Anniversary of Last Public Hanging Still Haunts Town

Rainey Bethea, a Black man convicted of raping a white woman in 1936, was the last person to be killed in a public execution in the U.S.

Posted: 08/13/2011 10:00 AM EDT
Filed Under Crime

Rainey Bethea

In this Thursday, Aug. 13, 1936, photo, Rainey Bethea has his last meal in Louisville, Kentucky, before being publicly hanged in Owensboro, Ky. (Photo: AP Photo/The Courier-Journal)

 

Sunday marks the 75th anniversary of the hanging of Rainey Bethea, who was the last person killed in a public execution in the United States, the Associated Press reports.

Bethea, a 26 or 27-year-old Black man (his records only listed the year he was born, 1909), was executed on August 14, 1936, in Owensboro, Kentucky, for the rape of 70-year-old Elza Edwards. Edwards, a wealthy widow, was found strangled in her bed. After five minutes of deliberation, the jury found Bethea guilty.

The AP reports as many as 20,000 people came to watch Bethea draw his last breath at the gallows. The hanging was reportedly a spectacle, with vendors selling hot dogs and popcorn to spectators, and even becoming fodder for newspapers around the country as a Black man was being executed by a white, female sheriff.

Writes the AP:

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.

The overwhelming national attention surrounding Bethea’s death still casts a dark shadow over the town of Owensboro, the report writes.

Under the law at the time, the maximum sentence for rape was hanging. If Bethea had been convicted of Edwards' murder, which prosecutors never pursued, he would have been sentenced to a private execution in the electric chair at the state penitentiary.

Bethea was the last person recorded in the United States to be executed on the public stage.

In 1938 the state of Kentucky ended public executions. It was the last state to do so. 

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