Is this a photo of the last public execution in the US?
A photograph from the 1930s shows the last public execution in the United States.
A chilling image showing thousands of people watching as a man prepares to frequently die by hanging goes viral on social media with the caption “The very last public execution in America, 1936”
This is an accurate description of the photo taken on August 14, 1936 when Rainey Bethea was hanged. Bethea, a 26-year-old black man, was convicted of raping and killing a 70-year-old white woman. In Kentucky at that time public executions were reserved only for Punishment of rape and should be done by law in the county where the rape occurred.
For several reasons, the event turned into a colossal event media circus. According to local reports, over 20,000 people traveled to witness the event. A key reason for the media fascination was the fact that the general public was under the impression that this would be the first execution at which a woman served as executioner.
Responsibility for conducting such executions rested with the county sheriff. Months before Bethea’s scheduled execution, the Daviess County sheriff-elect died. By law, the position passed to his wife, Florence Thompson. As such, execution was her responsibility, and she had signaled early on that she was willing to undertake the task herself. As reported from the Wichita Falls Times in July 1936:
As much as she hates the job, Mrs. Florence Thompson, the Daviess County Sheriff, will spring the trap that sends Rainey Bethea, the Negro murderess, to her death. . . . She explained, “I could appoint the deputy sheriff, or any citizen who would spring the trap, but to do so would be giving someone else an awkward task—my own tough task, really.”
However, Thompson later changed her mind. As reported in the Owensboro Messenger, she didn’t want her three sons and one daughter to be known as “the children of the sheriff who hanged a Negro.”
Although the agreement was intended to remain secret, Thompson had accepted the offer of a former Louisville police officer named Arthur Hash to pull the actual trigger that opened the platform trapdoor. It showed up later that Hash had been fired from the Louisville Police Department for, among other things, public intoxication.
Reporters only learned of Hash’s identity as an executioner because he was extremely and visibly intoxicated when he showed up at Bethea’s execution reported in Messenger:
It was the unsteady hand of Arthur L. [Hash]former Louisville police officer who pulled a lever and caused Bethea to fall to her death through a trapdoor on an Owensboro gallows just after sunrise Friday. […]
Reporters’ attention was called [Hash] when Deputy Sheriff Simon Smith was seen directing him to climb the scaffolding, which he did with some difficulty. Members of the Louisville Police Department who were present at the hanging identified the hangman as Arthur [Hash] […]
[Hash]The visibly unsteady finger nervously fingered the lever that unlocked the trapdoor. He punctuated the final confession with repeated requests for the Negro to “say something.” Bethea ignored the hangman’s taunts and went to her death a few seconds later without saying a word to the crowd. […]
While the Negro’s body hung [Hash] walked down the stairs unsteadily and remarked to acquaintances: “I’m totally drunk. I’m getting out of this town as fast as I can. The executioner then disappeared into the crowd. Before the execution. [Hash] told journalists his name was “Dare Devil Dick of Montana”.
As described In an article published in the Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, the event’s media frenzy helped end the practice:
The tremendous attention was the last straw in a decades-long national trend away from public execution, and resulted in Kentucky becoming the last state to ban the practice. Rainey Bethea thus earned the dubious distinction of being the last publicly executed convicted felon in the United States.
Because Kentucky was the last state to use this practice, and because Bethea was the last person to be subjected to it, we rate the claim to describe a photograph of this event as the last public execution in the United States as “true.” “.
“Hanged negro buried 3 hours after execution.” The Owensboro Messenger, August 15, 1936, p. 2. newspapers.com,
“‘Henker’ arrested 14 times since January 1931.” The Owensboro Messenger, August 15, 1936, p. 1. newspapers.com,
“Kentucky Woman Sheriff jumps a trap for Negro slayers and rapists she protected from lynching.” Wichita Falls Times, July 12, 1936, p. 3. newspapers.com,
Pitzulo, Carrie. “The Skirted Sheriff: Florence Thompson and the Nation’s Last Public Execution.” Registers of the Kentucky Historical Society, vol. 115, No. 3, June 2017, pp. 377-410. muse.jhu.edu,
“The Last Hanging: There was a reason they outlawed public executions.” The New York Times, May 6, 2001. NYTimes.com, https://www.nytimes.com/2001/05/06/weekinreview/the-last-hanging-there-was-a-reason-they-outlawed- public.html.