America’s Last Official Public Execution
Public executions in Western Europe and North America were always well attended and, let’s not kid ourselves, they would likely draw large crowds if held today. The number of websites offering videos of Islamic State beheadings suggests there is a public appetite for such grisly spectacles.
The gruesome ritual had always been a way for those in power to impress upon those without power about the importance of obeying the law and not engaging in plots to overthrow rulers.
Rainey Bethea was convicted of the rape and murder of a 70-year-old woman, Lischia Edwards. Bethea was black, Edwards was white. He had a history of petty crimes, and trouble with alcohol, and he was well acquainted with prison cells.
During his attack on Ms. Edwards and his theft of some of her jewellery he left behind plenty of fingerprints and a prison ring. Once captured, Bethea confessed and was charged with rape. At his trial, he entered a guilty plea and 18 days after the crime he received a death sentence.
Prosecutors never charged him with murder or robbery because a murder conviction would have meant electrocution in the state prison. However, a rape conviction carried the possibility of a public hanging.
The Day of Execution
A scaffold was built on an empty lot in Owensboro, the administrative seat of Daviess County, Kentucky.
The case received national attention, not least because the sheriff of Daviess County was Florence Shoemaker Thompson and, as such, it was her duty to carry out the execution. Was a woman going to send Rainey Bethea on his journey into oblivion?
As Executed Today reports, “The press descended on Owensboro to cover the edifying spectacle of a plump mother stringing up a rapist, or else maneuvering her way out of the job. Would she or wouldn’t she?”
It turns out she wouldn’t. A former Louisville police officer, Arthur L. Hash, offered to do the job and his offer was accepted. Also, a farmer from Illinois named G. Phil Hanna, who had some experience in the hanging trade, was brought in to offer his expertise.
Just after sunrise, Rainey Bethea was escorted on foot from the Daviess County Jail to the scaffold. A huge crowd surrounded the place of execution; the heads of men, women, and children strained upwards to catch a good view.
Bethea mounted the 13 steps to the platform where his executioners and various officials waited for him. He stood on the X marked on the trapdoor, three straps secured his ankles, thighs, and arms and chest, and a black hood was put over his head.
Hanna placed the noose over his head and after adjusting it signalled to Hash to pull the lever that opened the trapdoor. But Hash did nothing. He had spent the night in the company of his favourite beverage and was drunk as a boiled owl. Eventually, after Hanna said sharply to him “Do it,” he moved into action.
The condemned man dropped eight feet, and 15 minutes later, at 5.45 a.m., was declared dead. The assembled multitude remained mostly silent during Rainey’s ordeal.
Eye Witness Account
Aftermath of the Rainey Death
Newspapers in Chicago, New York, and elsewhere had sent reporters to cover the hanging; serious money had been spent. The publishers and editors did not want descriptions of a decorous and sombre ending to the life of a black rapist. So the newsmen, whose pay cheques depended on pleasing their bosses, obliged.
As The Associated Press reported 75 years later there were headlines “From Chicago―‘Death Makes a Holiday: 20,000 Revel Over Hanging.’ From Evansville, Ind.―‘Ghostly Carnival Precedes Hanging’ … Newspapers described vendors selling hot dogs, popcorn, and drinks.”
Breathlessly, The Boston Daily Record told its readers that “Cheering, booing, eating, joking, 20,000 persons witnessed the public execution … In callous, carnival spirit, the mob charged the gallows after the trap was sprung, tore the executioner’s hood from the corpse, chipped the gallows for souvenirs.”
Time magazine chimed in with “Every bar was packed to the doors. Down the main street tipsy merrymakers rollicked all night. ‘Hanging parties’ were held in many a home.”
An End to Public Execution
The media circus surrounding the hanging of Rainey Bethea embarrassed the people of Kentucky.
The local newspaper, The Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer, took great exception to the fictions created by out-of-town journalists. It reported the proceedings had been conducted in a dignified and respectful manner: “… a calm, quiet demeanor characterized their behavior, as a group …”
“There was not the semblance of ‘mob impulse’ or ‘eagerness for the kill.’ For the sensation-seeking star scribes or quacks of American journalism, it was entirely too tame an affair. This is the reason that some of them reported it as they wanted it to be—not as it was.”
But, the damage was done. Owensboro and Kentucky were tainted by the lurid tales of a blood-hungry mob yelling for vengeance.
The next two men convicted of rape were quietly put to death in the privacy of prisons. The Kentucky General Assembly only met once every two years so a law halting public executions had to wait until May 1938. After he had signed the bill into law, Governor “Happy” Chandler expressed regret saying “Our streets are no longer safe.”
- In 2018, North Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Somalia were reported to have carried out public executions. Extra-judicial public executions are frequently carried out by terrorist groups such as ISIS.
- In January 1977, Gary Gilmore was executed by firing squad in Utah. Norman Mailer wrote about the event in his book, The Executioner’s Song, in which he noted how people elbowed their way into viewing the shooting: “Ron Stanger’s first impression was how many people were in the room. God, the number of spectators. Executions must be a spectator sport … [T]here was Gary staring at the crowd with an odd humor in his face. Stanger knew what he was thinking. “Anybody who knows somebody is going to get an invite to the turkey shoot.”
- There have been public executions in the United States since Rainey Bethea’s, but these have been extra-judicial lynchings. The last recorded lynching was of Michael Donald who was hanged by the Ku Klux Klan in Mobile, Alabama in 1981.
- “20,000 Watched the Last Public Hanging 78 Years Ago.” Mark Murrmann, Mother Jones, August 14, 2014.
- “The Last Public Execution in America.” National Public Radio, May 1, 2001.
- “Nation’s Last Public Execution, 75 Years ago, still Haunts Town.” Brett Barrouquere, Associated Press, August 14, 2011.
- “Rainey Bethea Last Public Execution in the United States.” Crime and Capital Punishment, undated.
- “The Last Public Hanging in America.” Steven Higgs, The Bloomington Alternative, October 10, 2011.
- “1936: Rainey Bethea, America’s Last Public Hanging.” Executed Today, August 14, 2008.
© 2016 Rupert Taylor