20,000 Watched the Last Public Hanging 78 Years Ago


An estimated 15,000–20,000 people showed up for what would be the last public execution in the United States.

Around 5:20 a.m., August 14, 1936, Rainey Bethea was led to the gallows in Owensboro, Kentucky for robbing, raping and murdering Lischia Edwards, a 70 year old woman. Bethea was black, Edwards was white. He confessed to committing the crimes, but was only charged with the rape. Unlike a murder conviction, which would have carried a maximum sentence of death by electrocution at the state penitentiary, a rape conviction allowed for the convicted to be publicly hanged in the county where the crime occurred.

In this Friday, Aug. 14, 1936 file picture, a large crowd watches as attendants adjust a black hood over Rainey Bethea’s head just before his public hanging in Owensboro, Ky. Bethea, a 22-year-old black man convicted of raping a 70-year-old white woman, was the last person killed in a public execution in the United States.  AP
 

The hanging drew national media attention–largely because the Sheriff of Daviess county was a woman. As Sheriff, Florence Shoemaker Thompson would be responsible for actually hanging Bethea (though she wound up not pushing the lever to the gallows’ trapdoor). The media circus surrounding the hanging prompted the Kentucky General Assembly to amend the law in 1938, no longer required convicted rapists to be hanged in the county seat where the crime occurred.

Thank you!

We didn't know what to expect when we told you we needed to raise $400,000 before our fiscal year closed on June 30, and we're thrilled to report that our incredible community of readers contributed some $415,000 to help us keep charging as hard as we can during this crazy year.

You just sent an incredible message: that quality journalism doesn't have to answer to advertisers, billionaires, or hedge funds; that newsrooms can eke out an existence thanks primarily to the generosity of its readers. That's so powerful. Especially during what's been called a "media extinction event" when those looking to make a profit from the news pull back, the Mother Jones community steps in.

The months and years ahead won't be easy. Far from it. But there's no one we'd rather face the big challenges with than you, our committed and passionate readers, and our team of fearless reporters who show up every day.

Thank you!

We didn't know what to expect when we told you we needed to raise $400,000 before our fiscal year closed on June 30, and we're thrilled to report that our incredible community of readers contributed some $415,000 to help us keep charging as hard as we can during this crazy year.

You just sent an incredible message: that quality journalism doesn't have to answer to advertisers, billionaires, or hedge funds; that newsrooms can eke out an existence thanks primarily to the generosity of its readers. That's so powerful. Especially during what's been called a "media extinction event" when those looking to make a profit from the news pull back, the Mother Jones community steps in.

The months and years ahead won't be easy. Far from it. But there's no one we'd rather face the big challenges with than you, our committed and passionate readers, and our team of fearless reporters who show up every day.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

We have a new comment system! We are now using Coral, from Vox Media, for comments on all new articles. We'd love your feedback.