Every week I like to take the time to focus on other history websites. History is a huge topic, and I know that I’ll never be able to cover everything that I find interesting. Even if I quit my job, became a hermit of epic proportions, and dedicated my life to writing, I’d never be able to touch on everything awesome about history.
So each week I showcase a cool website related to history. These websites sometimes have fun ways of looking at history. Other times they’re a way to look at pictures and videos from the past. And sometimes, like this week’s website, they’re a niche website not easily found through Google.
This week’s website isn’t quite as fun as last week’s Monument Explorer, but it is an amazing resource for those interested in US Naval history.
I tend to really enjoy websites that have historical pictures, and boy this site delivers! The NavSource Naval History is a huge archive of naval photos. While the focus tends to be on photos, this site is way more than just that.
As they describe on their “About” Page, NavSource was designed to be “A one stop Naval Resource Center, where visitors could find information and images of ships of the USN”
This site is an amazing database of all US Navy ships. Not just what you would normally consider ships, but any vessel that fell under the US Navy. This includes “Ridgid Airships”, auxiliary craft, lightships, and more. For each ship, there is a lot of information available. Each ship page begins with the insignia, any awards the ship had earned, and the ship’s specifications. From there they list the operational details of the ship, then the photographs.
For some ships, they are able to show some documents as well. It’s highly dependent on the age of the ship and the information that’s available. Despite this, every ship has a huge amount of information.
They also show any memorabilia from the ship, such as patches, lighters, belt buckles, etc. A listing of the commanding officers throughout the ship’s career follows, as well as a link to the ship’s listing on the Naval History and Heritage Command website.
Who runs NavSource?
Volunteers run NavSource and they are a pure non-profit. They don’t accept donations, and you won’t find any ads on their website. Not only can you find a massive amount of information on their site, but you can email them directly with questions or for more information. This site is old, at least for the internet. It was started in the 1990’s, and is still being updated. That takes an amazing amount of dedication and work. This cool website has been decades in the making.
Paul R. Yarnall founded the site in 1996.
If you have any interest in US Navy History, I heartily recommend checking out the NavSource website or reaching out to the team of volunteers.
Have problems with the link in the heading above? Try it here:
I know that I could never even touch a single tenth of a percent of that history. There’s just way too much! So every week I like to highlight a useful or cool website that others may find interesting or helpful. These websites help cover everything I can’t. These websites don’t reach out to me- I find them on my own at this point. I’m not paid to write about them. These are just some cool websites I think my readers may find interesting, useful, or just plain neat. Many of these you would have a hard time finding on Google. Since they’re not major players, they often don’t rank high enough to be noticed., though many deserve to be ranked higher than they are.
This week I found a great site for people who want to visit monuments but are unable to for one reason or another. If you’re anything like me, there are plenty of places you’d love to visit but can’t. This week’s cool website will let you visit far-flung places.
I actually found this site during one of the Covid lockdowns and it was a lifesaver. Virtual Vacations overall was created during the Covid lockdowns. This site features videos and photos from over 50 countries. This section, the Monument Explorer, focuses only on the famous monuments from around the world. The videos are all donated to the site, but most of the ones I’ve watched are fantastic. Some of them will stop and focus on the signage around the monument as well.
The process is simple. You go to the site and select a monument. It will take you to a new page where the video will open. Most of the videos are very high quality and include sound. The quality can be affected by your internet connection.
I love how the videos expand to fill the whole browser, and if you know to change your display settings, you can get it to fill your whole screen.
Normally I don’t enjoy videos with tourists in them, but given the circumstances, it’s almost comforting seeing so many other people.
You get the whole experience in some videos, including waiting in line and passing security. I highly recommend headphones.
The one thing I don’t like is that there is no way to pause or rewind the videos. You can refresh the page to restart the video, but if you miss something there is no easy way back to it.
Some videos don’t go into the monument or don’t focus on the signage around, but it’s still fascinating to be able to see historical monuments in places I’ll most likely never be able to go.
The one thing you won’t find here is narration. These aren’t tours, just people donating videos of the monuments they live near so others can see them.
What do you think?
So, what do you think of the Monument Explorer? If you’re having issues with the link above, you can try here:
There are other aspects to Virtual Vacation site, like live streams and guess the city, but the monument explorer is definitely my favorite. You can donate your videos if you live near a monument and want to share it with the world.
This isn’t a traditional cool history website, but it’s certainly one of the most engaging. It works best if you have the background knowledge of the monument and why it’s historical. Thankfully the videos are normally short enough to fit into a normal lunch break, so if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to check out the Great Wall of China.
