Themed Set: At the End of the Rope 1963: Henry John Burnett, Scotland’s last hanging

1936: Rainey Bethea, America’s last public hanging

August 14th, 2008 Headsman

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.

In this photo, Bethea — almost totally obscured between his escorts — has just begun ascending the gallows.

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.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Kentucky,Milestones,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Participants,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,USA

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36 thoughts on “1936: Rainey Bethea, America’s last public hanging”

  1. downloadable says:

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  2. Were there any reliable estimates given as to the size of the crowd?

  3. Headsman says:

    There’s probably a book — or at least a meta-post — to be composed on the surprisingly wide gray area between a “public” and a “private” execution…

  4. KYGB says:

    As the Headsman posted…

    Quote on

    Bethea secured an indefinite claim to the status of last person publicly executed in the United States.

    Quote off

    The Kentucky execution was part of the sentence. Bethea was publically hanged in the town square. The Hurt hanging was done on prison ground and a crowd of some 200 witnesses was admitted to that vicinity, But the prison was a county farm, so another 1000 or so people had a view of the proceedings.

    There were other executions at later times that admitted a large number of “witnesses”, but Bethea was the last individual sentenced to a public hanging. Hurt was sentenced to hanging, county officials in Mo allowed it to be public.

  5. William Crow says:

    I would challenge the statement that this is the last public execution in the U.S. My wife’s relation….Hurt Hardy, Jr., was publicly hung in Ste. Genevieve, MO on Feb 26, 1937 for murdering a young lady who spurned his affections. You can find many newspaper accounts of this execution by hanging. Hurt Hardy, Jr. was a white man….who murdered a white woman.

  6. Ron says:

    Some people as USUAL defending black criminality. He was hung for a crime he did. Stop blaming white people for a filthy, disgusting murder he did. Blacks commit WAY too much crime in modern day America, too. Stop sucking up Whites are now the disfavored ones in modern day America.. Why are public hangings wrong? Anyone?.. Racism is at an all time HIGH now.. Be white in an all black area and you will see…

  7. VanRiperManRay says:

    Public execution, let alone the death penalty is an illogical and unfortunate way to appease the human condition called emotion. It infers that we are perfect enough for retribution, let alone purposefully ending a life. Eye for an eye does not work, not even as an example. Death is usually caused by illogical means, by those that do something while intoxicated, or screwed up mentally from other means–whether it be from a drinking mom, or an abusive father , it is well known that dying is a release and not a calvanist point of getting what you deserve. Ie. I am rich therefore I must be godly, I am poor I must be devilish. The death penalty is a perversity of the emotional state of mankind.

  8. Meaghan says:

    Well said, KYGB.

    No one here’s denying that black men were a disfavored minority in 1936 and now, and that this has and will continue to lead to many miscarriages of justice. Just just because a person is a member of an oppressed group does not mean he is NOT a thug.

  9. KYGB says:

    Devon, Rainey was guilty of the offense and confessed willingly and freely.

    to quote my earlier post…

    “The evidence that Bethea did this crime was 100% conclusive. Bethea left both fingerprints and a prison ring in Edwards abode. Bethea fled the scene and was captured after a couple days on the run. After his capture, Bethea confessed to the crime and lead police to the stolen items. Bethea didn’t just confess once, he made 5 confessions, the final one in court where he plead guilty to all his crimes”

    When the authorities found Rainey’s prison ring in Lischia Edwards apartment. they searched the area for him. After he was captured, he lead the investigators to MS Edwards stolen jewelery.

    Rainey Bethea didn’t get a confession beaten out of him, he freely confessed five times! The confessions took place at different times and settings. He was troubled with guilt and felt the need to confess to his crimes.

    In Louisville, he met with prominent Black attorneys who were responding to rumors in the Black community that the confessions were coerced. Behta admmitted to the lawyers that he was overwhelmed by his guilt and had volunterred the confession. He also made a lengthy statement in court in which he explained why he was pleading guilty to the crimes, although he was advised by counsel not to.

    The man did the crime, there was conclusive and complelling evidence that he did so and he confessed. There are no areas of grey in this clase. Rainey Bethea was guilty of the murder, rape and robbery of Lischia Edwards.

  10. Meaghan says:

    Question, Devon: Why don’t you believe he did this? What specific reason do you have to think he must have been innocent? If Rainey was not a relative of yours, would you still believe he was innocent?

    If it were me, if Rainey was my ancestor, probably my reaction would be to just shrug and say “huh.” The deeds and misdeeds of my long-ago relations might arouse mild interest, but it’s really got nothing to do with me and whatever they did or didn’t do eighty years ago is no reflection on me.

  11. Devon Bethea says:

    I look at it this way, nothing can change the past because that’s exactly what it is. What has happened has happened do I believe he deserved it…no! Do I believe he did this….no! But what evidence was conclusive? Honestly, can you say you were there and know for a fact that my kin did this. What the court records shows is what he confessed to. Back then racism was at a all time high and as you read he had no real schooling nor did he have any family. There were murders pinned on African-Americans in that era for years who’s to say it wasn’t a white man who did it and found a person to blame it on to keep himself out of the jailhouse. Am I saying this happened yes….But am I saying it was a white person who did this…no. Nor do I care about any of you guys opinions, negative comments, or whatever. All I was trying to do was learn about my ancestor. And to learn about him this way is outrageously crazy! So how would you feel????? No seriously how would you feel?

  12. halley says:

    i live in owensboro and sometimes its crepy thinking about him arund here

  13. Devon Bethea says:

    Mr. Cannon I understand what you saying but for you to tell me to get a life. I have one and I’m doing perfectly fine been fighting for this country for 4 years, 10 years in the Army and going strong. Just strong enough to defend this country and make it safe enough for you to write what you wrote. Honestly your opinion don’t mean nothing because that’s exactly what it is. You must be a online critic, if so you aren’t a good one. So just a suggestion let me worry about my family you worry about yours. Exonerate that! I want to know about my family member so go on and find out about yours! And keep your negativity to yourself! Oh if you can’t do that I will tell you like you told me get a life!

  14. After looking over court records and accountings of the Rainey Bethea case, I to was disheartened that no one really spoke of Ms. Edwards except in the regard of her state prior to, and after her attack and murder. Also, there really wasn’t that much mentioned about the first female sherrif, Florence Thompson, that was put in the position of having to execute Rainey Bethea. There have been many articles and accounts about this case, the majority reporting the same facts about the confessions, ring, and evidence against Bethea. However, there are also areas in Bethea’s representation that could be brought into question. The time frame of 1936 was not exaclty an era of good will towards the majority. Trying to stay nuetral regarding this issue is extremely difficult due to so manydifferent opinions. The fact is this is a part of history and the facts cannot be changed. Just my opinion for what its worth.

  15. KYGB says:

    I would echo Kevin Sullivan’s words that this was not an example of “Kentucky Racism”.

    It is all well and fine that a relative of Rainy Bethea can come on the forum and speak for their kin’s plight. However, who speaks for Lischia Edwards? The 70 year old Edwards did nothing to deserve the fate of having her apartment broken into, and be brutally raped, robbed and murdered. The evidence that Bethea did this crime was 100% conclusive. Bethea left both fingerprints and a prison ring in Edwards abode. Bethea fled the scene and was captured after a couple days on the run. After his capture, Bethea confessed to the crime and lead police to the stolen items. Bethea didn’t just confess once, he made 5 confessions, the final one in court where he plead guilty to all his crimes.

    No witnesses were called on his behalf, because they were character witnesses. Once the defendant admitted to the rape, burglary, robbery, rape and murder, there was little need for anyone to attest to his fine character. If a defendant were convicted of a similar crime in 2011, that defendant would probably get the death penalty in a state that had such a penalty. The American South has had many a case of lynching for crimes committed by African Americans. The Rainy Bethea case is NOT a lynching, legal or otherwise. It was a justifiable example of a just sentence carried out under the law.

  16. Kevin M. Sullivan says:


    There are racists everywhere. In all parts of the world. In every state in the US. Throughout Europe. Everywhere. Asia is full of them. Racism is of the heart and mind and has little to do with geography.

  17. Donna Morton says:

    Kentucky is still racist and so is America people try to act like it doesn”t exist. The real problem I have like the movie Rosewood a blackman was accused and hug without a trial fair or otherwise.

