, he was cornered on the river bank after he tried to board a barge. When police officers questioned him, he denied that he was Bethea, claiming his name was James Smith. The police played along with the fabricated name, fearing a mob would develop if residents were to learn that they had captured Bethea. After his arrest, Bethea was identified by a scar on the left side of his head.
On August 6, the Governor of Kentucky, Albert Chandler, signed Bethea’s execution warrant and set the execution for sunrise on August 14. However, Sheriff Thompson requested the governor to issue a revised death warrant because the original warrant specified that the hanging would take place in the courthouse yard where the county, at significant expense, had recently planted new shrubs and flowers. Chandler was out-of-state, so Lieutenant Governor of Kentucky Keen Johnson, as acting governor, signed a second death warrant moving the location of the hanging from the courthouse yard to an empty lot near the county garage.
Rainey Bethea’s last meal consisted of fried chicken, pork chops, mashed potatoes, pickled cucumbers, cornbread, lemon pie, and ice cream, which he ate at 4:00 p.m. on August 13 in Louisville. At about 1:00 a.m., Daviess County deputy sheriffs transported Bethea from Louisville to Owensboro. At the jail, G. Phil Hanna, a farmer from Epworth, Illinois who had assisted with hangings across the country, visited Bethea and instructed him to stand on the X that would be marked on the trapdoor.
|On August 13, 1936, Rainey Bethea has his last meal in Louisville, Kentucky before being publicly hanged in Owensboro, Kentucky. (AP Photo/The Courier-Journal)|
It was estimated that a crowd of about 20,000 people gathered to watch the execution with thousands coming from out of town. Hash arrived at the site intoxicated wearing a white suit and a white Panama hat. At this time, no one but he and Thompson knew that he would pull the trigger.
Bethea left the Daviess County Jail at 5:21 a.m. and walked with two deputies to the scaffold. Within two minutes, he was at the base of the scaffold. Removing his shoes, he put on a new pair of socks. He ascended the steps and stood on the large X as instructed. He made no final statement to the waiting crowd. After Bethea made his final confession to Father Lammers, of the Cathedral of the Assumption in Louisville, officers placed a black hood over his head and fastened three large straps around his ankles, thighs, arms, and chest.
|Twenty-six year old Rainey Bethea is led up the gallows steps. (Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)|
|Bethea’s was the last sanctioned public hanging in the U.S. (Bettmann Archive via Getty Images)|
|Onlookers strain to view the hanging of Rainey Bethea in Owensboro, Kentucky, on August 14, 1936. (Joseph Costa/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)|
|Vendors do a brisk business as a crowd gathers before dawn—the hour of execution for convicted rapist Rainey Bethea. (Bettmann Archive via Getty Images)|
Hanna placed the noose around Bethea’s neck, adjusted it, and then signaled to Hash to pull the trigger. Instead, Hash, who was drunk, did nothing. Hanna shouted at Hash, “Do it!” and a deputy leaned onto the trigger, which sprang the trap door. Throughout all of this, the crowd was hushed. Bethea fell eight feet and his neck instantly broke. About 14 minutes later, two doctors confirmed Bethea was dead. After the noose was removed, his body was taken to Andrew & Wheatley Funeral Home. He had wanted his body sent to his sister in South Carolina. Instead, he was buried in a pauper’s grave at the Rosehill Elmwood Cemetery in Owensboro.
Many newspapers, having spent considerable sums of money to cover the first execution publicly performed by a woman, were disappointed, and several journalists took liberties in reporting the event, describing it as a “Roman Holiday,” some falsely reporting that the crowd rushed the gallows to claim souvenirs, and at least one newspaper falsely reported that Sheriff Thompson fainted at the base of the scaffold.
Afterwards, Hanna complained that Hash should not have been allowed to perform the execution in his drunken condition. Hanna further said it was the worst display he experienced in the 70 hangings he had supervised.