The Last Public Hanging in the United States — Dateline Kentucky, 1936

Rainey Bethea, age 27, was the last person to be publicly executed in the United States. Bethea had confessed to the rape and murder of a 70-year-old woman named Lischia Edwards, and — under Kentucky state law — was sentenced to be publicly hanged in Owensboro, where the crime had allegedly been committed. Blunders in performing the actual execution and the surrounding media circus (nothing new here) contributed to the end of public executions in the United States.

The Hanging

beth3Rainey Bethea’s last meal consisted of fried chicken, pork chops, mashed potatoes, pickled cucumbers, cornbread, lemon pie, and ice cream, which he ate at 4:00 p.m. on August 13, 1936 in Louisville. Nine hours later, at about 1:00 a.m., Daviess County deputy sheriffs transported Bethea from Louisville to Owensboro. At the jail, the hangman’s assistant, a farmer from Epworth, Illinois, named G. Phil Hanna, visited Bethea and instructed him to stand on the X that would be marked on the trapdoor.

It was estimated that a crowd of 20,000 people gathered to watch the execution, with thousands coming from out of town. The actual hangman, Arthur L. Hash, a former Louisville police officer, who had offered his services free of charge (offer accepted), arrived at the site intoxicated, wearing a white suit and a white Panama hat. At this time, no one but he and the sheriff of Daviess County, a woman, Florence Shoemaker Thompson, knew he would be pulling the trigger.

Bethea left the Daviess County Jail just before 5:30 a.m. and walked with two deputies to the scaffold. He then took off his shoes and put on a new pair of socks. He then ascended the steps and stood on the large X as instructed. He did not deign to make a final statement to the crowd. He did, however, confess to the presiding priest, a Father Lammers of the Cathedral of the Assumption in Louisville. The black hood was then placed over his head, and three large straps placed around his ankles, thighs, arms and chest.

beth2The hangman’s assistant Hanna placed the noose around Bethea’s neck, adjusted it, and then signaled to Arthur Hash to pull the trigger. Hash, however, perhaps due to his intoxication, did nothing. Hanna shouted, “Do it!” and a deputy leaned onto the trigger which sprang the trap door. Throughout all of this, the crowd was hushed. Bethea fell eight feet, and his neck was instantly broken. About 14 minutes later, two doctors confirmed he was dead. He was buried in a pauper’s grave at the Elmwood Cemetery in Owensboro.

Afterwards, Hanna complained bitterly that Hash should not have been allowed to perform the execution in his drunken condition. Hanna further complained that it was the worst display of “hangman’s technique” he had ever witnessed in the 70 hangings he had supervised.

Many newspapers were also outraged, having spent considerable sums of money to cover the execution, believing that it was to have been carried out by Sheriff Florence Shoemaker Thompson, which would have made it the first public hanging of a man by a woman. Several of the newspapers assuaged their anger and frustration by taking extreme liberties liberties with their reporting, falsely claiming that the crowd of 20,000 rushed the gallows to claim souvenirs. Some reporters even wrote that Sheriff Thompson fainted at the base of the scaffold.

The Crime

Rainey Bethea grew up an orphan. Little is known about him before he arrived in Owensboro in 1933 when he was 24 years old. He worked for the Rutherford family and lived in their basement for about a year. He then moved to a cabin behind the house of Emmett Wells. He worked as a laborer and rented a room from Mrs. Charles Brown. On Sundays, he attended a Baptist church.

In April of 1935, Bethea was caught stealing two purses from the Vogue Beauty Shop. He was convicted of a felony, grand larceny, and served a year in the Kentucky State Penitentiary at Eddyville. He was paroled on December 1, 1935.

bethOn returning to Owensboro, Bethea continued to work as a laborer and was paid about $7.00 per week. Less than a month later, he was arrested again, this time for house breaking. On January 6, 1936, this charge was amended to drunk and disorderly. He was unable to pay the $100 fine and remained incarcerated in the Daviess County, Kentucky Jail until April 18, 1936.

During the early morning of June 7, 1936, Bethea entered the home of Lischia Edwards at 322 East Fifth Street by climbing in through her bedroom window. Bethea then allegedly woke her, choked her and violently raped her. He then searched her room for valuables and stole several of her rings. In the process, he removed his own black celluloid prison ring, and inadvertently left it in the bedroom. He then hid the stolen jewels in a barn not far from the house.

The next morning the Smith family, who lived downstairs, realized that they had not heard Ms. Edwards stirring in her room. (How they had failed to hear the rape in the wee hours is unknown.) Fearing she might be ill, they knocked on the door of her room, attempting to rouse her with no success. Ultimately, Smith obtained a ladder and climbed into the room through the transom over the door, and discovered that Edwards was dead.

