On 14 August 1936, thousands of people traveled to Kentucky to see the last public execution of a black man. Newspapers and magazines also sent their reporter to document this horrible execution. They also spent considerable sums of money to cover the story. The execution was performed by a woman. The idea of a female sheriff carrying out an execution greatly added to the excitement and attention the case received from the press.
Crime Story behind the execution
In the early morning of June 7, 1936, a 27-year-old black man, Rainey Bethea, broke into the house of Lischia Edwards, a 70-years-old woman, who lived at 322 East Fifth. Bethea entered into Edwards house by climbing on to the servant’s quarters of Emmett Wells’ house. He choked Lischia Edwards violently and raped her. After raping he searched for valuables in the room and stole several of her rings. Edwards was unconscious. He lost his black celluloid prison ring and failed to recover. He left the bedroom and hid the stolen valuables in the barn near the house.
The horrible crime was discovered late that morning after the Smith family heard nothing from Edwards. Smith’s family lived downstairs to Edwards House. 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. Smith climbed into the room through the transom over the door and discovered that Edwards was dead. He went to Dr. George Barr and to the Owensboro police. The police discovered some muddy footprints of the criminal. Bethea was spotted at the river bank and police officers questioned him, he denied that he was Bethea, claiming his name was James Smith. However, the police identified him by a scar on the left side of his head.
After he was proved guilty, the Governor of Kentucky, Albert Chandler signed Bethea’s execution warrant and set the execution for sunrise on August 14. The execution place was changed from a courthouse yard to an empty lot near the county garage because the county had recently planted new shrubs and flowers in the yard.
Rainey Bethea’s last meal consisted of pork chops, fried chicken, mashed potatoes pickled cucumbers, cornbread, lemon pie, and ice cream. Over 20,000 people came from different parts of the state to watch the execution.
Arthur L. Hash, a former Louisville police officer, offered his services free of charge to perform the execution. Police officer Thompson quickly accepted this offer. 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. When Bethea reached the base of the scaffold, the police officers took to the gallows. Bethea made his final confession to Father Lammers, of the Cathedral of the Assumption in Louisville.
Police officers covered his face with black food and fastened three large straps around his ankles, thighs, arms, and chest. G. Phil Hanna, a farmer from Epworth, Illinois who had assisted with hangings across the country was also invited to prepare for the execution. 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.
His body was taken to Andrew and 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. Some Newspapers who have spent large sums to cover the execution were disappointed. And many journalists described it as a “Roman Holiday”. Hanna also said it was the worst display he experienced in the 70 hangings he had supervised.