The reaction of Brian Williams and the mainstream media to Republican cheers for presidential candidate Rick Perry's execution record suggests they've never heard of Rainey Bethea or, for that matter, have little understanding of the American character and history. Whites, especially southern whites like the Texas governor, kill blacks, especially when times are tough. And they revel in it.
Bethea has the historic distinction of being the last human being publicly executed in the United States. He was hung on Aug. 14, 1936, in Owensboro, Ky., 120 miles southwest of Bloomington. The New York Times story on his death began, "Ten thousand white persons, some jeering and others festive, saw a prayerful black man put to death today on Daviess County's 'pit and gallows.'"
"The crowd grew so large that, at 4:20 a.m., officials at the foot of Locust Street opened a gate to a wire enclosure surrounding the lot in order to permit the horde to filter inside. The crowd grew until it reached Second Street." - The Last Public Execution in the United States
The Times headline said the crowd jeered Bethea, and "Some Grab Pieces of Hood for Souvenirs" as doctors pronounced him dead.
The 1992 book The Last Public Execution in the United States described the pre-hanging atmosphere in downtown Owensboro. "The crowd grew so large that, at 4:20 a.m., officials at the foot of Locust Street opened a gate to a wire enclosure surrounding the lot in order to permit the horde to filter inside. The crowd grew until it reached Second Street. Phil Hanna tested his trap door, but the door stuck. At the time, some estimated that the crowd had grown to 15,000. Several spectators climbed onto the roofs of buildings in order to get a better view."
Much like a rock concert, the execution drew spectators from a wide geographic area. The Owensboro Messenger reported that the crowd came from nine counties in Kentucky as well as five states."
One Evansville man, in a rush to see the execution, lost his life when he tried to pass a truck, ran off the road into a ditch and died instantly.
The Ohio River community of Owensboro today is Kentucky's fourth largest city and is located about 35 miles east of Indiana's third largest city, Evansville. The Daviess County seat's primary connection to the world is U.S. 231 and the Ohio River. It is not a place that people pass through or happen upon.
Aside from being the site of America's last public execution and actor Johnny Depp's hometown, Owensboro's distinctions are few. Its children grow up surrounded by some of the worst pollution anywhere in the world. The local hospital is the largest employer, health care its largest industry.
Editor's note: From news coverage of the Troy Davis execution in Georgia I learned that America's last public execution occurred in Owensboro, Ky., where I devoted more than 200 hours of my time in summer 2010 and spring 2011 writing the Ohio River town's hospital-care history. I researched the subject and found that I have walked many times past the spot where the execution took place in 1936. I also discovered the 1992 book The Last Public Execution in the United States by Perry T. Ryan, from which this account was culled. - sh
Situated about 40 miles northwest of Bill Monroe's hometown of Rosine, Ky., Owensboro is home to International Bluegrass Museum, located on Second Street six blocks east of Bethea's execution site.
Daviess County's population of 94,000 is roughly twice what it was when Bethea was put to death. Over the course of the 20th century, the ratio of blacks to whites declined precipitously, from 12.6 percent in 1910 to only 4.3 percent in 2000.
Bethea was executed at the height of the Depression, an era that spawned the birth of organized crime, the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and the assassination of populist Louisiana Sen. Huey Long, which in turn ushered in a get-tough-on-crime attitude that took root in Owensboro.
"A sort of 'cowboy' approach pervaded justice in 1936, and when someone got too far out of line, he would be dealt with severely," The Last Public Execution says. "It should have been no surprise to a man charged with crimes that he would receive a harsh sentence for his misdeeds. Blacks were particularly at risk, since many people believed that they were 'troublemakers,' by nature."
"A sort of 'cowboy' approach pervaded justice in 1936, and when someone got too far out of line, he would be dealt with severely." - The Last Public Execution in the United States
Rape had always been a capital offense in Kentucky, but in 1936 state law offered limited sentencing options: 10-20 years in prison or death. Of the five men electrocuted for rape between 1911 and 1920 in Kentucky, four were black.
Electrocution was in fact the only legal method of execution in Kentucky until 1920, when state lawmakers revised the law to mandate hanging for rape and attempted rape. Those sentenced for these offenses "shall be executed by hanging the condemned in the county in which the crime was committed," the law read.
Other than directing the sentence be executed by the county sheriff, the new law was nonspecific about the circumstances, which led judges in some, like Daviess Circuit Judge George S. Wilson, to allow public executions.
Again, the new provision's application had distinctly racial overtones. Nine men were hanged for the crime of rape, eight of which involved blacks who raped white women. The only white had raped a pregnant white woman.
