|Criminal penalty||Death by hanging|
Rainey Bethea (c. 1909 – August 14, 1936) was the last person publicly executed in the United States. Bethea, who confessed to the rape and murder of a 70-year-old woman named Lischia Edwards, was convicted of her rape and publicly hanged in Owensboro, Kentucky. Mistakes in performing the hanging, and the surrounding media circus, contributed to the end of public executions in the United States.
The United States of America (USA), commonly known as the United States or America, is a country comprising 50 states, a federal district, five major self-governing territories, and various possessions. At 3.8 million square miles, the United States is the world's third or fourth largest country by total area and is slightly smaller than the entire continent of Europe's 3.9 million square miles. With a population of over 327 million people, the U.S. is the third most populous country. The capital is Washington, D.C., and the most populous city is New York City. Forty-eight states and the capital's federal district are contiguous in North America between Canada and Mexico. The State of Alaska is in the northwest corner of North America, bordered by Canada to the east and across the Bering Strait from Russia to the west. The State of Hawaii is an archipelago in the mid-Pacific Ocean. The U.S. territories are scattered about the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, stretching across nine official time zones. The extremely diverse geography, climate, and wildlife of the United States make it one of the world's 17 megadiverse countries.
Hanging is the suspension of a person by a noose or ligature around the neck. The Oxford English Dictionary states that hanging in this sense is "specifically to put to death by suspension by the neck", though it formerly also referred to crucifixion and death by impalement in which the body would remain "hanging". Hanging has been a common method of capital punishment since medieval times, and is the primary execution method in numerous countries and regions. The first known account of execution by hanging was in Homer's Odyssey. In this specialised meaning of the common word hang, the past and past participle is hanged instead of hung.
Owensboro is a home rule-class city in and the county seat of Daviess County, Kentucky, United States. It is the fourth-largest city in the state by population. Owensboro is located on U.S. Route 60 about 107 miles (172 km) southwest of Louisville, and is the principal city of the Owensboro metropolitan area. The 2015 population was 59,042. The metropolitan population was estimated at 116,506.
Born in Roanoke, Virginia, Bethea was a black man orphaned after the death of his mother in 1919 and his father in 1926. Little is known of his time before he arrived in Owensboro in 1933. He worked for the Rutherford family and lived in their basement for about a year. Bethea then moved to a cabin behind the house of Emmett Wells. He worked as a laborer and rented a room from Mrs. Charles Brown. He also attended a Baptist church.
Roanoke is an independent city in the U.S. state of Virginia. At the 2010 census, the population was 97,032. It is located in the Roanoke Valley of the Roanoke Region of Virginia.
Bethea first had a brush with the law in 1935, when he was charged with breach of the peace and fined $20. Then, in April of the same year, he was caught stealing two purses from the Vogue Beauty Shop. Since the value of the purses exceeded $25, Bethea was convicted of a felony, grand larceny, and sentenced to one year in the Kentucky State Penitentiary at Eddyville. He arrived there on June 1, 1935. His physical described him as 5 ft. 4⅜" (1.635 m) tall and weighing 128 pounds (58 kg). He was paroled on December 1, 1935.
Larceny is a crime involving the unlawful taking of the personal property of another person or business. It was an offence under the common law of England and became an offence in jurisdictions which incorporated the common law of England into their own law, where in many cases it remains in force.
Eddyville is a home rule-class city in and the county seat of Lyon County, Kentucky, United States. The population was 2,554 at the 2010 census, up from 2,350 in 2000. The Kentucky State Penitentiary is located at Eddyville. The town is considered a tourist attraction because of its access to nearby Lake Barkley
Parole is a permanent release of a prisoner who agrees to certain conditions before the completion of the maximum sentence period, originating from the French parole. The term became associated during the Middle Ages with the release of prisoners who gave their word.