When summoned, the Owensboro police found the room tidy, but with muddy footprints everywhere. The coroner also found the celluloid prison ring, which Bethea had left behind.

Rainey Bethea quickly became a suspect after several residents of Owensboro stated that they had previously seen him wearing the ring. Since Bethea had a criminal record, the police were able to use what was then a new identification technique – fingerprints – to establish that Bethea had recently touched items inside the bedroom. For the next four days, the police searched for Bethea, finally apprehending him on a riverbank trying to board a barge. When questioned, Bethea claimed his name was James Smith. After his arrest, Bethea was identified by a scar on the left side of his head.

beth4The judge of the Daviess Circuit Court ordered the sheriff to transport Bethea to the Jefferson County Jail in Louisville, fearing a lynch mob because the suspect was a black man. En route to Louisville, Bethea confessed that he had raped Edwards and strangled her to death. He also lamented the fact that he had incriminated himself by leaving his ring at the crime scene.

Once incarcerated, Bethea made a second confession, this time before Robert M. Morton, a notary public, and George H. Koper, a reporter for The Courier-Journal. The presence of the notary and the reporter was requested by officials anticipating that Bethea, or someone else, might accuse them of coercing his confession.

On June 12, 1936, Bethea made a third confession and told the captain of the guards where he had hidden the jewelry. Owensboro police searched the barn in Owensboro and found the jewelry.

The prosecutor decided to charge Bethea solely with rape which could be punished by public hanging in the county seat where the crime occurred. If he had also been charged with murder and robbery resulting in the death penalty, by statute, the means of execution would have been electrocution at the Kentucky State Penitentiary in Eddyville.

Although Bethea made gestures suggesting he wanted to go to trial, he changed his mind and pleaded guilty at the start of the trial. The case was still presented to the jury, since it was tasked with deciding the sentence.

During his opening statement, the Commonwealth’s Attorney Herman Birkhead said:

“This is one of the most dastardly, beastly, cowardly crimes ever committed in Daviess County. Justice demands and the Commonwealth will ask and expect a verdict of the death penalty by hanging.”

The prosecution called 21 witnesses, none of whom were cross-examined. Under the law, Bethea could receive “not less than ten years nor more than twenty years, or death.” The sentence was never really in doubt and after only four and one-half minutes of deliberation, the jury returned with a sentence: death by hanging.

The Appeal

beth7Back in Louisville, Bethea acquired five new black lawyers – Charles Ewbank Tucker, Stephen A. Burnley, Charles W. Anderson, Jr., Harry E. Bonaparte, and R. Everett Ray. They worked pro bono to challenge the sentence, something they saw as their ethical duty for the indigent defendant. On July 10, 1936, they filed a motion for a new trial which was summarily denied on the grounds that under Section 273 of the Kentucky Code of Practice in Criminal Cases, a motion for a new trial had to have been received before the end of the court’s term, which had ended on July 4, 1936.

Bethea’s lawyers then attempted to appeal to the Kentucky Court of Appeals, which was also not in session. On July 29, 1936, Justice Gus Thomas refused to permit the appeal to be filed on the grounds that the trial court record — which only included the judge’s ruling — was incomplete. Bethea’s lawyers knew the appeal would be denied; this was only a formality in order to exhaust state court remedies before they filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus in a federal court.

Bethea’s attorneys filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky at Louisville. At the hearing on August 5, 1936 before United States District Judge Elwood Hamilton, Bethea claimed that he had not wanted to plead guilty but had been forced to by his lawyers, and that he had wanted to subpoena three witnesses to testify on his behalf, but the lawyers had also not done this. Bethea also claimed that his five confessions had been made under duress and that when he signed one of them, he did not know what he was signing. The Commonwealth brought several witnesses to refute these claims. Judge Hamilton denied the habeas corpus petition and ruled that the hanging could proceed.

The End of Public Executions in the United States

beth8Although the media circus surrounding the Bethea execution was quite an embarassment to the Kentucky legislature, it was powerless to amend the law until the next session in 1938. Meanwhile, two other men were hanged for rape in Kentucky, John “Pete” Montjoy and Harold Van Venison, but the trial judges of both of those cases ordered that the hangings be conducted privately. On January 17, 1938, William R. Attkisson of the Kentucky State Senate’s 38th District (Louisville), introduced Senate Bill 69, repealing the requirement from Section 1137 that death sentences for the crime of rape be conducted by hanging in the county seat where the crime was committed. Representative Charles W. Anderson, Jr., one of the attorneys who assisted Bethea in his post conviction relief motions, promoted the bill in the Kentucky House of Representatives. After both houses approved the bill on March 12, 1938, Governor Chandler signed it into law, and it became effective on May 30, 1938. Chandler later expressed regret at having approved the repeal, claiming, rather absurdly, “Our streets are no longer safe.” 

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