#OnThisDay: Rainey Bethea Became the Last Person Publicly Executed in the United States

On August 14, 1936,  Rainey Bethea, a 26 year old black man convicted of rape & murder of 70 year Lischia Edward, was publicly executed by hanging in Owensboro, Kentucky. 20,000 people swarmed to the location to witness what would be the last public execution in the US. Most states banned public executions so this one caught the public’s (see: white people) attention…but not for the reason you may think. Were they there to see the hanging of a black man convicted of a terrible crime? No. That was par for the course in the #JimCrow South. They convened because this was the first execution done by a woman, local sheriff Florence Thompson, a white woman who would be the first female executioner in the country. It was a revenge fantasy come to life & the media did all it could to stoke the flames.

Bethea confessed to the murder & rape multiple times*. However, the local prosecutor only charged Bethea for rape only because the death sentence for murder was the electric chair, whereas rape could be punished by public hanging. When his trial ended, a jury deliberated for 4.5 minutes, returning with a sentence of death by hanging.

Daviess County (where the crimes took place) sheriff Florence Thompson had recently inherited this job from her husband who was recently elected sheriff and died suddenly. 20,000 morbid spectators came out to witness ‘history”. They even had vendors. It was described as a carnival atmosphere. They were disappointed when Thompson backed out. Drunken spectators volunteered to be hangmen & Bethea was pronounced dead at 5:45am. Some media reports claim that there were no disorderly spectators but others there stated that there was a rush for “souvenirs”. The attention & mob voyeurism brought on by Bethea’s execution led to the abolition of the practice.

This is the America they are talking about when they say Make America Great Again. These are the glory days. #Never forget.

*It is noted that Bethea recanted his confession & that the defense did not call any witnesses or co-examine any witnesses. Before his death, Bethea stated he confessed under duress, despite the mounting evidence against him at the crime scene.


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