Decorating Easter eggs is an extremely popular Easter tradition. Every year, millions of families will dye, paint, or otherwise decorate eggs for Easter. Some families who don’t decorate eggs themselves will purchase pre-painted eggs, brightly colored plastics eggs, or help their kids hunt for eggs if the weather is nice enough. Little do most people know, that decorating eggs is a tradition that goes back to the very beginnings of human history.
Early Decorated Eggs
The oldest decorated eggs go all the way back to 55 to 65 thousand years ago. These eggs were found in South Africa. Archeologists believe that hunter-gatherers used ostrich eggs to carry water, as some tribes still do today. The ancient tribes marked the eggs with lines. Some eggs found had a cross-hatch pattern, others had wavy lines. Amazingly, some eggs show different colors than the normal ostrich’s white/yellow, so they may have painted the eggs as well! During the Bronze and Iron Ages, ostrich eggs were found as far away from Africa as Spain.
Most ancient cultures seem to have placed a special significance on eggs and, at times, decorating them. Ancient Egyptians believed in a great “cosmic egg.” Chinese and Indian myths both have creator beings born from eggs. Finnish mythology also has the world being created from fragments of an egg laid by a goldeneye. Other mythologies have restoration or creation myths involving eggs. So it can be easy to see how eggs are linked to Easter and the rebirth of Jesus.
Decorated eggs were also found in other regions of the world. Persians and Zoroastrians used decorated and painted eggs for Nowruz. Nowruz is the New Year in some parts of the world and is celebrated at the Spring Equinox. People in Eurasia still follow this tradition.
Painted Eggs and Easter
Painting eggs for Easter started with the Eastern Orthodox. Most egg decorating began well before Christianity. So it’s not surprising that those who already decorated the eggs around the time of Easter began incorporating them into their Easter celebrations. Ukrainian egg decoration, called pysanky, is very elaborate. These eggs are often given as gifts for health and fertility.
The earliest record linking the painted eggs directly with Easter comes from the Middle Ages when England’s King Edward I ordered 450 eggs to be colored and given out to other royals. Eggs tended to be cheap and the practice caught on.
Easter egg hunts became popular in Germany in the 1600’s and spread across Europe. By the Victorian era, early fake eggs were being used.
Chocolate eggs started in the late 1800’s and the Industrial Revolution helped make mass-producing the candy possible. Now millions of chocolate eggs are distributed each year.
Egg Color Meanings
As eggs already symbolized life and rebirth, they fit in quite well with the story of Jesus’ resurrection. Certain colors quickly took on special meanings
Red was for the blood of Christ, Mary’s tears staining the eggs red, and the eggs next to Jesus’ tomb turning red.
White was for purity. Sometimes this is for the purity of the Virgin Mary. Other times it is for the lilies that grew in Easter lilies.
Black is for mourning and grief. This mainly relates to the crucifixion and death of Jesus.
Violet stands for royalty, as well as penance and sadness. This is to remind people of Jesus’ suffering.
Green is the color of life. For Easter, it means eternal life. Green also stands for spring and renewal.
Yellow tends to stand for happiness. It’s the color of joy. It’s also the color of sunshine. Gold stands for victory. Gold symbolizes the victory of life over death.
How Do You Decorate Easter Eggs?
There are many ways to decorate easter eggs. Some follow ancient traditions of blowing out eggs and using wax. Some hand-paint their eggs. Others go to the store and buy a kit. And others still use stickers.
There’s really no right or wrong way to decorate eggs- this tradition has been evolving for 60 thousand years! How do you and your family decorate eggs? Let us know in the comments below.
There is a lot to history. I mean, a lot. Go ahead and think about your favorite hobby. Or think about that one thing that you are absolutely obsessed with.
I can guarantee that whatever you just thought of, there is a history to it. Nothing comes into this world from nothing, and so everything has some sort of past. With so much history to cover, there is no way I can come close to writing about even half of the amazing hidden history that surrounds us. This is why once a week I’m recommending an interesting website that helps cover the many gaps in my knowledge and expertise. All of these websites are free to access as of the time of the recommendation and all can be found over on the Resources page as well!
This week I have a really cool website to share. Street View of 1940’s New York is an interactive map of New York City. On this map are hundreds, if not thousands, of dots. Each dot is a photo of a building, circa 1940’s New York! As the website explains, these photos were taken between 1939 and 1941. The Municipal Archives finally finished digitizing and tagging the photos in 2018. What this website does is place all the photos on a map and makes the photos easily accessible!
