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 This bill repealed the requirement from Section 1137 that death sentences for the crime of rape be conducted by hanging in the county seat where the crime was committed.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.