It wasn’t all that long ago.

That’s what I think as I scroll through the pictures.

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It wasn’t all that long ago.

The images I am scrolling through are of a huge crowd, perhaps 20,000 people, gathered in the town of Owensboro, Kentucky. The date is August 14, 1936, just 84 years ago!

The faces are all white. They stand, sit or rest on the ground, shoulder to shoulder, crowded in as tightly as possible. In some photos, the people look happy and festive, as if they are gathered for a county fair. In others, the faces are a mix of curiosity, anger, determination, and even a touch of horror.

Photos: Less than a century ago, 20,000 people traveled to Kentucky to see a white woman hang a…

These images shows mob voyeurism at its worst

What would compel 20,000 people to gather on a hot August afternoon in the stifling humidity of Western Kentucky, selling out every hotel room in town?

Well, I will tell you, it was to unknowingly witness at the time, the last public execution carried out in America as of 2020.

Thousands of people went out of their way to witness the last public execution in America.

They were there to watch Rainey Bethea, a Black man, climb the steps of the wooden gallows where he would die dangling by his neck at the end of a rope. I can barely wrap my mind around it, can you?

As a lifelong Kentuckian myself, I have to wonder how many of my fellow Kentuckians have a connection to this story. Have I shared Sunday dinner with a grandfather or grandmother who was one of the faces in that crowd? Have I broken bread with a son or daughter who heard the story passed down from a witness? How did those witnesses tell the story? How did they explain what they saw or why they were even there?

Just a few months ago, I learned of my own personal connection to this story. My grandfather, William W. Kirtley, (pictured below) tried his damnedest to keep the whole thing from ever happening! You see, my grandfather was one of Rainey Bethea’s defense attorneys.

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Moxie is a very special word to me, and I struggle to apply it to this story. But I do find the story and the people in it compelling for a variety of reasons.

Here’s how:

A last and a first

Bethea’s execution was the last public execution carried out in the United States, but it was also the first public execution carried out under the leadership of a female sheriff.

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Florence Shoemaker Thompson was a 44-year-old mother of four when her husband, Daviess County Sheriff Everett Thompson, died of pneumonia. The day after his passing, the county judge granted a “widow’s succession” and appointed Florence to fill out her late husband’s term until a new sheriff could be elected. It was a kindness meant to give Thompson a means to support her family.

But just two months into her appointment Bethea was sentenced to death by hanging. What should have been a quiet job, instead put Thompson in the middle of an international spectacle!

One of the reasons many — including the media — may have felt compelled to cover the event was Thompson’s role. Maybe the pure novelty of a woman acting as executioner was just too juicy to pass up in 1936?

Thompson herself was not so eager to pull the lever. She was a devout Christian and conflicted about her role. On one hand, she had a responsibility to carry out her duties. On the other hand, her duties included public execution. As if that weren’t enough, death threats were made against her children. She herself also received death threats … and marriage proposals, go figure?

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In the end, she assigned a deputy to act as executioner, and she watched the execution carried out from a vehicle parked some yards away. She left immediately after.

Her law enforcement career did not end that day. She served out the remainder of her husband’s term, then was appointed deputy sheriff by her successor. She served nine years in that role.

Oh, to have a moment to talk with Thompson. I suspect I would discover much moxie in her tale. History may remember her as “The Hangwoman” but clearly she was so much more.

Rainey’s days

Rainey Bethea was accused and convicted of a horrific crime.

Seventy-year-old Lischia Edwards was violently raped and strangled in her second-floor bedroom in the wee morning hours of June 7, 1936. As she lay dying, her jewelry was stolen. The killer had even tried on her rings, leaving his own ring — a “prison” ring made of cellulose — behind. Her body was found later that day by the family that lived just below her on the first floor of the home.

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Within a week, suspicion turned to Bethea and evidence began to mount. He’d served time in prison, and he was known to wear a ring similar to the one found at the scene of the crime. He acted suspiciously, hiding in the bushes along the Ohio River and attempting to board a passing barge. He tried to evade arrest by giving officers an alias. New fingerprint technology revealed that he’d been inside the room where Edwards was murdered.

Perhaps most damning of all were Bethea’s confessions. He confessed multiple times to a number of people and even told authorities where he’d stashed the stolen jewelry, which they later were able to recover.

As Rainey chose to plead guilty, and NOT to speak on part of his defense, my grandfather and the defense team called no witnesses and made no statements. The trial lasted just three and a half hours! Can you imagine?

The case may seem pretty open and shut, right? But given what I know now about systemic racism, I have to wonder. Did the young, slight Bethea, who was just 5’ 4” tall, sneak into the second floor of a house and violently rape and murder an elderly woman while an entire family slept through all of it? Was he really so careless to leave his own ring behind? Were his confessions made under duress?

But Bethea was not charged with murder or robbery. He was only charged, tried, and convicted of rape. Why? Because if he’d been convicted of murder, he’d have been sentenced to death in the electric chair, which would have been carried out inside prison walls. Instead, he was charged only with rape, which carried the penalty of hanging, which would be carried out publicly.

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If I were to interview Bethea, I’d have to ask the most obvious question of all: “Did you really do it?”

And if I had the chance to talk to my grandfather, who passed away 24 years before I was born, I’d want to know more, too. I’d want to know about the legal processes, and why he didn’t call witnesses. Was he convinced of his client’s guilt?

The one thing I don’t have to ask is why prosecutors pushed for a gruesome public hanging rather than the electric chair. I think the answer is pretty clear.

A public hanging sent a clear signal, especially to the Black people of Daviess County, Kentucky, and beyond. This IS what justice looks like for you, it says, BEWARE!

We have the power to do this to you, too, and it wasn’t all that long ago!

Rainey Bethea’s Wikipedia Page:

Sheriff Florence Thomspon’s Wikipedia Page:

William W. “Bill” Kirtley’s Wikipedia Page:

Capital Punishment in the U.S.A’s Wikipedia Page:

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