Rainey Bethea, a 22-year-old African-American man, was executed on August 14, 1936, in Owensboro, Kentucky. His execution was notable for several reasons, including the fact that it was the last public execution in the United States.
Bethea had been convicted of the rape and murder of a 70-year-old woman named Lischia Edwards. The crime had occurred on June 7, 1935, in Owensboro. Bethea initially denied any involvement in the crime, but later confessed under police interrogation. He was charged with rape and murder and was found guilty by an all-white, all-male jury.
The execution was scheduled to take place on August 13, 1936, but was delayed due to a legal technicality. The following day, an estimated 20,000 people gathered in Owensboro to witness the execution. The event was highly publicized, with newspapers from all over the country sending reporters to cover the event.
Bethea was taken to the gallows at 5:16 a.m. and was pronounced dead at 5:32 a.m. The hanging was botched, as the rope was too long, causing Bethea’s head to be severed from his body. This gruesome event horrified those in attendance, and the media coverage of the execution brought public scrutiny to the use of capital punishment.
The case of Rainey Bethea highlights the racial injustices present in the United States during this time period. Bethea was tried and convicted by an all-white jury and was executed in front of a predominantly white audience. His execution was used as a means of control and intimidation, with the hope of deterring other African Americans from committing crimes.
The public outcry over the botched execution of Rainey Bethea helped to bring about changes in the way capital punishment was administered in the United States. Many states, including Kentucky, ended public executions, and there was increased scrutiny of the use of the death penalty.
In 2004, the city of Owensboro erected a historical marker to commemorate Rainey Bethea and to acknowledge the injustice of his execution. The marker reads:
Rainey Bethea was executed on this site August 14, 1936, in the last public hanging in the United States. Bethea, a young African American, was convicted of the rape of a white woman and sentenced to death by an all-white, all-male jury. His execution prompted national debate and reform of the death penalty.