Famous Lasts The Last Public Execution in America

About the famous last public execution in America of a man in Kentucky, history and information.


This was the hanging of a 22-year-old black man named Rainey Bethea at Owensboro, Ky., in 1936. Bethea had been convicted of the slaying of a 70-year-old white woman. The hanging was organized by the county sheriff, a woman named Florence Thompson. She deliberately had the scaffold erected in a field so that thousands could witness the execution, which she set for sunrise. So many people invaded Owensboro for the spectacle that terrified local blacks fled the town, especially after receiving lynching threats from drunken white revelers. All-night hanging parties were the order of the day. By five o'clock the following morning, 20,000 people were in the field, including over 200 sheriffs and deputies from various parts of the U.S. Only six Negroes attended--two of them women. When the hangman was testing the knot, it snapped open to the loud cheers of the crowd. Bethea arrived at 5:12 A.M., accompanied by a Catholic priest. When the hangman pulled the bolt, there was a loud cheer. The still-warm body was attacked by souvenir hunters. They tore off pieces of clothing; some even attempted to cut pieces of flesh from Bethea's dangling body. Hundreds of spectators thronged around the scaffold while two doctors examined the body with stethoscopes. There was a large groan when the doctors detected heartbeats. At 5:45 A.M. Bethea was pronounced dead. At that moment, several people began fighting over the hood that covered his head.

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