Hanging of Rainey Bethea, 1936: Last Public Execution in the United States
The last public execution in the United States took place at this location along the banks of the Ohio River in Owensboro, Kentucky in 1936. Rainey Bethea, an African American man, was sentenced to death after he was convicted by an all-male, all-white jury of raping Lischia Edwards, a white woman. He was hanged publicly in a lot beside the jail on August 14, 1936 at 5:32 AM. A crowd of almost 20,000 filled the vacant lot of the Daviess County Road Department to watch the execution. Enterprising vendors sold hot dogs and sodas to the crowd who waited throughout the night. In 1938, Kentucky legislation, embarrased by the press coverage of the hanging, passed a new law which outlawed public executions. The gallows were located where Owensboro's Executive Inn stood for four decades prior to its demolition and replacement with the Owensboro Convention Center.
Backstory and Context
The last public hanging in the United States took place on August 14, 1936 in Owensboro, KY. Rainey Bethea was sentenced to death by hanging after he was convicted for raping Lischia Edwards. Ms. Edwards, a 70 year old woman, was found at 11 am on Sunday June 7, 1936 by concerned neighbors who thought it odd they hadn't heard from her that day. She had been robbed, raped and murdered by an intruder who accessed the room from a window. A celluloid ring known to belong to Bethea was found in the room as were his fingerprints. Once located, Bethea was charged with the single crime of rape in order to circumvent the legal question of which legal punishment would be used. The punishment of hanging was only available for the crime of rape and electrocution used for the crime of murder.
The crime gathered nationwide attention because the Sheriff of Daviess County at the time was a woman. Florence Shoemaker Thompson became sheriff on April 13, 1936, after her husband, Everett Thompson, unexpectedly died of pneumonia. Thus, the hanging would be the first execution in America to be carried out by a woman. The execution was scheduled for 5:12 am but Thompson didn't wish to perform the execution so she asked Arthur Hash, a former Louisville police officer, to perform it for her. Hash dropped the trap door at 5:32 am in front of almost 20,000 spectators. Bethea was pronounced dead at 5:45 am and the crowd of 20,000 onlookers returned to their homes.
Newspapers nationwide took great liberties in reporting the event, many claiming that the crowd grappled for souvenirs torn from the body. Several wire services reported that the crowd was unruly and out of control although many firsthand accounts contradict these representations. Because of the exaggerated accounts of the event, Owensboro was ridiculed on a national level and the practice of public executions was called into question. On March 12, 1938 Kentucky Governor Chandler signed Senate Bill 69 into law. This bill repealed the requirement from Section 1137 that death sentences for the crime of rape be conducted by hanging in the county seat where the crime was committed.
Local resident Perry Ryan researched the case and concluded that Bethea was likely guilty of the crime."He made five different confessions to the crime and in one of the confessions he told police where he had hidden Mrs. Edwards’ jewels." However, Richard Brown, a member of the Kentucky state Human Rights Commission and a leader of the African American community, recalled hearing many stories indicating that the arrest and trial were racially motivated and Bethea's five confessions were coerced. This is a point of contention in the Owensboro community.
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Katz, Josh. "On This Day: Kentucky Holds Final Public Execution in the US." Finding Dulcinea. August 14, 2011. http://www.findingdulcinea.com/news/on-this-day/July-August-08/On-this-Day--Kentucky-Holds-Final-Pub...
Murrmann, Mark. "20,000 Watched the Last Public Hanging 78 Years Ago." Mother Jones. August 14, 2014. http://www.motherjones.com/mixed-media/2014/08/last-public-execution-rainey-bethea
Ryan, Perry thomas. The Last Publication in America. Lexington, kentucky. Alexandria Printing, 1992.