14 August 1936 – Rainey Bethea

Rainey Bethea

Rainey Bethea

The last person to be executed in public in the US was 26-year-old Rainey Bethea. Just as well it was the last, because it was a real botched job.

The rapist and murderer was hanged in Owensboro in Kentucky for the murder of Lischia Edwards. He targeted 70-year-old Edwards following a life full of petty crimes, such as theft and drunkenness.

The latter crime was while he was on parole – so under Kentucky law he should have been banged up again. But he wasn’t and some sources bizarrely claim that it was the failure of Kentucky law that allowed him to roam free and commit the crime of his life.

In the early hours of 7 June 1936, Bethea got completely off his face, but remarkably managed to scale the roof of an outbuilding to break into Edwards’ bedroom window. She woke so he strangled her before raping her. While she was unconscious, he looted her room of any jewellery, but ironically left his own celluloid prison ring as an unsuspecting calling card. He then left, squirreling the jewellery away in a nearby barn before legging it.

Edwards was found dead later that day by neighbours and, of course, the ring, plus a whole trail of muddy footprints all pointed back to Bethea.

Corpse and robbers

The search was on and they finally caught up with him. But weirdly in 1936, it wasn’t against Kentucky law to have sex with a corpse, so Bethea tried to blag it with the flimsy defence that he didn’t know Edwards was alive when the rape took place.

Nevertheless the prosecution went after him with the rape charge. Why, because if they charged him with murder he’d be electrocuted, whereas rape afforded a public hanging.

Make of that what you will, but Bethea as a black criminal had raped a white elderly woman. Needless to say the crime had stirred up public condemnation of the crime and the outraged inhabitants of Kentucky would’ve happily lynched him themselves, according to reports.

The all-white male jury took just 4.5 minutes to find him guilty. And that’s when the media attention turned sharply on Kentucky. Bethea’s hanging was to be carried out by a female – the first in America.

Complete Hash

Sheriff Florence Thompson had been thrust into the limelight following her husband’s death. She had an experienced assistant in the shape of a farmer by the name of Phil Hanna. But it was one Arthur Hash who wrote to her and asked if he could pull the lever. She’d have been mad not to accept as it alleviated her of any responsibility, so she naturally agreed.

So the entire country was focused on the first female executioner and she wasn’t even going to do the execution. And that wasn’t all. Hash needed some Dutch courage and he got plenty of it when he turned up drunk for the execution in his white suit and white hat. Hanna secured the noose round Bethea’s head and signalled to Hash, who singularly failed to respond, forcing Hanna to shout ‘Do it’. Only then was the lever pulled and Bethea’s neck broke during the 8ft fall to his death.

But the media felt cheated and in a bid to salvage a newsworthy story out of it, they described the event as a ‘Roman Holiday’, even saying that the public stormed the gallows to get a piece of the criminal as a souvenir.

Also on this day

14 August 1907 – Rhoda Willis
14 August 2004 – Dhananjoy Chatterjee

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