Tuesday, August 14, 2007

August 14

Today is the 71st anniversary of the last public execution in the United States. On 14 August 1936, Rainey Bethea was hanged by the neck before a crowd of 20,000 gawkers in Owensboro, Kentucky. The 22-year-old Bethea had been convicted earlier that summer in the drunken murder of 70-year-old Lischia Edwards, whom he had raped and strangled in her own bedroom on June 7.

At 5:32 a.m. on August 14, Bethea ascended the scaffold wearing a clean pair of socks. He had not eaten breakfast, but was likely still full from the fried chicken, pork chops, mashed potatoes, cornbread, pickles, lemon pie and ice cream he had requested for his last meal more than 12 hours earlier. Spectators had begun arriving in the middle of the night and jostled for position as Rainey’s head was draped in a black hood and his arms and legs bound with leather straps. The executioner, who was more than a little drunk, had to be told more than once to pull the lever and end the life of Rainey Bethea.

Fourteen minutes after his neck snapped at the end of an eight-foot rope, Bethea was officially declared dead. His body was dumped into a pauper’s grave in Owensboro. Press coverage of the execution was almost unanimously critical, as reporters described -- and embellished -- scenes of unflattering public enthusiasm. A headline in the Philadelphia Record announced that “[The crowd] Ate Hot Dogs While a Man Died on the Gallows.” In the Louisville Courier-Journal described a crowd that cheered with delight when Bethea’s neck snapped/
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 inclosure [sic] about the scaffold and scrambled for fragments as mementoes.

People stood on roofs, hung from telephone poles, leaned out windows, stood on automobiles. One group took possession of the roof of a hearse waiting for Bethea's body. Many children, including babies were carried on the shoulders of their parents. It ought to be a lesson to them.

The condemned man ‘appeared to be serious but calm.' Naturally, he didn't enter in the spirit of gaiety. He couldn't look forward to entertaining his friends with a recital of the adventure and boring them thereafter with it for the remainder of his days. It was a serious event in Bethea's life. It was a serious event in the life of Kentucky, too, as the morbid enjoyment of that curious throng attests.
As it happened, Bethea took at least one other person with him. About an hour before the execution, a man named Leonard Peters -- rushing with his wife and another couple from Evanston to Owensboro -- was killed in an accident when he drove his vehicle into a ditch. Peters’ wife and friends survived, though one presumes they did not make it to Owensboro in time for the hanging.