By Paul A. Long, Post staff reporter
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.
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
''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
''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
''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
''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
Those convicted of murder still would die in the electric chair at the state
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
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,''
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.
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
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
''They walked up there and put the hood on him, and the next thing I knew, he was
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.
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
But the press coverage did not see it that way. Indeed, their stories were
''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.''