August 14, 1936 — A crowd variously estimated at 10,000 to 20,000 gathered at Owensboro, Kentucky on this day to watch the last ever public hanging in the United States. The fact that the prisoner was a young black man and that the sheriff overseeing the execution was a white woman intensified the interest of both the public and the Press. Reporters from across the country arrived to cover the event.
Rainey Bethea, aged 22, had been found guilty of raping a wealthy white widow, 70-year-old Lischia Edwards. A neighbour failed to get a reply when he knocked on her door on a Sunday morning in late June, concerned about her not leaving for church. Mrs. Edwards was then found dead on her bed, the coroner later declaring that she had been strangled and raped the previous night.
Bethea, who had a criminal record for burglary, had worked as a servant for several Owensboro families and had been employed at the apartment building where Mrs. Edwards lived. He became the prime suspect when a cheap ring belonging to him was found in the room.
After being arrested Bethea confessed to the crimes and admitted stealing jewellery belonging to Mrs. Edwards.
Under Kentucky state law at the time, conviction for robbery and murder would result in execution at the state penitentiary, but the prosecution, wanting the execution to take place at Owensboro, proceeded only with a charge of rape. This carried the possibility of public hanging, satisfying the lust of some townspeople for vengeance.
At his trial in a packed courthouse Bethea pleaded guilty. The prosecution still presented the facts to the jury as they would need to decide the sentence. There was no defence.
The judge instructed the jury that their only job was to decide whether Bethea should get between 10 to 20 years in prison or the death sentence. It took them less than five minutes to decide that he should be hanged.
This was not good news for Florence Thompson. She had taken over the job of sheriff from her husband who had died three months earlier. Sheriff Thompson, a mother of four, was expected to become the first woman executioner in United States history because in law it was her duty to spring the trap. But she was repelled by the idea and said so publicly.
She then received death threats and it was agreed she could ask someone to do the job for her. And so retired police officer Arthur Hash was hired by Sheriff Thompson to pull the lever.
Organising the whole squalid affair was an Illinois farmer named G. Phil Hanna who had overseen about 70 hangings. He took interest in the grisly pursuit when he saw a botched execution that caused great suffering for the victim. After studying how to hang someone as humanely as possible he began offering his services.
At Owensboro Hanna adjusted the noose around Bethea’s neck and gave the signal to Hash to pull the lever. But Hash was reportedly drunk and failed to notice. Exasperated, Hanna yelled, “Do it now!” And so one of America's most shameful executions came to an end.
Many newspapers denounced “the carnival of sadism” saying that the crowds enjoyed it too much. But they also carried a large number of indignant letters, the writers telling of their shame that such a thing could happen in Kentucky. Two years later the state abolished public executions.
Published: August 11, 2018