originally published November 19, 2013
To be honest, the foundation upon which Rainey Bethea’s adult life was built was never particularly sturdy. Orphaned at 17 and sent off to live the life of an impoverished black man in Depression-era Kentucky is not a good start. Not that this excuses his extensive dalliances on the dark side of the law any more than it explains his obvious lack of skill in the criminal arts, at least judging by his arrest record. It simply makes for little shock value that Rainey would meet his destiny at the looped end of a hangman’s rope.
What makes Rainey Bethea’s case worthy of closer examination is the specific circumstance of that final curtain, and how those circumstances put the official seal of finality on public executions in the United States. At least for now; who knows what madness may unfold throughout future generations of justice and punishment?
But I’m jumping ahead. Let’s go back to 1935, to when things all started to go wrong for Rainey. The story begins with a $20 fine for breaching the peace.
Breach of the Peace is a fairly vague statute which covers everything from failing to disperse when a policeman instructs you to do so, to an egregiously cruel elevator fart. The record of what specifically Rainey Bethea did to warrant such a charge in early 1935 is lost in the back of some far-off filing cabinet. Then in April of that year, he was nabbed for stealing two purses from a store. The purses were valued above $25 so this meant a felony charge of grand larceny and a year in the can.
Rainey did his time in the Kentucky State Penitentiary at Eddyville, serving only six months before he was released on parole on December 1. He worked as a laborer, making wages that even adjusting for inflation would scarcely uphold a half-decent methamphetamine habit. Rainey was skimming along the underside of society at that point, and spent just over a month in those depths before getting pinched again, this time for breaking into someone’s house. The charge was tweaked to drunk & disorderly, but Rainey couldn’t afford the $100 fine. He served his time instead.
He was drunk as all hell when Rainey broke into the home of Lischia Edwards on this quiet street in Owensboro, Kentucky a few months later. It was early in the morning of June 7, 1936. He climbed through Ms. Edwards’ upstairs bedroom window and found the 70-year-old woman sleeping. She woke up long enough for him to leap on top of her and choke her while violently raping her. When he was finished and Ms. Edwards was unconscious, Rainey went about scooping up her jewelry before leaving.
Later that morning, the family who lived downstairs became somewhat concerned when Lischia Edwards didn’t come down for breakfast. They knocked on her door, then fearing something awful had happened, tried to break in. What they found were muddy footprints, an opened jewelry box and Ms. Edwards, whose unconsciousness had downgraded to deceased.
Oh, and they found one more thing.
Well, it wasn’t that one specifically, but Rainey had left behind his black celluloid prison ring. This was something he’d likely picked up during his purse-stealing prison term; prison rings were common, fashioned usually from a pen or a toothbrush. I can’t imagine how Rainey managed to leave this behind; he must have been trying on Ms. Edwards’ jewelry, and in his alcohol-basted state he forgot to slip his own ring back on. Unfortunately for him, people around town had seen that ring on his finger. It took police a matter of hours to suspect him, and only four days to pick him up in a local grocery store.
Rainey Bethea confessed to everything, and pointed the cops at the barn where he’d stashed the jewels. The prosecution actually dropped the murder charge, as they were aiming for a public hanging, and a murder conviction often meant the electric chair over in Eddyville. This would give the good folks of Owensboro the pleasure of watching Rainey swing. He pled guilty, but the prosecution still spent courtroom time questioning 21 witnesses and going through the entire case. Even though the jury was spared the task of determining guilt, they still had to recommend the sentence.
A public hanging it was.
Here’s where the story gets weird. What should have been a routine hanging became a national media sensation because of this woman: Florence Shoemaker Thompson. Thompson had become sheriff of Daviess County when her elected husband had died of pneumonia in the spring. As sheriff it was up to her to carry out the execution – the first time in American history that such a task would be carried out by a woman.
Had Florence been an intentional sheriff, by which I mean had she fought to gain the position by election as opposed to having inherited it, she would have likely had the stomach for this job. But when former Louisville cop Arthur L. Hash wrote her to offer his services with the grizzly task of snuffing out Rainey Bethea’s life, Florence accepted. Hash asked that his name be kept out of the press, and thus the media was given no warning. A whopping 20,000 people showed up on the morning of August 14, 1936, roughly a year and a half since Rainey’s $20 fine for breaching the peace, to watch a woman’s hand open the trap door that would take a man’s life.
Arthur L. Hash showed up shortly after 5:00am with enough alcohol in his bloodstream to drown an adult emu. When the hangman yelled at Hash to do his thing, Hash didn’t respond. A deputy wound up leaning on the trigger which opened the trap door. Rainey’s neck snapped, killing him instantly. But the press was not satisfied.
Reporters were hoping to see this guy die by a woman’s actions. They opted to concoct a story, describing how the crowd rushed at Rainey’s body to rip the hood off and collect souvenirs, and how Sheriff Florence Thompson fainted at the base of the scaffold. None of it was true, but it was a story.
Two years later Kentucky passed a bill that outlawed public executions, not wanting another horrific media circus. Two men were hanged between Rainey Bethea and that bill’s passing, but they were done so privately. Because of the ridiculous media explosion, Florence Thompson was inundated with marriage proposals and death threats. She ran for re-election as sheriff and won in a landslide. Unfortunately Parkinson’s Disease grabbed hold of her, and ultimately claimed her in 1961.
Amid all this weirdness is the silver lining that while our hunger for public blood may not be abated, it has been tempered somewhat by an act of sanity. And as for Rainey Bethea, while his life may have come bundled with an omnipresent dark shadow, at least his demise may have brought a little sense into the American justice system.