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On This Day: Kentucky Holds Final Public Execution in the US

Written By Josh Katz
Last updated: February 11, 2023

On Aug. 14, 1936, Rainey Bethea was hanged in Owensboro, Ky., for rape and murder, becoming the last person publicly executed in the United States.

Rainey Bethea Hanged as Thousands Watch

Kentucky passed a law in 1910 stipulating that all executions be carried out privately in an electric chair. Ten years later, however, it created an exception for rapists, who would be hanged by the county in which they committed their crime.

Each county could choose whether to conduct the hanging publicly or privately. Of the first six hangings under this law, two were conducted privately, three publicly, and one—of the only white man executed under the law—was conducted before a restricted audience of 1,500, according to Perry T. Ryan, author of “The Last Public Execution in America.”

In 1936, Rainey Bethea, a 22-year-old black man, was convicted of raping and strangling a 70-year-old white woman in Daviess County. He was convicted and sentenced to death in a public hanging in Owensboro, the county seat, on Aug. 14.

His execution attracted national attention, mostly due to the fact that Florence Thompson, the “plump, matronly” sheriff of Daviess County, would become the first woman to carry out an execution, reported Time magazine.

Reporters and spectators packed Owensboro. On the night of Aug. 13, Owensboro was “host to the greatest crowd in its history” as many people held “hanging parties,” according to Time.

The hanging was scheduled for dawn, at 5:12 a.m. Between 10,000-20,000 people gathered around the scaffold, as vendors sold hot dogs and drinks to the onlookers. Sheriff Thompson chose not to perform the execution herself, passing off her duty to a Louisville policeman, Arthur “Daredevil Dick” Hash.

A drunken Hash pulled the trap-door lever shortly after 5:32 a.m. “The trap door dropped and Bethea fell about eight feet,” writes Ryan. “The rope tightened, and Bethea swung only slightly at its end. His neck broken, Bethea’s head was bent sharply almost touching his right shoulder.” Bethea was pronounced dead around 5:45 a.m.

National press coverage was highly critical of town for staging an execution in such a raucous atmosphere. Many stories included sensationalized accounts of the crowd’s reaction, portraying the spectators as barbaric.

Ryan cites an article in the Boston Daily Record, which stated, “Cheering, booing, eating, joking, 20,000 persons witnessed the public execution … In callous, carnival spirit, the mob charged the gallows after the trap was sprung, tore the executioner’s hood from the corpse, chipped the gallows for souvenirs.”

Two more rapists would be hanged privately in Kentucky before the state banned hangings in 1938. No other state would execute a man publicly again.

“Many scholars say Bethea’s execution—and the coverage it received—led to a banning of public executions in America,” writes Renee Montagne for NPR.

History of Public Executions in the United States

Sources in this Story

  • The Last Public Execution in America
  • Time: Party
  • NPR: The Last Public Execution in America
  • PBS: History of the Death Penalty
  • American Thinker: Public Executions: Live and in Color?
  • CNN (Court TV): Dying the hard way? Firing squads and hanging still legal in some states
  • The New York Times: In Utah, Execution Evokes Eras Past

European settlers brought capital punishment with them to the United States from Europe. Public executions became spectacles, which contributed to the movement against them.

Beginning in 1833, many states began to do away with public executions; by 1849, 15 of the 30 states had instituted private executions. Many death penalty opponents actually opposed these measures, believing that private executions would not foment opinion against executions like public ones would.

In 1890, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Holden v. Minnesota that states could ban public access to executions. That same year, states then began “enacting laws that placed the execution of prisoners behind ‘enclosures’ in order to ‘exclude public view,’” according to the American Thinker.

Changing U.S. Policy for Executions

Capital Punishment History

The Supreme Court ruled in its 1972 Furman v. Georgia decision that certain death penalty laws were unconstitutional. The ruling temporarily halted executions, but states then rewrote their laws to allow the death penalty again.

Technically, the public can attend executions today. Matt Bean wrote for Court TV that observers “can still ‘be there,’ even if they aren’t present as a member of the victim’s family or one of the witnesses chosen by the condemned.”

Lethal injection was first introduced in 1982 and is now unquestionably the most common type of execution. However, firing squads, hangings, poisonings and electrocutions are all still legally available in some states. For example, Utah has executed three men by firing squad since the reintroduction of the death penalty, though it has abolished the method for any future cases.

Timothy McVeigh, the perpetrator of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, requested a public, televised execution in 2001. In a published letter to The Daily Oklahoman, he said he wanted to “hold a true public execution.” Instead, a select audience of victims’ families was allowed to watch his lethal injection on television.

Charles Eames

Josh Katz was a writer for findingDulcinea from July 2007 until March 2009. Josh wrote a weekly column for Cornell's daily newspaper for three years, covering topics such as the conflict in the Middle East and college life. Josh later worked for a production company making a historical documentary for PBS, and then spent some time as a paralegal. He has a B.A. in History and American Studies from Cornell University. For more about Josh read Ever Heard Of It?, Josh’s personal blog.

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