On returning to Owensboro, Bethea continued to work as a laborer and was paid about $7.00 per week. Less than a month later, he was arrested again, this time for house breaking. On January 6, 1936, the court amended this charge to drunk and disorderly. He couldn't pay the $100 fine and remained incarcerated in the Daviess County Jail until April 18, 1936.
Public intoxication, also known as "drunk and disorderly" and drunk in public, is a summary offense in some countries rated to public cases or displays of drunkenness. Public intoxication laws vary widely from jurisdiction, but usually require some obvious display of intoxicated incompetence or behavior disruptive/obnoxious to public order before the charge is levied.
Daviess County ( "Davis"), is a county in the U.S. state of Kentucky. As of the 2010 census, the population was 96,656. Its county seat is Owensboro. The county was formed from part of Ohio County on January 14, 1815.
During the early morning of June 7, 1936, Bethea entered the home of Lischia Edwards at 322 East Fifth Streetby climbing onto the roof of an outbuilding next door. From there, he jumped onto the roof of the servant's quarters of Emmett Wells' house, and then walked down a wooden walkway. He climbed over the kitchen roof to Edwards' bedroom window.
After removing a screen from her window, he entered the room, waking her. Bethea then choked Edwards and violently raped her. After she was unconscious, he searched for valuables and stole several of her rings. In the process, he removed his own black celluloid prison ring, and failed to later retrieve it. He left the bedroom and hid the stolen jewels in a barn not far from the house.
Celluloids are a class of compounds created from nitrocellulose and camphor, with added dyes and other agents. Generally considered the first thermoplastic, it was first created as Parkesine in 1856 and as Xylonite in 1869, before being registered as Celluloid in 1870. Celluloid is easily molded and shaped, and it was first widely used as an ivory replacement.
A prison ring is a type of plastic jewelry fashioned by hand in prisons, by working scrap plastic material, commonly celluloid items such as a toothbrush or a pen. Celluloid was historically a popular material since it could be heat bonded and glues were often less available. A common feature of prison rings were small photos mounted on the bezel.
The crime was discovered late that morning after the Smith family, who lived downstairs, noticed they had not heard Edwards stirring in her room. They feared she might have been ill and knocked on the door of her room, attempting to rouse her. They found the door locked with a skeleton key still inside the lock from the inside, which prevented another key from being placed in the lock from the outside. They contacted a neighbor, Robert Richardson, hoping he could help, and he managed to knock the key free, but another skeleton key would not unlock the door. Smith then got a ladder. He climbed into the room through the transom over the door and discovered that Edwards was dead.
The Smiths alerted Dr. George Barr while he was attending a service at the local Methodist Church. Dr. Barr realized there was little he could do and summoned the local coroner, Delbert Glenn, who attended the same church. The Smiths also called the Owensboro police. Officers found the room was otherwise tidy, but there were muddy footprints everywhere. Coroner Glenn also found a celluloid prison ring, which Bethea, in his drunken state, had inadvertently left behind in the room.
By late Sunday afternoon, the police already suspected Rainey Bethea after several residents of Owensboro stated that they had previously seen Bethea wearing the ring. Since Bethea had a criminal record, the police could use the then-new identification technique of fingerprints to establish that Bethea had recently touched items inside the bedroom. Police searched for Bethea over the next four days.
On the Wednesday following the discovery of the murder, Burt "Red" Figgins was working on the bank of the Ohio River, when he observed Bethea lying under some bushes. Figgins asked Bethea what he was doing, and Bethea responded he was "cooling off." Figgins then reported this sighting to his supervisor, Will Faith, and asked him to call the police. By the time Faith had returned to the spot on the river bank, Bethea had moved to the nearby Koll's Grocery. Faith followed him and then found a policeman in the drugstore, but when they searched for Bethea, he again eluded capture.
Later that afternoon, Bethea was again spotted. This time, he was cornered on the river bank after he tried to board a barge. When police officers questioned him, he denied that he was Bethea, claiming his name was James Smith. The police played along with the fabricated name, fearing a mob would develop if residents were to learn that they had captured Bethea. After his arrest, Bethea was identified by a scar on the left side of his head.
