On this date in 1936, thousands thronged Owensboro, Kentucky, for a glimpse of what would prove to be the last public hanging in the United States.
The U.S. followed the trend of its onetime mother country, England, in moving the formerly iconic public hanging increasingly behind closed doors, but its federalist structure made that change uneven. In Kentucky itself at this time, the law displayed sedimentary layers of death penalty history.
Caught up for killing a 70-year-old woman — done in the midst of a drunken burglary, he had left a telltale ring at the scene; fingerprint analysis also helped establish his guilt — Rainey Bethea was on the hook for murder, robbery and rape. The former two indictments would have subjected him to (private) electrocution at the state penitentiary. The latter charge still carried the punishment of public hanging in the local county seat.
Bethea was charged only with rape.
While the explicit sentencing disparity between the crimes bears the clear marks of racism and patriarchy that made purported black-on-white sexual crimes such live fodder for lynch law, and the four-and-a-half-minute jury deliberation doesn’t have the look of solemnity, Bethea’s actual guilt seems fairly well-established.
But the case attracted a nationwide media swarm not for any exceptional quality of the crime or the anachronistic nature of the punishment, but for the involvement of a female sheriff. The “matronly” (virtually all descriptions of her gravitate to this adjective) Florence Thompson had inherited the top law enforcement post upon the death of her husband … and that meant she had inherited the responsibility of hanging Rainey Bethea, which would make her the first American woman to supervise an execution.
Would she or wouldn’t she? The press descended on Owensboro to cover the edifying spectacle of a plump mother stringing up a rapist, or else maneuvering her way out of the job. Thompson played cagey until the very last moment, when the ringers she had secretly hired appeared on the scaffold while she watched from a nearby vehicle.
The man who threw the trap showed up drunk and performed appallingly, but press reports subsequently focused on the beastly behavior of the “jeering” crowd rushing the gallows to tear souvenirs from the corpse. (For instance, Time and the New York Times.)
But according to Perry T. Ryan’s 1992 review of the case — including interviews with surviving witnesses — little to nothing of the kind occurred. Ryan claims Bethea faced about the most dignified hanging mob imaginable.
Maybe hyped-up atrocities in the hinterlands were part of what distant editors demanded after H.L. Mencken at the Scopes trial. Certainly, the local Messenger-Inquirer painted a sharply different picture from more prominent outlets in this August 16 editorial (titled “Panderers Galore”) whose themes could have stepped fresh from a modern cable TV gabfest:
Ambitious and irresponsible reporters and photographers who swarmed into Owensboro for the Bethea hanging dipped their ready hands into the cloaca of evil designs and plastered over the name of this fair city the dirty results of their pandering.
Those who saw the dawn kindling in the east and ushering in the last sunrise of the despicable creature about to die, did not expect all of the watchers to be in reverent mood, but a calm, quiet demeanor characterized their behavior, as a group, throughout their long wait, surprisingly moderate for an occasion on which the law was exacting the supreme penalty.
Considering the size of the throng that witnessed the hanging Friday morning and that it was composed largely of people, who journeyed to Owensboro from distant places, the wonder is that there was no demonstration, no emotional outburst. There was not the semblance of ‘mob impulse’ or ‘eagerness for the kill.’ For the sensation seeking star scribes of quacks of American journalism, it was entirely too tame an affair. This is the reason that some of them reported it as they wanted it to be — not as it was.
They heard a very few people on the outskirts of the crowd call out at different times: ‘Hurry up,’ ‘Get it over’ or ‘hang him.’ To give screaming bulletins to the yellow press and to ruthless radio commentators, they magnified and colored it into a scene of ‘great disorder’ though there was never a general outcry of any kind.
When a priest held up his hand from the scaffold for silence, as Bethea was about to go to his death, there was no ‘blood thirst’ mob ‘shouting and yelling.’ Present were several thousand, who came from near and far to see a man legally hanged for the most heinous crime ever committed in Daviess county, and several thousand more, who turned out to see how the rest would act. When that hand went up in a gesture for silence, the buzz of the multitude’s conversations died down till the fall of the proverbial pin could have been heard.
