The Last Public Execution in the US

Trigger Warning for Violence, Sexual Assault, and Death.

In 2022, the idea of public executions is rather appalling. In a time when there is a massive push to abolish the death penalty, watching a convicted criminal be killed is generally not most people’s idea of a good time. This was not always the case. In fact, the last public execution in the United States was less than a century ago and it had one of the highest attendance rates in the nation.

Rainey Bethea was the last person to have a public execution in the United States. He was hanged in the parking lot of a county garage in Owensboro, Kentucky. The courthouse, which would normally be the site of the execution, requested that the gallows be moved. It was expected that a large crowd would gather and the courthouse had just spent a large amount of money planting new bushes and flowers. To prevent the new landscaping from being damaged, the gallows were moved. At about 5:20 AM on August 14, 1936, died by hanging. He was convicted for the rape of Lischia Edwards. The massive crowd and the spectacle of the hanging led to public executions being banned in Kentucky in 1938, and Bethea the last public execution. But that’s not the whole story.

The Man.

Rainey Bethea, as pictured in the Burlington Free Press in their Aug. 01 1936 issue
Rainey Bethea was the last person publicly executed in the US. CLIPPED FROM
The Burlington Free Press
Burlington, Vermont
01 Aug 1936, Sat  •  Page 11

Little is known about Rainey Bethea’s early life. He was born in 1909 in Virginia. He would first come to the attention of law enforcement when he was arrested and fined $20 for disturbing the peace in early 1935. Just a few months later he was arrested again for attempting to steal the purses of two women. This was a federal crime, as the value of the contents was above $25. He was charged and sent to one year at the Kentucky State Penitentiary in Eddyville. He only served half of his sentence, being released on parole on December 1, 1935. Again, he quickly found himself arrested. This time he was arrested for “housebreaking.” It was later changed to a drunk and disorderly charge, punishable by a $100 fine. With no way to pay the fine, he resided in the Daviess County Jail until April 18, 1936.

The Crime.

Unfortunately, Rainey wasn’t able to keep from crime for long. On June 7th, 1936, he entered the home of Lischia Edwards in the early morning hours. He entered the house from Lischia’s bedroom window and woke her in the process. He quickly choked and raped her until she was unconscious. She was 70 years old. Bethea ransacked her room, taking her valuables and jewelry. As he was doing so, he took off his own black celluloid prison ring and forgot to put it back on as he left. Lischia’s family weren’t able to rouse her in the morning and a neighbor helped them enter her room, where they found her dead. Muddy footprints were all over the room.

The Investigation.

The investigation of Lischia Edward’s murder was rather short, culminating in Bethea’s arrest on June 10th, just three days after Edwards was killed. Police found Bethea’s ring in her room and were able to identify it as Bethea’s with the help of several witnesses who had seen him wearing the ring.

Bethea's ring, pictured in the Messenger-Inquirer on 10 Jun 1936.
Bethea’s Ring
Owensboro, Kentucky
10 Jun 1936, Wed  •  Page 9

A day after she was killed, the family reported that jewelry was missing from her room. A relatively new technology had taken root in police investigations- fingerprinting. In 1911,  Illinois State Supreme Court upheld that fingerprints were a valid and reliable means of identification, and in 1924 the FBI opened the ID Division. This division would receive and file fingerprinting cards from across the nation. Criminals would be fingerprinted when they were arrested and a copy of the cards sent to the FBI. As Bethea had been previously arrested, police were able to pull a copy of his fingerprint record and compare it to fingerprints found on objects from Lischia Edwards’ bedroom. The fingerprints were a match.

A picture of a fingerprint
User: The Photographersehh/info, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Combined with Bethea’s ring, they now had solid evidence that Rainey Bethea had been involved in her death. A warrant for his arrest was issued on June 10th. Rainey was arrested as he tried to board a barge to leave Owensboro. He confessed to Patrolman Raleigh Bristow, Deputy Sheriff L.I. Dishman, and Deputy Sheriff Albert Reisz while being moved to Louisville. Bethea signed a confession at 6:30 PM that night. In his confession, he admitted that he did not know if she had been alive or dead when he had raped her. News of the attack and subsequent arrest spread across the nation quickly, with newspapers from California to Maine reporting the attack and many including information from Bethea’s confession.

The Trials.

The next day, June 11th, Bethea recants his confession, saying that he was drunk when he confessed to the officers and signed the confession. At his arraignment, Judge George Wilson set his trial date for June 22nd, after the grand jury had deliberated for one hour and forty minutes. June 12th, presumably after Bethea had sobered up, he told W. E Crady, a guard at the jail, where he had stashed the things he had stolen. Bethea hadn’t taken them far- only across the street. Investigators found Lischia’s rings, a dress, necklaces, and earrings in the loft of the barn across from her home. The fervor over the crime and the trial began and on June 19th, Owensboro County officials requested help from the National Guard.