There’s not a whole lot of information about the website itself. Julien Boilen created the map. Honestly, the best thing about this site is the sheer elegance. You can search for a specific property, or you can follow along the streets to get a great feel for the 1940s version of the city. The map has two modes: a “satellite” view in black and white, and a “map” view similar to Google Maps.
You also have a link to head over to the 1980s version of the site, which is not yet as complete as the 1940s version. A different group of people is also working on the 1980s version of the site. It’s still worth a look! You can leave the creator a tip, which I highly recommend based on the work put into this map.
My favorite part of this site is the Outtakes. Just like we do today, the photographers in the 1940s fumbled with the camera, accidentally took a picture when they didn’t mean to, or had someone walk in front of the camera just as they were taking the photo. There are pictures of kids and cars. There are pictures of people’s coat pockets, blurry photos of cops, and the insides of restaurants interspersed with rejected photos of buildings. I could scroll through the pictures for hours.
Why This Site is Awesome
One of the things that photos are great at doing is making history real. People know that the things in the books happened to real people in real places, but actually being able to see it makes it real on a whole new level. And that’s why I love this particular site- it makes 1940s New York City real in a way that books just can’t. At some point, it would be interesting to go to New York and compare the old pictures with the buildings that are there today. But that will need to wait for another day. For now, looking at the buildings through the lens of a 1940’s photographer will have to be enough.
While the Jersey Shore has been made famous by shows such as “Jersey Shore”, “Boardwalk Empire” and “MTV’s TRL”, the New Jersey coastline used to be infamous among sailors. Over a thousand shipwrecks litter the coast, sunk there by mariners who underestimated the dangers of the shoreline. New Jersey has two major port cities near it, New York City and Philadelphia. This led to a high volume of ship traffic around some of the most dangerous areas. The historic lighthouses along the New Jersey coast played a vital role in preventing shipwrecks.
As a result of the many deaths and shipwrecks, New Jersey had a high number of lighthouses. At the height of the lighthouse era, 38 were operating along the Jersey coast, with 6 additional lightships. These warned ships of dangerous areas and guided them safely onto the correct course.
Of the 38 lighthouses that once operated, 18 still remain. Not all of these are open for visits. But those that are open to the public are a great place to visit for a glimpse into the past. The historic lighthouses, all located in New Jersey, are well worth a visit.
Sandy Hook Lighthouse (Highlands, NJ 07732)
The Sandy Hook lighthouse is the oldest lighthouse in the US! It was first lit on June 11, 1764. Isaac Conro designed and built the lighthouse about 500 feet from the shore. Today it stands about a mile and a half from the coastline. The lighthouse has been in continuous operation ever since. The only times it went dark were during the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, and both World Wars. It stands at 103 feet tall. Originally, the light was provided by 48 oil blazes. Now it uses a 3rd order Fresnel lens, installed in 1857. TOn October 15, 1966, the National Register of Historic Places added the Sandy Hook Lighthouse to its list.
Sandy Hook Lighthouse is on the grounds of Fort Hancock, which has a bunch of other interesting history on display. A lovely self-guided tour is available of the whole base. I highly recommend it, as it is almost completely flat and has about 40 stops that encompass the history of the base and the area around it.
The light still operates today. The National Park Service administers the lighthouse and offers tours on the weekends.
Cape May Lighthouse (Cape May, NJ 08204)
The Cape May Lighthouse is one of the most popular historic lighthouses in New Jersey, and certainly one of the most iconic. Built in 1859, this lighthouse overlooks both the Atlantic Ocean and the Delaware River. This is actually the third lighthouse on this site. The ocean destroyed the first lighthouse when it flooded. The second lighthouse, poorly built, succumbed to erosion. The current lighthouse stands at 157 feet tall and is still in use today. Cape May’s lighthouse originally used a first-order Fresnel Lens, the largest available. Today it uses a rotating aerobeacon. National Register of Historic Places added the Cape May Lighthouse on November 12, 1973.
The Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts currently is leasing the lighthouse and opened it to the public in 1988. You can visit the lighthouse and keepers station Friday through Saturday, 12-3 PM
Navesink Twin Lights (Highlands, NJ 07732)
The Navesink Twin Lights are the only lighthouses built in a fortress style within the United States. This alone makes these historic lighthouses well worth a trip. The original Twin Lights were built in 1828. Joseph Lederle built the second Twin Lights that stands today in 1868. The Twin Lights hold the honor of being the first US lighthouse to have a Fresnel lens installed. Fresnel lenses were much more effective at magnifying light and are still used in some places today. Fort Monmouth was involved with the Twin Lights, conducting secret experiments with radar. Keeping with this tradition, the Twin Lights was also a site for some of the earliest radio navigation experiments.