Judge Forrest A. Roby of the Daviess Circuit Court ordered the sheriff to transport Bethea to the Jefferson County Jail in Louisville, fearing a lynch mob. While being transferred, Bethea made his first confession, admitting that he had raped Edwards and strangled her to death. Bethea also lamented the fact that he had made a mistake by leaving his ring at the crime scene.
Once incarcerated at the jail, Bethea made a second confession, this time before Robert M. Morton, a notary public, and George H. Koper, a reporter for The Courier-Journal . Officials requested the presence of the notary and the reporter anticipating that Bethea, or someone else, might accuse them of coercing his confession.
On June 12, 1936, Bethea confessed a third time and told the captain of the guards where he had hidden the jewelry. Owensboro police searched a barn in Owensboro and found the jewelry, where Bethea said he had left it.
Under Kentucky law, the grand jury could not convene until June 22, and the prosecutor decided to charge Bethea solely with rape. The reason was, under the statutes then in force, a death sentence for murder and robbery was carried out by electrocution at the state penitentiary in Eddyville. Rape, however, could be punished by public hanging in the county seat where the crime occurred. To avoid a potential legal dilemma as to whether Bethea would be hanged or electrocuted, the prosecutor elected to charge Bethea only with rape. Bethea was never charged with the remaining crimes of theft, robbery, burglary, or murder. After one hour and forty minutes, the grand jury returned an indictment, charging Bethea with rape.
On June 25, 1936, officers returned Bethea to Owensboro for the trial, which took place that same day.Bethea was unhelpful to his state-appointed attorneys, lead defense attorney and early anti-death penalty advocate William W. "Bill" Kirtley, William L. Wilson, Carroll Byron, and C. W. Wells Jr. He said that a Clyde Maddox would provide an alibi, but Maddox claimed he did not even know Bethea. In the end, they subpoenaed four witnesses: Maddox, Ladd Moorman, Willie Johnson (whom Bethea had implicated as an accomplice in his second confession), and Allen McDaniel. Only the first three were served because the sheriff's office could not find a person named Allen McDaniel.
On the night before the trial, Bethea announced to his lawyers that he wanted to plead guilty, and he did so the next day at the start of the trial. The prosecutor, who was asking for the death penalty, still presented the state's case to the jury since the jury would decide the sentence. The first twelve of 111 people called for jury duty were selected.
In his opening statement, Commonwealth's Attorney Herman Birkhead said, "This is one of the most dastardly, beastly, cowardly crimes ever committed in Daviess County. Justice demands and the Commonwealth will ask and expect a verdict of the death penalty by hanging."
After questioning 21 witnesses, the prosecution closed its case. The defense did not call any witnesses or cross-examine the witnesses who testified for the prosecution. After a closing statement by the prosecutor, the judge instructed the jury that since Bethea had pleaded guilty, their only task was to "...fix his punishment, at confinement in the penitentiary for not less than ten years nor more than twenty years, or at death."After only four and a half minutes of deliberation, the jury returned with a sentence: death by hanging. Bethea was then quickly removed from the courthouse and returned to the Jefferson County Jail.
Back in Louisville, Bethea acquired five new black lawyers—Charles Ewbank Tucker, Stephen A. Burnley, Charles W. Anderson Jr., Harry E. Bonaparte, and R. Everett Ray. They worked pro bono to challenge the sentence, something they saw as their ethical duty for the indigent defendant. On July 10, 1936, they filed a motion for a new trial. The judge summarily denied this on the grounds that under Section 273 of the Kentucky Code of Practice in Criminal Cases, a motion for a new trial had to have been received before the end of the court's term, which had ended on July 4.
