After 75 Years, America’s Last Public Hanging Haunts Kentucky

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OWENSBORO, Kentuck — Bob Howe points to an overgrown, muddy patch of land in a cemetery in Owensboro, gesturing to where the grave of the last man publicly executed in the United States may be.

“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 75th anniversary of the execution approaches, it is something some in Owensboro would like history to remember differently.

Bethea, a farmhand and sometime criminal, 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.

“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.”

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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, Indiana — “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. Then they saw Bethea fall through the trap door. Doctors pronounced him dead about 10 minutes later.

Perry Ryan, an assistant attorney general in Kentucky who wrote a 1992 book about Bethea’s hanging, “The Last Public Execution in America,” said witnesses didn’t recall a rowdy atmosphere as Bethea died.

“I think it was an event they found to be kind of scary,” Ryan said. “They just stood there.”

The crime for which Bethea was tried had played as big news in Owensboro: A wealthy, white, 70-year-old widow, Elza Edwards, was raped and strangled in her bed. After less than five minutes of deliberation, a jury convicted Bethea of rape.

Under the law at the time, the maximum penalty for a rape conviction was hanging in the county where the offense occurred. Public hangings had a long history in many states and sometimes created a spectacle. Just a year before, in Smithland, Kentucky, a convicted rapist scolded the crowd and argued with his accuser before telling the sheriff, “Do a good job with that knot.”

No such theatrics occurred at Bethea’s hanging, handled by an execution team headed by professional hangman Phil Hanna of Epworth, Illinois. A former Louisville police officer pulled the trip lever. Sheriff Thompson, who declined that task, watched from a car near the scaffold.

Had Bethea been convicted of Edwards’ murder — prosecutors never pursued that charge — the sentence would have been a private execution in the electric chair at the state penitentiary. And since his death, executions have been done in private, following a precedent set by New York when it switched to the electric chair in 1898.

The recent video recording of Andrew Grant DeYoung’s execution in Georgia for the 1993 murders of his parents and sister has raised some concerns about the continued privacy of executions. The video came at the request of defense attorneys who want to document the effects of the sedative pentobarbital, part of the lethal injection method. Denno, the Fordham professor, said the video provides “a big step toward transparency” in capital punishment, but is not a harbinger of a return to public executions.

“Occasionally, you hear ‘Why don’t we televise them?’ That never really goes too far,” said Richard Dieter, head of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C. “And, it probably won’t.”

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Bethea made a final request in a note to his sister, Ora Fladger, in Nichols, South Carolina: to take possession of his remains and bury them with other family members.

“So good by and paray that we will meet agin,” Bethea wrote.

His remains were not sent east, and there is no record of why. Fladger died in 1980, and letters sent by The Associated Press to other family members drew no response.

Bethea’s body went to a pauper’s grave in Rosehill Elmwood Cemetery in Owensboro, according to Howe, the retired coroner, who at age 6 was deemed too young by his parents to watch the hanging.

“No one knows where he’s buried,” said Sheila Heflin, information services manager at the Daviess County Public Library, which has an archive of materials related to Bethea’s case.

Most remnants of Bethea’s hanging are gone from Owensboro, a city of 57,265 about 40 miles east of Evansville, Indiana. The gallows are lost to history and the site where they stood is under development as part of an effort to revitalize a stretch along the Ohio River.

But, the stigma of having conducted the last public execution in America lingers.

Heflin recounted a story of how the library acquired photos of the hanging: A man walked in with an envelope marked “1937 flood and hanging” and handed the photos over, saying his family wanted to get rid of the images.

“I don’t even know who he was,” Heflin said.

The Rosehill Elmwood Society, a small group of re-enactors who portray the lives of famous people buried in the cemetery, has avoided taking on the Bethea case. Dariush Shafa, a member of the society and reporter for The Messenger-Inquirer newspaper in Owensboro, said no one has wanted to raise the ghosts of the execution.

“It’s still a sore spot,” Shafa said.

As for Florence Thompson, who had succeeded her husband Everett as sheriff upon his death in 1935, she received both death threats and marriage proposals after the execution. But she won election to the remaining two years of the term in a landslide on Nov. 3, 1936.

Still, James Thompson said his mother lived with the decision to carry out the execution until she died in 1961. Thompson describes his mother — and by extension, Owensboro — as hard working and committed to carrying out her duties as required.

“She did a good job in the end,” Thompson said.

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