Thursday, August 15, 2013

A Morbid Anniversary

On this date 77 years ago Rainey Bethea gained the unhappy distinction of being the guest of honor at the last public execution in the United States which occurred in Owensboro Kentucky. An African American convicted (he confessed) of raping and murdering a 70 year old white woman, he was executed before a crowd of not less than 20,000 people. Adding to the rare spectacle of a public execution was the fact, astonishing for the time, that it was to be presided over by quite possibly the nation's first female sheriff. Florence Thompson had ended up with the job after her duly elected husband unexpectedly expired from pneumonia a few months earlier. And under state law it was the Sheriff's responsibility to handle these things.

Contrary to most of the highly sensational press reports at the time, the crowd was sober, orderly and subdued throughout the affair. Further the sheriff had taken the eminently sensible precaution of engaging two men to actually do the deed, one of whom was highly experienced.

The only real hitch occurred when the hangman, an ex cop from Louisiana, showed up immaculately attired in a white seersucker suit with a Panama hat... dead drunk. In due course Mr. Bethea was escorted quickly from the jail to the gallows and placed without difficulty on the trap door where his arms and legs were bound firmly with restraining belts by the assistant. There he declined to make any last statement but instead made a quick final confession to the attending Roman Catholic priest before the noose and a black hood were slipped over his head. At this point the signal was given to the ex-cop turned hangman to do the only thing he was required to do, and release the trap.

Alas, he was so plastered he couldn't get his hand to grasp the lever!

There followed several seconds of horrifying confusion as the signal was repeatedly given, and seemingly ignored, until finally an exasperated sheriff's deputy lunged forward and pulled the lever himself.

Thankfully, the assistant actually knew what he was doing and had made all of the preparations and arrangements exactly correct. The end result being that Mr. Bethea's neck was cleanly broken and he was pronounced dead only minutes later. But that is not what most of the country thought happened.

The press basically decided that facts were not important and the story that went out told of a massive, highly intoxicated crowd, only barely kept back from the gallows. The newspapers said that Sheriff Thompson fainted when the trap was released. There was talk of people staggering out of saloons to go and join the hanging. In short there was a national uproar.

The upshot of all of this was that when the state legislature met again in 1938, in those days it met only every two years, it passed a bill moving executions to the state prison which the governor quickly signed. But he later repented and expressed regret saying that he thought the state had become less safe with the abolition of public hangings.

No comments: