“I think it was over there,” said Howe, an 81-year-old lifelong Owensboro resident and retired county coroner. “I used to pass it on the way to school. That’s what I was told. It was over there somewhere.”
The grave is anonymous and unmarked, like other places associated with Rainey Bethea’s hanging on Aug. 14, 1936. As the 82th year of the execution approaches, it is something some in Owensboro would like history to remember the event differently.
Bethea, a farmhand was the last person to be publicly executed in America. Born ca. 1909-1913 in Roanoke, Virginia, Bethea, a young African-American, moved to Owensboro, Kentucky, in order to find work in the tobacco fields. Local police charged him with various petty offenses, but in 1935, he was convicted of stealing a purse and sentenced to two years in the Kentucky State Penitentiary. While on parole, he committed the crime that led to his execution. Bethea went to the gallows near the banks of the Ohio River before a throng of people estimated at as many as 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. But was he guilty?
The SPY team has reviewed the case with a modern eye. The last person to be executed in public in the US was 26-year-old Rainey Bethea. Just as well it was the last, because it was a real botched job.
The rapist and murderer was hanged in Owensboro in Kentucky for the murder of Lischia Edwards. He targeted 70-year-old Edwards following a life full of petty crimes, such as theft and drunkenness.
The latter crime was while he was on parole – so under Kentucky law he should have been banged up again. But he wasn’t and some sources bizarrely claim that it was the failure of Kentucky law that allowed him to roam free and commit the crime of his life.
In the early hours of 7 June 1936, Bethea got completely off his face drunk on cheep hard liquor, but remarkably managed to scale the roof of an outbuilding to break into Edwards’ bedroom window. She woke so he strangled her unconscious while raping her. Afterwards he looted her room of any jewellery, but ironically left his own celluloid prison ring as an unsuspecting calling card. He then left, squirreling the jewellery away in a nearby barn before legging it.
Edwards was found dead later that day by neighbours and, of course, the ring, plus a whole trail of muddy footprints all pointed back to Bethea.
Corpse and robbers
The search was on and they finally the local law caught up with him. But weirdly in 1936, it wasn’t against Kentucky law to have sex with a corpse, so Bethea tried to blag it with the flimsy defence that he didn’t know Edwards was alive when the rape took place.
Nevertheless the prosecution went after him with the rape charge. Why, because if they charged him with murder he’d be electrocuted, whereas rape afforded a public hanging.
Make of that what you will, but Bethea as a black criminal had raped a white elderly woman. Needless to say the crime had stirred up public condemnation of the crime and the outraged inhabitants of Kentucky would’ve happily lynched him themselves, according to the historical reports.
The all-white male jury (surprise surprise) took just 4.5 minutes to find him guilty. And that’s when the media attention turned sharply on Kentucky. Bethea’s hanging was to be carried out by a female – the first in America.
The case is not an example of a racially-motivated railroading because the evidence against Bethea was substantial. Bethea left a celluloid ring and fingerprints which police traced to him. During his five confessions, he told police where he had hidden the jewelry he stole from Edwards in a barn, and officers found the jewelry there. Police also found the victim’s blood in his pubic area and on his underwear when obtained. He confessed to the violent rape although he claimed she was already dead.
Sheriff Florence Thompson had been thrust into the limelight following her husband’s death. She had an experienced assistant in the shape of a farmer by the name of Phil Hanna. But it was one Arthur Hash who wrote to her and asked if he could pull the lever. She’d have been mad not to accept as it alleviated her of any responsibility, so she naturally agreed.
So the entire country was focused on the first female executioner and she wasn’t even going to do the execution. And that wasn’t all.
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.
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.
“It was not a carnival in the end,” insisted 85-year-old James Thompson, the son of then-sheriff Florence Thompson.
Still, 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 do so. Later, Gov. Albert B. “Happy” Chandler expressed regret at having approved the repeal, claiming, “Our streets are no longer safe.”
By the time Bethea went to the gallows, most states had long since closed executions to the public and started using the electric chair because hangings were becoming “ghoulish public events” said Deborah Denno, a Fordham University law professor who studies the death penalty.
“There was a feeling that with the pain and botched hangings … it was inviting the worst in human behavior,” Denno said.
That’s certainly the way Bethea’s death was portrayed nationally.
Headlines from around the country screamed news. From Chicago — “Death Makes a Holiday: 20,000 Revel Over Hanging.” From Evansville, Ind. — “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 in an Aug. 24, 1936, article.
Sheriff Thompson consulted with a priest before deciding to go through with the hanging, the magazine said: “Nevertheless, soft-hearted Sheriff Thompson sighed: `I suppose I will spend the rest of my life forgetting — or trying to forget’.”
“It was quite a burden on her,” her son said.
Bethea, convicted of rape, was 26 or 27 at the time (records listed only his year of birth, 1909), and he appears young and thin, wearing a cross on a chain around his neck, in a photo of his last meal.
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.
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.
Hash needed some Dutch courage and he got plenty of it when he turned up drunk for the execution in his white suit and white hat and performed appallingly. Hanna secured the noose round Bethea’s head and signalled to Hash, who singularly failed to respond, forcing Hanna to shout ‘Do it’. Only then was the lever pulled and Bethea’s neck broke during the 8ft fall to his death. Doctors pronounced him dead about 10 minutes later.
Press reports subsequently focused on the beastly behavior of the “jeering” crowd who out for blood felt cheated and in a bid to salvage a newsworthy story described the event as a ‘Roman Holiday’, even saying that the public stormed the gallows to get a piece of the criminal as a souvenir from the corpse.
There is no dought extreme poverty of 1936 was the cause of Bethea short life of crime. While found guilty it is a waste of human potential. Bethea made bad choices that lead him to his certain demise. What could have Bethea achieved if he had been given half the opportunities the white populastion took for granted? We must learn from the mistakes of those who paid the ultimate price of failure. We have a future and while we are still battling racism and poverty there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Make sure it is not a train coming at you full trottle.