A clipping of The Evansville Journal
19 Jun 1936,
The Evansville Journal
Evansville, Indiana
19 Jun 1936, Fri  •  Page 5

A special grand jury had been convened for the trial. Over 111 jurors were summoned, with 21 appointed to the grand jury and 27 to the petite jury. Judge Wilson ordered that all people be searched for firearms before entering the courtroom. Guards lined the halls of the courthouse and the outside. Meanwhile, ten special police officers were present in the courtroom itself to preserve order. Four attorneys were appointed to defend Bethea. William Wilson, WW. Kirtley, William Weils and Carroll Byron. Several hundred people attended the trial, with many of them waiting outside the courtroom. Bethea pleaded guilty, and the grand jury indicted him on the rape charge. This change was pursued over the murder charge, as the conviction for rape was execution. The petite jury had only deliberated for four and a half minutes before delivering the sentence. He was to be hung on July 31st.

The Appeal

An appeal was filed with the court of appeals on July 28 by Stephen A. Burnley. Appeals for these types of cases were not technically allowed, but the court could hear the appeal at its discretion. Judge Elmwood Hamilton issued a temporary writ of habeas corpus and set a new trial date of August 5th. Witnesses were summoned, including his previous defense council. Bethea testified that he never pleaded guilty, that his lawyers would not let him take the stand, and that his requests to his attorney were often denied. He also claimed that he did not know the contents of the confession that he had signed. Ultimately, his bid for appeal failed. His execution warrant was signed on August 6. His execution date was set for August 14, 1936, at sunrise.

The Execution

Rainey Bethea’s execution was mired in scandal, which led it to being the last public execution. Typically it is the duty of the Sheriff to execute punishments as laid down by the court- including arranging and performing executions. Unfortunately, the sheriff for Daviess County had died in April. His wife, Florence Shoemaker Thompson, had taken over his role thanks to “widows succession.” At first, she fully intended to perform the execution herself.

The Morning News
07 Jul 1936
The Morning News
Wilmington, Delaware
07 Jul 1936, Tue  •  Page 2

In 1936, this was a scandal, and many objected that a woman should not have to perform such a duty. Ultimately her hand was not the one to pull the lever and end Bethea’s life. Arthur Hash, a former police officer, offered to be the one to pull the lever, and Thomspon accepted. On the day of the execution, a large crowd had gathered. While the state had expected about 10,000 witnesses, nearly double had decided to attend, despite the early hour. Hash had arrived drunk, and after Bethea had been walked onto the gallows, hood placed over his head, and noose arranged around his neck, was unable to pull the lever. Professional hangman Phil Hanna shouted at Hash, who did nothing. A deputy finally leaned on the lever, springing the trapdoor. Bethea’s neck broke on the initial drop.

The Cincinnati Enquirer
Cincinnati, Ohio 15 Aug 1936,
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Cincinnati, Ohio
15 Aug 1936, Sat  •  Page 8

During the execution, vendors roamed the crowd of spectators, selling hot dogs, popcorn, and soda pop. Some spectators climbed on nearby roofs, cars, and anything possible to get a good view of the hanging. For sixteen minutes Bethea hung until the doctors declared him dead and he was cut down. Then the crowd, who had been waiting since the night before in some cases, drunk on Kentucky whiskey, charged the gallows. They tore at Bethea’s hood, his clothes. They tore what they could from his body as souvenirs of their time at the hanging. In the crowd, people were robbed, and some lost their lives on the way to the hanging. Just three hours after he was killed, Rainey Bethea was buried in a pauper’s grave, against his sister’s wishes to bury him with family. The last public execution in the US was complete.

The Last Public Execution

Reactions to the execution varied. Some praised that another violent criminal was killed. Others took a very dim view of the circus that the execution turned into. One woman in Kentucky, writing anonymously, wrote that she was “ashamed to be a Kentuckian.” One writer in New York decried the spectacle:

The Daily Messenger
Canandaigua, New York 29 Aug 1936, Sat
The Daily Messenger
Canandaigua, New York
29 Aug 1936, Sat  •  Page 4

People from the country over began criticizing the execution, quickly becoming a complete media circus as more and more people wrote in about their displeasure. From the involvement of Florance Thompson as sheriff to the unruly crowd, the execution was examined and found to be lacking. The next two scheduled executions, in 1937, were ordered to be done privately. Finally, in 1938, the Kentucky State Assembly passed a repeal for the requirement for rapists to be hung. Rainey Bethea was the last public execution in the United States.

Want to Read More?

Check out the newspaper clippings I’ve assembled while researching!

History of Fingerprinting

History of Yesterday also did a great article on Bethea’s execution!

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