Rainey Bethea - The last truly public
hanging in the USA.
last fully public hanging took place at Owensboro,
on Friday, August 14, 1936 when 22 year old Rainey Bethea
was put to death for the rape and murder of 70 year old Lischia
Edwards. Florence Thompson was the
sheriff. She had taken over the job from
her husband, Everett, some three months earlier, after he had died of
pneumonia. In law it was her duty to
spring the trap herself, although she was allowed to hire someone to do it for
her. The idea of a female sheriff carrying
out an execution greatly added to the excitement and attention the case
received from the press. Here is a photo of Florence and here one of Bethea, apparently enjoying some ice cream as part of his
Lischa Edwards was a 79 year old widow who lived in a three room apartment
at 322 E. Fifth Street
in Owensboro. The crime was discovered by her neighbor, Robert Richardson, who failed to get a reply when
he knocked on her door on the morning of Sunday, June 7, 1936, after he became
concerned about her not leaving for church.
He and other neighbors gained entry and found
Mrs. Edwards dead on her bed. Coroner
Delbert J. Glenn found that she had been strangled and raped during the
A search of the apartment revealed a broken
cheap black celluloid ring with a black “R” against a white background. Police
determined that the robber had climbed onto a coal shed roof and then onto a
servant’s house and onto the roof of a covered walkway and finally onto the
kitchen roof and into Mrs. Edward’s apartment.
It was clear that the perpetrator was familiar with the building.
Bethea was the first suspect,
he had worked as a servant for several Owensboro
families and had been employed at the apartment building where Mrs. Edwards
lived. He had served time in Eddyville for burglary but was released on parole
after six months. The celluloid ring had
been obtained in Eddyville and was identified as belonging to him. So on June 16, a warrant was issued for his
arrest on charges of murder and rape. He was arrested by two patrolmen after a
worker at Owensboro River Sand & Gravel spotted him hiding beneath some bushes
along the Ohio River bank. After
arraignment before Judge F.A. Roby, he was transferred to Jefferson
County jail in Louisville to prevent the possibility of a
lynching. During the drive, he made a
verbal confession to the escorting officers and later a written one at Louisville. In this he stated that the jewellery he had
stolen from Mrs. Edwards was hidden in his room. This was found to be untrue and Bethea withdrew this confession only to make another in
which he said the jewellery was stashed in a barn near his victim’s apartment
which was where the police found it.
In 1920 Kentucky had re-introduced hanging as the
punishment for rape and rape/murder.
Electrocution had replaced hanging as the punishment for murder in 1911
and was also the punishment for rape from then until 1920. Five men would die in the electric chair at
Eddyville for rape and one for rape and murder up to March 11th, 1920 when 23
year old Will Locket was put to death there.
The new law, which survived a challenge in the Appeal Court, allowed for hangings to be
carried out in the county in which the trial took place and left it up to the
sheriff to decide whether the hanging should be in full public or semi public,
behind a stockade. Both methods were
used, with three public hangings preceding this one. The previous one was 22 year old William De Boe, the only white man to die for rape, who was hanged at
Smithland on April 19, 1935 before a crowd estimated at 1500.
On June 22, 1936, Circuit Court Judge
George S. Wilton convened a special session of the grand jury. Commonwealth Attorney Herman Birdhead decided to proceed only with the rape charge as
this would require Bethea to be hanged in Daviess County.
The Grand Jury took just one hour and fifteen minutes to return an
indictment on the rape charge.
The trial began three days later (the minimum time allowed by Kentucky law) in a packed courthouse. Bethea pleaded
guilty. Over the next three hours the
prosecution still presented the facts to the jury as they would need to decide
the sentence. There was no defence.
At 12:23 p.m., after just 4 ½ minutes, they
returned with a unanimous verdict of guilty.
Judge Wilson sentenced him to be “hanged by the neck with his body suspended so
as to cause death, between sunrise and sunset July 31.”
The case was taken up by four black lawyers
arguing that he had not received a fair trial because he was a black man
charged with raping a white woman. They
presented a motion for a new trial but the deadline for filing had already
expired. On July 28, Bethea’s
new lawyers filed an appeal which was dismissed by the Kentucky Court of
Appeals which refused a stay of execution the following day. However, U.S.
District Judge Elwood Hamilton in Louisville
reviewed the case and on August 3rd ruled that the execution could
proceed. On August 6, the Governor, A.B.
Chandler, signed the death warrant for Bethea to be
hanged at sunrise on Friday, August 14.
The hanging took place in the yard of the County Garage
and was the first in Daviess
County for 31 years. It was supervised by Phil Hanna from Epworth Illinois who supplied
the hood and rope and had taken part in some 70 executions. He was assisted by Sheriff Lester Pyle, from Carmi, Illinois. It was estimated that some 10,000 people
witnessed the execution from all over Kentucky
and further afield, with licence plates on cars being noted from six neighboring states and 27 Kentucky counties. The local hotels were all full and according
to some newspapers there was a carnival atmosphere in the town, with locals
holding hanging parties on the Thursday evening.
On Thursday 13, August Bethea’s
lawyers said there would be no further appeals and so at 6:00 p.m., August 13,
he was given his last meal of fried chicken, pork chops, cornbread, pickles,
mashed potatoes, lemon pie and ice cream.
After eating it, he wrote a letter to his sister. Late in the evening he was driven from Louisville to Owensboro,
arriving there around 4 am the next morning.
Retired police officer Arthur Hash who had
been hired by Sheriff Thompson to pull the lever arrived by train and she came
to collect him and drive him to the execution site. At 4:20 am, the gallows was tested. At 5:29
am, Bethea was brought to the place of execution in a
patrol car and was led to the gallows handcuffed between two deputies. He stopped at the foot of the gallows and
mumbled an inaudible prayer. There were
some shouts from the crowd of “Take him up.
Up on the scaffold where we can see him!
“I will die happy,” he said. “I have made
my peace with God.”
At the foot of the gallows, Bethea said, “Let me take
off my shoes. I want to put on a clean pair of socks.” This he was allowed to do and put on a clean
pair of silk socks. Once on the platform
he prayed with Rev. Herman J. Lammers, the Catholic
priest who had baptized him in jail. The black hood was put over Bethea’s head and his hands strapped in front and legs
strapped above and below the knee, as was standard practice.
Phil Hanna adjusted the noose around Bethea’s neck
and gave the signal to Hash to pull the lever.
However, Hash was reportedly drunk and failed to notice. “Do it now!” Hanna commanded sharply.
Bethea dropped 8 feet 6 inches through the trap,
breaking his neck. He was certified dead
16 ½ minutes later at 5.44 ½, by Doctors W. L. Tyler and B. H. Seigler. Several
spectators had managed to tear off parts of the black hood as souvenirs. Bethea was buried in Potter’s Field in an unmarked grave.
A number of photos of this hanging
remain. Here they are in sequence: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6.
This, the last truly public hanging in the US, drew
very bad press, with many editorials slamming it, principally because they felt
that the crowds enjoyed it too much and denouncing “the carnival of
sadism”. Large numbers of people wrote
indignant letters to the press, telling of their shame that such a thing would
happen in Kentucky.
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