They then tried to appeal to the Kentucky Court of Appeals, which was also not in session. On July 29, Justice Gus Thomas returned to Frankfort where he heard the oral motion. Justice Thomas refused to let them file the appeal, on the grounds that the trial court record was incomplete since it only included the judge's ruling. This may make Bethea's lawyers seem incompetent—but they knew the Kentucky courts would deny the appeal and this was only a formality to exhaust state court remedies before they filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus in a federal court.
Once Justice Thomas denied the motion to file a belated appeal, Bethea's attorneys filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky at Louisville. A hearing was held on August 5 at the Federal Building in Louisville before United States District Judge Elwood Hamilton. During the hearing, Bethea claimed that he had not wanted to plead guilty but his initial lawyers had forced him, and that he had wanted to subpoena three witnesses to testify on his behalf, but the lawyers had also not done this. Bethea also claimed that his five confessions had been made under duress and that when he signed one of them, he did not know what he was signing. The Commonwealth brought several witnesses to refute these claims. Judge Hamilton denied the habeas corpus petition and ruled that the hanging could proceed.
The crime was infamous locally, but it came to nationwide attention because of one fact—the sheriff of Daviess County was a woman. Florence Shoemaker Thompson had become sheriff on April 13, 1936, after her husband, Everett Thompson, who was elected sheriff in 1933, unexpectedly died of pneumonia on April 10. As sheriff of the county, it was her duty to hang Bethea.
Among the hundreds of letters Sheriff Thompson received after the public learned she would perform the hanging was one from Arthur L. Hash, a former Louisville police officer, who offered his services free of charge to perform the execution. Thompson quickly accepted this offer. He asked only that she not make his name public.
Thompson also received a letter from the Chief Deputy United States Marshal for the District of Indiana telling her of a farmer from Epworth, Illinois, named G. Phil Hanna who had assisted with hangings across the country. Bethea's hanging would be the 70th that Hanna had supervised. He himself never pulled the trigger that released the trapdoor, and the only thing he asked for in return was the weapon used in the crime. Hanna developed his interest in the "art" of hanging after he witnessed the botched execution of Fred Behme at McLeansboro, Illinois, in 1896, which had resulted in the condemned man suffering. As such, Hanna saw it as his main task to provide whatever assistance he could to ensure a quick, painless death. Hanna did not always succeed in this endeavor—during the hanging of James Johnson on March 26, 1920, the rope broke and Johnson fell to the ground and was severely injured. Hanna had to descend the steps, carry the injured Johnson back to the scaffold, and proceed with his execution.
On August 6, the Governor of Kentucky, Albert Chandler, signed Bethea's execution warrant and set the execution for sunrise on August 14. However, Sheriff Thompson requested the governor to issue a revised death warrant because the original warrant specified that the hanging would take place in the courthouse yard where the county, at significant expense, had recently planted new shrubs and flowers. Chandler was out-of-state, so Lieutenant Governor of Kentucky Keen Johnson, as acting governor, signed a second death warrant moving the location of the hanging from the courthouse yard to an empty lot near the county garage.
Rainey Bethea's last meal consisted of fried chicken, pork chops, mashed potatoes, pickled cucumbers, cornbread, lemon pie, and ice cream, which he ate at 4:00 p.m. on August 13 in Louisville. At about 1:00 a.m., Daviess County deputy sheriffs transported Bethea from Louisville to Owensboro. At the jail, Hanna visited Bethea and instructed him to stand on the X that would be marked on the trapdoor.
It was estimated that a crowd of about 20,000 people gathered to watch the execution with thousands coming from out of town. Hash arrived at the site intoxicated wearing a white suit and a white Panama hat. At this time, no one but he and Thompson knew that he would pull the trigger.
Bethea left the Daviess County Jail at 5:21 a.m. and walked with two deputies to the scaffold. Within two minutes, he was at the base of the scaffold. Removing his shoes, he put on a new pair of socks. He ascended the steps and stood on the large X as instructed. He made no final statement to the waiting crowd. After Bethea made his final confession to Father Lammers, of the Cathedral of the Assumption in Louisville, officers placed a black hood over his head and fastened three large straps around his ankles, thighs, arms, and chest.
