The Last Public Execution in the United States

20,000 people showed up for what would be the last public execution in the United States more than 75 years ago.

Rainey Bethea was led to the gallows at around 5:20 A.M. on August 14, 1936 in Owensboro, Kentucky. He was convicted of robbing, raping and murdering Lischia Edwards, a 70-year old woman. Bethea confessed to committing the crimes, but he was only charged with rape. Unlike a murder charge, which would have resulted in the maximum sentence of death by electrocution at the state penitentiary, a rape conviction allowed for the criminal to be publicly hanged in the county where the crime was committed.

The hanging drew national media attention, mainly due to the fact that the Sheriff of Daviess County was a woman. As Sheriff, Florence Shoemaker Thompson would be responsible for actually hanging Bethea, even though she ended up not pushing the lever to the gallow’s trapdoor. There was a media circus surrounding the hanging which prompted the Kentucky General Assembly to amend the law in 1938. This amendment no longer required convicted rapists to be hanged in the county of the crime.

The event that took place decades ago still haunts the small town in Kentucky. There is an overgrown muddy patch of land in the local cemetery where the grave of Rainey Bethea is suspected to be. The grave is anonymous and unmarked. Those who live in the area now are unsure about the facts concerning Bethea’s final resting place.

“It was not a carnival in the end,” insisted 85-year-old James Thompson, the son of then-sheriff Florence Thompson, in reference to the media circus that occurred on the day of the hanging. After the macabre event occurred, Governor Albert B. “Happy” Chandler expressed his regret at having approved the repeal, claiming “Our streets are no longer safe.”

By the time that Bethea faced the gallows, most other US states had stopped allowing public executions and started using the electric chair because hangings were seen as “ghoulish public events”, says Deborah Denno, a Fordham University law professor who studies the death penalty.

“There was a feeling that with the pain and botched hangings … it was inviting the worst in human behavior,” Denno said.

And that is exactly the way that Bethea’s death has been portrayed throughout history.

Headlines from around the country screamed news. From Chicago — “Death Makes a Holiday: 20,000 Revel Over Hanging.” From Evansville, Ind. — “Ghostly Carnival Precedes Hanging.” From Louisville — “‘Did You Ever See a Hanging?’ ‘I Did,’ Everyone in this Kentucky Throng can now Boast.” Newspapers described vendors selling hot dogs, popcorn and drinks.

 

“Every bar was packed to the doors. Down the main street tipsy merrymakers rollicked all night. ‘Hanging parties’ were held in many a home,” Time magazine reported in an Aug. 24, 1936, article.

Sheriff Thompson consulted with a priest before deciding to go through with the hanging, the magazine said: “Nevertheless, soft-hearted Sheriff Thompson sighed: ‘I suppose I will spend the rest of my life forgetting — or trying to forget’.”

“It was quite a burden on her,” her son said.

Had Bethea been convicted of Edwards’ murder — prosecutors never pursued that charge — the sentence would have been a private execution in the electric chair at the state penitentiary. And since his death, executions have been done in private, following a precedent set by New York when it switched to the electric chair in 1898.

Recently a video recording of Andrew Grant DeYoung’s execution in Georgia for the 1993 murders of his parents and his sister has raised some concerns regarding the continued privacy of executions. The video came at a request of defense attorneys who wanted to document the effects of sedative phenobarbital, part of the lethal injection method. Denno said that the video provides us with “a big step toward transparency” when it comes to capital punishment.

Occasionally, you hear ‘Why don’t we televise them?’ That never really goes too far,” said Richard Dieter, head of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C. “And, it probably won’t.”

Bethea made a final request in a note to his sister, Ora Fladger, in Nichols, S.C.: to take possession of his remains and bury them with other family members.

“So good by and paray that we will meet agin,” Bethea wrote.

But his remains were not sent east, and there is no record as to why. Fladger died in 1980, and letters sent by The Associated Press to other family members did not receive any response.

“No one knows where he’s buried.” said Sheila Heflin, information services manager at the Daviess County Public Library, which has an archive of materials related to Bethea’s case.

Most remnants of Bethea’s hanging are gone from Owensboro, a city of 57,265 about 40 miles east of Evansville, Ind. The gallows are lost to history and the site where they stood is under development as part of an effort to revitalize a stretch along the Ohio River.

But, the stigma of having conducted the last public execution in America lingers in this small Kentucky town.