Rainey Bethea - The last truly public hanging in the USA.


The USA’s 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 last meal.


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 previous night.


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 from Louisville 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!  Let’s go.”


“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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