Hanna placed the noose around Bethea's neck, adjusted it, and then signaled to Hash to pull the trigger. Instead, Hash, who was drunk, did nothing. Hanna shouted at Hash, "Do it!" and a deputy leaned onto the trigger, which sprang the trap door. Throughout all of this, the crowd was hushed. Bethea fell eight feet and his neck instantly broke. About 14 minutes later, two doctors confirmed Bethea was dead. After the noose was removed, his body was taken to Andrew & Wheatley Funeral Home. He had wanted his body sent to his sister in South Carolina. Instead, he was buried in a pauper's grave at the Rosehill Elmwood Cemetery in Owensboro.
Many newspapers, having spent considerable sums of money to cover the first execution publicly performed by a woman, were disappointed, and several journalists took liberties in reporting the event, describing it as a "Roman Holiday,"some falsely reporting that the crowd rushed the gallows to claim souvenirs, and at least one newspaper falsely reported that Sheriff Thompson fainted at the base of the scaffold.
Afterwards, Hanna complained that Hash should not have been allowed to perform the execution in his drunken condition. Hanna further said it was the worst display he experienced in the 70 hangings he had supervised.
As the Kentucky General Assembly met in biennial sessions at the time, the media circus surrounding the Bethea execution embarrassed members of the Kentucky legislature, but it was powerless to amend the law until the next session in 1938. However, the trial judges in two separate Kentucky rape cases ordered that the hangings of John "Pete" Montjoy and Harold Van Venison be conducted privately. Montjoy, age 23, was privately hanged in Covington on December 17, 1937. On January 17, 1938, William R. Attkisson of the Kentucky State Senate's 38th District (representing Louisville), introduced Senate Bill 69, repealing the requirement from Section 1137 that death sentences for the crime of rape be conducted by hanging in the county seat where the crime was committed. Representative Charles W. Anderson Jr., one of the attorneys who assisted Bethea in his post conviction relief motions promoted the bill in the Kentucky House of Representatives. After both houses approved the bill on March 12, 1938, Governor Chandler signed it into law and it became effective on May 30, 1938. Chandler later expressed regret at having approved the repeal claiming, "Our streets are no longer safe." The last person legally hanged in Kentucky was Harold Van Venison, a 33-year-old black singer, who was privately executed in Covington on June 3, 1938.
The Scottsboro Boys were nine African American teenagers, ages 13 to 20, falsely accused in Alabama of raping two white women on a train in 1931. The landmark set of legal cases from this incident dealt with racism and the right to a fair trial. The cases included a lynch mob before the suspects had been indicted, all-white juries, rushed trials, and disruptive mobs. It is commonly cited as an example of a miscarriage of justice in the United States legal system.
Capital punishment is a legal penalty in the U.S. state of Louisiana.
Capital punishment is a legal penalty in the U.S. state of Virginia.
Thomas Clay McCreery was a Democratic U.S. Senator from Kentucky.
Perry T. Ryan is an American lawyer who writes books on American history. Ryan has authored eight books. These include The Last Public Execution in America (1992), the story of Rainey Bethea, who was legally hanged in Owensboro, Kentucky in 1936. This book was featured on ABC's World News Tonight, on ABC's 20/20, on National Public Radio, and on the History Channel. In 1989, Ryan published Legal Lynching: The Plight of Sam Jennings, which chronicled a 1932 Kentucky hanging of a black man accused of the rape of a white woman. Ryan also wrote A Biography of Maurice F. O'Connell: The Story of An American Hero (1996), which celebrated the life of an American soldier of the 29th Infantry Division, who died during the liberation of France in World War II. This book was translated into French in 1998 and is has been used in the public schools of France to teach youngsters about the American contribution to the liberation of their country during the war. Ryan's other books include four genealogies and a church history. He utilizes an expository writing style designed for clarity.