The smart scribes and sob sisters looked on. All they saw was a black man standing on a scaffold with a rope around his neck and a mass of people peering up at him. That was too tame, they would call it a ‘jeering’ throng. All they heard was the click of the trap door. That would not do. There would have to be ‘cheering.’ So they said there was. Then they heard cameramen from cities where nothing is cared about the horrible crime Bethea committed. They were bawling at officials to ‘move out of the way,’ to ‘give us a break.’ They had to have their souvenirs to show the half civilized readers of their yellow sheets. The boys and girls who had to tell the story needed more color to regale them with atrocious accounts of how the people behaved. They found a few individuals who had gone in the bizarre which inspired thundering headlines about ‘gayety’ and ‘carnival’ spirit.
In administering the last sacrament, the Rev. H. J. Lammers, of Louisville, made an opening in the hood. When the doctors pronounced Bethea dead, one of the attendants at the scaffold took a tag off the hood. Another then took a fragment and others, who were at arms length from the dead man, followed suit. The blunder of tearing off that tag gave the high powered thrill-writers their big opening. They pictured the crowd as tearing Bethea’s clothes from his body. The crowd was never in disorder and Bethea’s clothes were never torn.
The ‘souvenir hunting mob’ did not even pick up the sox [sic] and shoes the doomed man left at the foot of the gallows. It did not so much as touch the basket in which Agnew and Wheatley, colored undertakers, placed the body, clothes and all, or molest it or them in the slightest as they bore it away.
The scavenger writers who came to depict a ‘jolly holiday’ and ‘gala occasion’ had both, but they never saw a more orderly throng at a baseball game.
The public hanging of Bethea was not a disgrace to Kentucky. But, a disgrace to Illinois, Missouri, Tennessee, and some other states, was the spectacle made of it in their scandal monger press. Owensboro should not be surprised at the scurrilous attack upon it by lurid writers and glib tongued talkers in northern and eastern states for they delight to distort any news from Kentucky into weird barbaric tales. We have learned how best to protect our women from rapists-murderers, white or colored. The only way, it seems, that we will ever be able to protect them from the cruelties of a sordid section of the press, will be by softening the state’s anti-rape law, which makes public hanging mandatory. So many as favor that will please tell the legislature.
Vendors of news occupy an important place in the nation, and their purpose should always be to maintain unquestioned exactness of facts. Where the subject matter is susceptible to coloring there should be no sacrifice of truth. To pervert the high honor of the profession for the paltry reward of more readers is a dangerous venture and one that should be curbed.
Owensboro’s citizenry, than which no finer representatives of high-bred Americans can be found anywhere, regrets that it was necessary to invoke the Mosaic law, but a sobered regret and a more solemn memory is that the hanging was eagerly seized upon and transformed into a picturization of the exhibition of low passions loosed.
We are proud of our city, and justly so, for no people are of finer fiber. The putrid pens of those who wore the garb of the news profession painted in lurid colors purported happenings, and it is sad but true that such distorted reports are accepted while the plain statement of facts is discarded as an attempted apology.
Thousands of those who witnessed the Bethea hanging came from outside the county. They belonged to good families in their communities, temporarily bereft of their better judgment and bent on viewing a scene which ordinarily would be extremely repugnant to them. And the out-of-town reporters found in the visitors elements to embody in their sordid stories.
A thoughtless word here and there, expressed without cognizance of its probability of misuse, and the staid citizen away from home becomes to the wild-eyed correspondent a Kentuckian gunning for human game. There should be available means of calling to account the writer who for a few filthy shekels diverts his sense of justice into the recording of things that never were.
As the editorial intimates, regardless of what actually happened in Owensboro, the circus atmosphere quickly brought the matter of public hangings into question. In 1938, the Kentucky legislature moved all executions behind prison walls … and Bethea secured an indefinite claim to the status of last person publicly executed in the United States.
Part of the Themed Set: At the End of the Rope.