The Twin Lights ceased operations in 1954. Other navigational aids replaced the lights. The lights were converted into a museum after being rendered obsolete and deactivated. The National Register of Historic Places added the Twin Lights on December 2, 1970. The historic lighthouses are still imposing and an amazing landmark.
The grounds are always open to visitors. However, the museum is only open from Wednesday to Sunday, 10-4 PM. Tours are available from Wednesday to Saturday.
Hereford Inlet Lighthouse (North Wildwood, NJ 08260)
Lieutenant Colonial William Reynolds built the Hereford Inlet Lighthouse in 1873. Congress approved the building of the lighthouse mainly for smaller vessels and the steamers traveling around the mouth of the Delaware River.
On May 11, 1874, the light activated for the first time. The tower stands at 49 and 1/2 feet tall. Mariners can see the light for 13 miles. The lighthouse held church services in its early days. The first keeper, John Marche, died only three months into his service. He drowned when his boat capsized as he returned to the island. Due to some intense storms that actually moved the lighthouse off of its foundations, the structure was moved about 150 feet to the west, away from the waters that threatened it.
Like all other historic lighthouses in NJ, the Hereford Inlet light went dark during World War II when the Germans were operating off the Jersey Coast. It returned to service but was decommissioned in 1964, replaced by a metal skeletal structure. By 1982, the local lighthouse society petitioned for control of the lighthouse. They restored both the lighthouse and the amazing gardens that surround it. 1986 saw the light returned from the skeletal structure that housed it, back into the lighthouse proper. It’s been operating there ever since.
Originally equipped with a fourth-order Fresnel lens, the light is now a VRB-25 beacon, installed by the Coast Guard in 2018. The National Register of Historic Places added it on September 20, 1977
The Hereford Inlet Lighthouse grounds are open year-round for visits. The gardens are impressive and well worth the trip in spring and summer. The tour of the lighthouse is self-guided. You can visit the lighthouse between May and October between 9 to 5 PM
Sea Girt Lighthouse (Sea Girt, NJ 08750)
The Sea Girt Lighthouse is quite possibly my favorite lighthouse on this list. The funds for the Sea Girt Lighthouse were planned for 1889, but the lighthouse wasn’t built until 1896. As you can see from the photo above, it’s one of the few lighthouses that has the tower integrated into the keeper’s quarters. Sea Girt was the last lighthouse built in this style on the East coast. The light was first lit on December 10, 1896. The light was a fourth-order Fresnel lens, capable of being seen for 15 miles out to sea.
A radio beacon was installed in 1921. This allowed ships to navigate in poor conditions and heavy fog. Despite the success of the radio beacon, the transmitters were moved to the Barnegat Lightship and the Sea Girt radio beacon was decommissioned.
The Sea Girt Lighthouse played a role in the famous SS Morro Castle disaster. When the ship caught fire on September 8, 1936, it used the lighthouse to fix its position. It also helped the survivors find the shore as they tried to survive the rough seas. As rescuers braved the storm to find survivors, the lighthouse served as a first aid station.
The light went dark with the outbreak of WWII. After the war was over, the lighthouse returned to operation for roughly a decade. 1955 saw the light decommissioned. The Sea Girt Lighthouse Citizens Committee saved and restored the lighthouse in 1981.
Tours are available every Sunday from 2 – 4 PM, from mid-April to Thanksgiving.
Want to Learn More?
Below are some of the awesome sources I used to help put this list together. (Note, the book links are affiliate links, so if you purchase the books I will get a small percentage of the sale. I will never link a book I haven’t purchased and read myself first.)
The National Park Service keeps up the Sandy Hook Lighthouse informational site- See the site here!
There is a lot to history. I mean, a lot. Go ahead and think about your favorite hobby. Or think about that one thing that you are absolutely obsessed with.
I can guarantee that whatever you just thought of, there is a history to it. Nothing comes into this world from nothing, and so everything has some sort of past. With so much history to cover, there is no way I can come close to writing about even half of the amazing hidden history that surrounds us. This is why once I week I’m recommending an interesting website that helps cover the many gaps in my knowledge and expertise. All of these websites are free to access as of the time of the recommendation and all can be found over on the Resources page as well!
Website Recommendation of the Week- The Public Domain Review!