Daymar College is a for-profit college based in Nashville, Tennessee, United States. Founded in 1963 and operated as Owensboro Business College until 2001, Daymar College offers more than 35 career tracks in 22 different academic programs. Daymar College is accredited by the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges (ACCSC).
The Thompson and Powell Martyrs Monument is a memorial to two Confederate soldiers in St. Joseph, Kentucky. It is on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP), one of only three NRHP locations in Daviess County, Kentucky that is not in Owensboro, Kentucky.
The Confederate Monument in Owensboro is a bronze sculpture based on a granite pedestal. It is located at the southwest corner of the Daviess County Courthouse lawn in Owensboro, Kentucky.
George W. Barrett, also known as "The Diamond King" and "Bad George," was an American car thief and murderer who became the first person sentenced to death by hanging under a congressional act that made it a capital offense to kill a federal agent.
Hanging has been practiced legally in the United States of America from the nation's birth, up to 1972 when the United States Supreme Court found capital punishment to be in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Four years later, the Supreme Court overturned its previous ruling, and in 1976, capital punishment was again legalized in the United States. Hanging has returned to the states of Washington, Delaware, and New Hampshire.
In Forsyth County, Georgia, in September 1912 two separate attacks on white women resulted in black men being accused as suspects. One white woman accused a black man of raping her, and another woman was found to have been fatally beaten and raped. These cases resulted in numerous blacks being arrested, and some being physically assaulted by whites. A black preacher was harshly beaten for having been heard to suggest that the first woman may have had a consensual relationship with a black man. Five blacks were charged in the second crime, and one was lynched by a mob of thousands at the county jail; two youths in the case were convicted of rape and murder by an all-white jury and sentenced to death by hanging. Thousands of whites attended the hangings. In the early stages of the unrest, the Sheriff received reinforcements of 25 Georgia National Guard troops, but they could not control the mob. The prisoner Ernest Knox was taken to Gainesville and then Atlanta to protect him from the mob before trial.
Florence Katherine Shoemaker Thompson Riney was the first female sheriff in the United States of America to carry out an execution. Rainey Bethea, the last man to be publicly executed in the U.S., was convicted of rape and sentenced to death by hanging in Daviess County, Kentucky.
William W. "Bill" Kirtley was an early American anti-death penalty activist and lead defense attorney to Rainey Bethea, the last man ever publicly executed in the United States. He was also the husband of feminist Louise Gasser Kirtley, the first female Kentucky State Representative and first female Kentucky Bar Association President and grandfather of Franco-American international arbitration lawyer William Kirtley. Arguing that capital punishment was the "most premeditated of murders," Kirtley was unable to convince Rainey Bethea to testify on his own behalf, and he was ultimately hanged before a crowd of 20,000 people in what was described as a carnival-like atmosphere, drawing media attention throughout the United States that was fanned by Kirtley and his wife. Afterwards, he sought to have Kentucky adopt a law based on a Missouri statute banning all public executions. Following his early death, his wife took up the cause, playing a key role in the Kentucky legislature's ban on all public executions still found in statute KRS 431.220. Many legal scholars and human rights advocates credit the scandal he generated and the execution itself to have led to the eventual ban of all public executions in America.
William Milton Gant was an associate justice of the Kentucky Court of Appeals from 1976 to 1982 and the Kentucky Supreme Court from 1983 to 1991.
Rosehill Elmwood Cemetery is located at 1300 Old Hartford Road Owensboro Daviess County Kentucky. There are about 55,000 interments. It is officially recognised as a historical landmark by the state of Kentucky. Notable people buried in the cemetery include a number of US Congressman, as well as Rainey Bethea, the last person to be publicly executed in America.
Capital punishment is a legal penalty in the U.S. state of Kentucky.