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'The Last Public Execution in America'

By Paul A. Long, Post staff reporter

The popular conception is that the last public execution in the United States was a raucous affair, with lusty Kentucky crowds cheering the death of yet another black man at the end of a hangman's noose and then swarming over the still-warm body seeking macabre souvenirs.

But the man who literally wrote the book on the subject, and another who was there that hot summer dawn nearly 65 years ago, say the reality is that it was a more subdued event that suffered from an over-eager press looking for a good story.

''We got a bad rap,'' said Hubert McFarland, who was the 16-year-old son of a local politician in Owensboro when he watched Rainey Bethea hanged in a vacant lot along the Ohio River.

''We didn't cause any trouble, but they made us out to be a bunch of hoodlums.''

While Bethea's execution turned out to be the last public hanging in America, it was largely forgotten until recently, when Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh expressed a desire to have his execution today televised live.

Federal officials rejected that request but allowed about 300 survivors and victims' relatives to watch him die via closed circuit television. The group was the largest to view a legal execution since Bethea was hanged for raping an elderly white woman in her home.

More than 20,000 people turned out in Owensboro on Aug. 14, 1936, to watch Bethea, a 22-year-old black man who had Rainey Bethea drifted into Kentucky five years earlier, hanged in a public square.

The unrelentingly negative press coverage - ''They ate hot dogs while a man died on the gallows,'' the headline in the Philadelphia Record reported - spurred legislators not only to change the state law that allowed public executions but also to do away altogether with hanging as a form of execution.

Indeed, partly because of the negative publicity, two public hangings in Covington that were scheduled for December 1937 and June 1938 were conducted in private. Harold Venison, a 28-year-old black Covington man convicted of dragging a white woman from her car and raping her in a field, was executed June 3, 1939, becoming the last man to be hanged in Kentucky.

Two months before Bethea's execution, ''in the quiet of the Sabbath morning,'' according to the Owensboro Messenger, he broke into the home of Lischia Edwards, where he assaulted, raped, robbed and strangled her.

In those days, public hangings were not uncommon. The law allowing such a penalty went into effect in 1920. In the next 16 years, Bethea was the seventh person to be hanged.

None of the previous six had the hook that Bethea's case did, though: The county sheriff, whom state law required to carry out the execution, was a woman. She was slated to become the first female executioner in America.

''Journalists quickly seized upon the idea that a woman sheriff hanging a man would be a truly sensational story,'' Perry T. Ryan wrote in his book, ''The Last Public Execution in America.''

''Reporters from across the country visited her and telephoned her,'' he wrote.

They swarmed in to cover the story, sending airplanes overhead to get photos and staking out positions around the gallows.

The Chicago Times sent a special truck rigged with a developing room and a portable telephoto unit. The Associated Press and the Louisville newspapers prepared to airlift their photographs of the event to Louisville.

It also was an occasion for the public. People drove their cars, rode trains and buses and walked to the event from at least nine Kentucky counties and several states. Hotel rooms were booked solid. The crowd started congregating at the hanging spot the night before the scheduled execution.

''I went down there just because there wasn't anything else going on,'' said McFarland, who now 81 and still living in Owensboro.

By the 1930s, most states had outlawed public executions. Kentucky had a few after 1910, when a new state law provided for electrocutions to be done at the Kentucky State Penitentiary in Eddyville. But in 1920, the rape of a 9-year-old girl in Lexington outraged the public, and the state legislature responded with a law that gave juries the option of sentencing a rapist to be hanged in the county seat.

Those convicted of murder still would die in the electric chair at the state prison.

Thus, Bethea was never charged with murder, because such a conviction would have mandated his execution in private.

Prosecutors, who wanted to avenge Mrs. Edwards' death, charged him only with rape.

''This is one of the most dastardly, beastly, cowardly crimes ever committed in Daviess County,'' County Attorney Sidney Neal said in his opening statement. ''Justice demands, and the Commonwealth will ask and expect, a verdict of the death penalty by hanging.''

Although Bethea pleaded guilty to the charge, a trial was held to determine his punishment. After three hours of testimony - in which Bethea did not speak - a jury took less than five minutes to return with a sentence of death.

The hanging originally was planned to take place in the courthouse square. But, said Lee A. Dew, who wrote an article on the hanging for Daviess County Historical Quarterly in 1984, the Fiscal Court had just spent thousands of dollars on renovating the courthouse grounds.

''Sheriff Thompson protested, claiming the crowd would trample the shrubbery around the courthouse, so the site of the execution was moved to the yard of the county garage, a few blocks away on the river bank,'' Dew wrote.

As the crowd grew, so did the number of vendors. Food and drink stands were set up to sell hot dogs, ice cream and cold soda pop - a fact that would be the object of much derision after the fact.

Near dawn, deputies led Bethea to the temporary gallows. At the bottom of the steps, he stopped.

''Let me take off these shoes,'' Ryan's book quoted him as saying. ''I want to put on this clean pair of socks.''

He left his shoes and socks at the bottom of the gallows, where a sheriff found them after most people had left.

Bethea walked up the 13 steps, where an executioner put a hood over his head. People then realized that Sheriff Florence Thompson was not there. Instead of the ''lady sheriff'' executing Bethea, the task would be done by a hired hand, Arthur Hash.

Bethea remained silent, never uttering any last words.

McFarland said he was about 75 feet away from the gallows. ''There was no ceremony,'' he recalled. ''I thought there would be a prayer or something. There was nothing.

''They walked up there and put the hood on him, and the next thing I knew, he was gone.''

Bethea's neck snapped immediately. He was pronounced dead nine minutes later.

McFarland said the crowd dispersed quickly, and for the most part, in orderly fashion. A few people yelled racial epithets, he said, but that could be expected with such a large crowd. He said no one rushed the gallows, and no one tore at Bethea's hood or his clothes.

''I didn't see that, and I don't know if anyone else did,'' McFarland said. ''You may have had a few people hollering, but it was just as behaved as a political crowd - maybe even more behaved.''

But the press coverage did not see it that way. Indeed, their stories were merciless.

''The crowd had been as carefree as the Roman rabble in anticipation of a fresh batch of Christian martyrs,'' reported a Boston newspaper.

The Louisville Courier-Journal said the crowd ''cheered and yelled as Bethea's body dropped.''

Its editorial continued: ''Souvenir hunters ripped the hangman's hood from Bethea's face immediately after his body dropped. Bethea still breathed when a few persons from the crowd rushed the four-foot wire enclosure about the scaffold and scrambled for fragments as mementoes.''

Not a single person recalled the scene as being celebratory or joyous, Ryan said.

''You talk to the witnesses about the carnival atmosphere, and that is not how they remembered it,'' Ryan said. ''And the pictures are of people who are not celebrating, but were transfixed by the solemnity of the moment.''

Publication date: 06-11-01
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