America’s last public execution

Eighty years ago today the US staged its last public execution, when a black man, Rainey Bethea, was publicly hanged in Owensboro, Kentucky, for the rape of Lischia Edwards, a 70-year-old white woman.

Around 20,000 people, many of whom picnicked around the scaffold, watched Bethea drop eight feet to his death.

Apart from being the last public execution, there were several other oddities.

The County Sheriff who had the unsavoury task of performing the hanging was a woman, Florence Shoemaker Thompson.

When it became known that Florence was going to have to do the job, she was inundated by offers to stand in for her.

She gladly accepted the offer from Arthur L. Hash, a former Louisville police officer. He said he would do the hanging for free, with one condition: his name would not be released to the public. Another offer came from an Illinois farmer, G. Phil Hanna, who had supervised numerous hangings. Hash and Hanna jointly oversaw Bethea’s hanging.

Under the statutes of the time, if the death penalty was given for murder and robbery, it had to be carried out by electrocution at the state penitentiary.

But the punishment for rape could be carried out by public hanging. So the prosecutors – who evidently wanted to make an example of Bethea – decided to charge him only with rape.

On 7 June 1936, Bethea had climbed into Edwards’ bedroom window, and raped and choked her to death. He stole several rings, hiding them in a nearby barn.

Bethea already had a criminal record; his fingerprints were found in Edwards’ bedroom. He confessed and also told police where he had hidden the jewellery.

Bethea’s last meal was fried chicken, pork chops, mashed potatoes, pickled cucumbers, cornbread, lemon pie and ice-cream.

Hash, dressed Southern Man-style (white suit, Panama hat), arrived drunk on the morning of the hanging. Hanna put the noose around Bethea’s neck, adjusted it and signaled Hash to pull the trigger. Hanna yelled at Hash: “do it!” But either too drunk or too squeamish, Hash stood idle. So a deputy opened the trapdoor instead.

Bethea had requested his body should be sent to his sister in South Carolina; but he was buried in a pauper’s grave at a cemetery in Owensboro.

Picture source: U.S. National Archives and Records via Wikimedia