This week’s website is The Public Domain Review! This site is based out of the United Kingdom. Their focus is on art, photos, writing, film, and audio that is now in the public domain. This website has an impressive collection of now public items. Last time I looked, there were over a thousand items in their collection! Each collection of items has historical context provided. They also have essays related to the collections, a blog, and a shop! Thankfully the website is searchable by tag, and you can filter the collections by medium, theme, and epoch.
Frankly, the collections are incredible. I love that they provide some of the context, as other websites just post the work with little explanation. If you want to use the items in the public domain, they try to also give you some idea of what usage is allowed. Not all countries have the same laws regarding the public domain, so it’s nice that they try to flag items that may not be in the public domain everywhere.
I recommend this website to anyone with an interest in older literature, art, audio, etc. The website is mostly safe for kids as well, although you may want to monitor the younger kids. Having problems with the link above? Try here:
This week I have a pretty cool resource for people interested in the history of words. Everyone knows that language changes over time. Honestly, when was the last time anyone referred to something as “totally tubular”? But what happens to languages over the course of hundreds or thousands of years? This is one of the main focuses in the study of linguistics, and as a historian, it is endlessly fascinating.
Having a sense of how languages have changed over time is also incredibly important. A minor change of words can completely change the context of a source. If I invite you for a stay in my cottage in the forest, it paints one picture in your mind. If I ask you to come to my cabin in the woods, it paints another. Another good example is the difference between a “booty call” and a “butt dial.” In one sense, they mean the same thing! But, because we understand the context and linguistic differences, the meaning changes.
Understanding the underlying meaning of words is so incredibly important when understanding history and current events. With all that in mind, my cool website this week is The Etymology Nerd! Much like how I explore the hidden side of history, The Etymology Nerd explores the hidden history of words.
The Etymology Nerd was created by Adam Aleksic, a junior at Harvard University. According to the website, he started The Etymology nerd as a way to help study linguistics. His website just ballooned from there. He does run an active blog where he explores certain words or sets of words. There are also cool infographics, an interactive map, and some really useful videos.
Even if you have no interest in linguistics, this site is just plain fun to play around on. I spent some time messing around on the interactive map rather than writing. Although to be fair, it did give me some great ideas for some upcoming posts… stay tuned!
Wall Street tends to be a popular topic in the news. ‘Wall Street’ tends to be used as a general way to refer to the economy. People tend to forget that Wall Street is an actual road in New York City, one with a rather long and somewhat sketchy history.
Wall Street started off as, surprisingly, a street with a wall. In the early colonial days of the United States, the Dutch held “New Amsterdam”, or what is now New York City. Fearing an invasion by the English, a wall was constructed. It was 9 feet high and about 2,340 feet long. The road, if it had a name previously, was renamed “Waal Straat.”
From that humble and rather simple beginning, Wall Street has had a history full of twists and turns. A government-sponsored slave market stood on Wall Street in 1711. Just 20 years later, the first attempt at a public library was also on Wall Street.
From the highest of highs to the lowest of lows, Wall Street once was home to the Capitol building for the US government, suffered a devastating fire, and withstood multiple terrorist attacks.
Now it is considered the backbone of the US economy. That doesn’t mean its past is forgotten, nor should it be…
Check out the infographic below!
A Timeline of Wall Street!
What was the most surprising event of Wall Street History? Let us know in the comments below!
This week we have a great website to share if you love computer entertainment and digital culture history! This is a relatively new field in history, but one that will become more and more important as time goes on. Early historical and cultural aspects of the digital age are easily lost, often by accident. While The Wayback Machine and the Internet Archive are important parts of preserving this information, cultural context is easily lost.
That’s where Jimmy Maher’s website and blog, The Digital Antiquarian, come in. He provides the cultural and historical background needed to truly understand the early digital age. And by early digital age, I don’t just mean when the internet began. Maher’s posts will often reach back into the 1800s to explain the very beginnings of the digital era. Personally, I really enjoy his attention to detail and his ability to weave a good story out of what would otherwise be dry facts. He definitely isn’t afraid to dig deep into detail. Maher’s absolute joy in his writing is apparent right in the first few sentences in any of his posts. He’s apparently going to start up a new blog soon, and I can’t wait to see how it turns out!
I totally recommend checking out Jimmy Maher’s website, even if you don’t have a passion for the early digital age. He touches on many topics in order to explain the why and hows in each post, so there is something for everyone in each of his posts! Maher has also collected his many posts into an ebook collection for people who prefer to read the posts in chronological order and in an ebook format. He also has a collection of other historical books that he’s written. I can’t (yet!) attest to these, but considering how much I enjoy his writing I will definitely be picking up a few of his other history books as well.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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