  18. E.F.James says:

    I have a question for Devon Bethea. I am currently searching information regarding your Uncle R. Bethea and happened upon this blog. I was wondering if you would be interested in an email interveiw for an article I’m writing? There is not one word written in anything I have found, that even mentions his family. I think it very poor for news articles to be written without following through with, at the very least, interveiwing a family member. I live in Kentucky where it all took place and have access to the actual court records, as well as local and visiting news articles. I would love to have the families comments, if you are willing. Thanks in advance.

  19. devon bethea says:

    For once in my life I’ve actually experienced prejudice in such a way that it begins to bother me. I am upset at what happened to my kin those of you who wrote anything negative regarding my response to my outrage as to what happened to my uncle. Really need to get a life I am entitled by law to voice my opinion just as you are but they are lik buttholes everybody has one. And the person who told me to get a life please I am doing just fine, I was expressing what I saw and read. How would you feel if you heard something of this nature what would you do? Or could I be asking the wrong question? You have inspired me to dig deeper and unlike you I don’t know the facts might have been dumbfounded or whatever say I am but one thing I can do is research I wanna know so I commend you on your ignorance you have inspired me to learn more. Bring on more of your ignorant outbursts they are helping me become much more immune to ignorance and bull……you know the rest.

    1. chewinmule says:

      Poor fellow, you would certainly be appalled to read of the “real” historical accounts of the lynchings in New York, New Orleans, etc at the hands of the Union League and the Freedman’s Bureau, to keep them in line and ensure their vote for Lincoln and Radical Republicans, when the south was ruled by union military governors.

  20. kykatdog says:

    Boy, some things concerning the profession of journalism still haven’t changed. In the year 2010, the morons still print anything they want, true or not, embelished and colored or not, with absolutely no accountability to anyone. I can’t imagine why anyone would actually want to be a journalist. Part of the job description is “must have no integrity”.

  21. Jeffrey Cannon says:

    It’s likely that very few people who were in a position to know all the facts of Bethea’s case are alive today. You’re not one of them. Absent any proof, there’s no reason to believe that your kinsman was innocent. Evidence of his guilt was presented at his trial, according to you, and no one testified on Rainey’s behalf. Accordingly, it’s far more likely he was guilty of rape and murder than he was innocent. You seek to reframe the issue by raising the issue of past racism, figuring it will exonerate Rainey. It doesn’t. He was convicted of a horrible crime and that conviction stands.

    Your darned tootin I’m sick and tired of seeing the “R” word used to justify the recasting of history. Unless you have evidence that Rainey was innocent, don’t expect the rest of us to go digging into a 70+ year old crime before we discuss it. And your “suggestion” that the matter never appear on the internet again is preposterous. It’s a matter of minor historical significance and you don’t own it. Get a life..

  22. Meaghan says:

    Devon — if you look at the rest of the blog, you can see that the Headsman is well-aware of the historical prejudice against blacks and the many miscarriages of justice that have resulted.

  23. Devon Bethea says:

    I am outraged that this would even be shown on the internet of one of my family members being executed in such a manner. Little is known of the case, so how do you even know he was the one who committed the crime back then. There were no witnesses or anyone to testify on his behalf. So all of you who wrote anything about what you think you know because you read this story needs to research again and read in history how African-Americans were oppressed and wrongfully accused of things we didn’t even do. I suggest that this should not be shown or heard of ever again. Thanks-De’von Lamount Bethea, a relative of Rainey Bethea.

  24. rico suave says:

    unfortunatley,we’ll have to wait 50 years in the U.K. for the return of public hangings……………
    that is approximately the time when we become an Islamic Republic.
    so,2060,is fun in Londistan,at Hyde Park,l’d expect.

  25. Kris says:

    I’ve been reading for a while, and realised that I haven’t commented. I apologise for that, because I have enjoyed your work, and would like to thank you for your effort. I particularly like how you avoid the easy, sensationalist macabre approach for something more sombre and cerebral, supported by generous hyperlinks. I am learning a lot of new history (to me), and for example wouldn’t have thought that public hangings took place as late as 1936 in the US.

    So, once again, thanks for the effort.

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