Sunday, August 14, 2011

America’s Last Public Execution: 75 Years Ago Today

20,000 People Show Up for a Public Hanging

Today marks the 75th anniversary of the last public execution carried out in the United States. Rainey Bethea was hanged on August 14, 1936 in Owensboro, Kentucky.

Bethea, a farmhand and sometime criminal, went to the gallows near the banks of the Ohio River before a crowd estimated at about 20,000 strong.

The execution drew national media coverage focused on a black man being executed by a white, female sheriff with the help of a professional hangman, according to the Associated Press.

The crime for which Bethea was tried had played as big news in Owensboro. A wealthy, white, 70-year-old widow, Elza Edwards, was raped and strangled in her bed. After less than five minutes of deliberation, a jury convicted Bethea of rape. 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. Under the law at the time, the maximum penalty for a rape conviction was hanging in the county where the offense occurred.

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. According to the Associated Press, his remains were not sent east, and there is no record of why. Bethea's body went to a pauper's grave in Rosehill Elmwood Cemetery in Owensboro.

Pictures taken the morning of the hanging show a large crowd — men and women, some holding children — standing in downtown Owensboro, some on the rooftops of brick buildings. They watched as the execution team put a black hood over Bethea's head. Then they saw Bethea fall through the trap door. Doctors pronounced him dead about 10minutes later.

According to the Associated Press, headlines from around the country screamed the news of Bethea’s public execution. From Chicago — "Death Makes a Holiday: 20,000 Revel Over Hanging." From Evansville, Indiana — "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 on August 24, 1936.

Kentucky lawmakers cited the negative publicity surrounding Bethea's hanging in ending public executions in the state in 1938. Kentucky was the last state to move executions behind closed doors. Governor Albert B. "Happy" Chandler later expressed regret at having approved the repeal, claiming, "Our streets are no longer safe."

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