Negative press coverage of the public executions, especially Bethea's, as "carnival-like events, both disgraceful and uncivilized" led the state to conduct the last two hangings in private and to repeal the hanging provision in 1938.
Gov. Albert B. "Happy" Chandler later expressed regret for signing the repeal, saying, "Our streets are no longer safe."
Rainey Bethea was a Roanoke, Va., native whose age was unknown. His mother died in 1919. And records suggest he left home after his father died in 1926.
By 1933 Rainey was in Owensboro, living in the basement of a home on Seventh Street, where he worked for a family. He moved a couple more times before being imprisoned in June 1935 for walking into a beauty shop on the main north-south drag Frederica Street and stealing two purses.
"Blacks were particularly at risk, since many people believed that they were 'troublemakers,' by nature." - The Last Public Execution in the United States
A medical exam at the Kentucky State Penitentiary said Bethea was 5' 4" tall and weighed 128 pounds. He was paroled and released from prison on Dec. 31, 1935, and returned to Owensboro, living and working as a laborer at his former Seventh Street residence.
Although Bethea's parole conditions mandated he be returned to prison for any criminal activity, Daviess County officials did not notify state authorities when he was arrested for breaking into a house and being drunk and disorderly. He served four months in the county jail.
So rather than being in prison in the early morning hours of Sunday, June 7, 1936, an inebriated Rainey Bethea used a trash can to climb onto an outbuilding roof and skittered across a series of rooftops to the Fifth Street bedroom window of one of his former employers, a 70-year-old widow named Lischia Edwards.
Bethea raped and strangled Edwards and stuffed one of her dresses like a sack with her jewels. While trying on one of her rings, he left one of his own on her kitchen cabinet. When police showed the ring to members of Owensboro's African American community, they quickly learned who its owner was.
While police searched for Bethea, the community demanded blood.
"Not a stone should be left unturned that will help to point out the criminal," the Messenger editorialized on June 9. "When and if he is caught, there should be no undue delay in his trial. Whether he is hanged or sent to the electric chair, there should be a minimum amount of delay. He was without mercy for his defenseless victim. Why should he be shown the slightest degree of mercy? The quicker such a beast is destroyed the better it will be for Daviess County."
While an article the newspaper ran the same day said Bethea was the primary suspect, police temporarily held two others. On June 10, Judge Forest A. Roby issued a warrant for his arrest.
Meanwhile, a lynch-mob mentality had enveloped the town. "Owensboro citizens were at first alarmed by the attack, but their fear turned into hatred," The Last Public Execution says. "Had Rainey Bethea fallen into the wrong hands, it is quite possible that he would have been severely beaten, if not tortured, before being lynched. In fact, various leaders in the black community of Owensboro offered to lynch Rainey Bethea, simply because they felt victimized by Bethea who had brought about unjustified contempt of the blacks and had injured the otherwise amiable relationship which the blacks had enjoyed with the whites of Owensboro."
Bethea was spotted behind a grocery story on the afternoon of the 10th and was apprehended by police after a brief chase to the river.
Owensboro was besieged with news media before and on hanging day, in part because the law mandated that the execution be carried out by the sheriff, who in 1936 was Florence Thompson. She had assumed the position upon her husband sheriff's death and would have been the first woman U. S. history to perform an execution.
"He was without mercy for his defenseless victim. Why should he be shown the slightest degree of mercy? The quicker such a beast is destroyed the better it will be for Daviess County." - Owensboro Messenger editorial
But Thompson instead delegated the deed to another, and the press subsequently humiliated the city. The New York Herald Tribune headline proclaimed, "Town Gay for Public Hanging," while The Chicago American reported, "20,000 Have Good Time As Law Hangs A Slayer."
Several wire services proclaimed that the crowd was disorderly and out of control, while some said the crowd hissed the priest as he prayed with Bethea. Others said the crowd rushed the scaffold as the dead body swung from the rope. Still others, like the Times, said the crowd grappled for souvenirs, tearing the hood and clothes from Bethea's body.
"Almost overnight, the fair city of Owensboro fell victim to ridicule and scorn," The Last Public Execution says.
The Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer on Aug. 16 took umbrage at the Fourth Estate's behavior in an editorial titled "Panderer's Galore."
"Ambitious and irresponsible reporters and photographers who swarmed into Owensboro for the Bethea hanging dipped their ready hands into the cloaca of evil designs and plastered over the name of this fair city the dirty results of their pandering," the editors wrote. Far from a mob, "a calm, quiet demeanor characterized their behavior, as a group, throughout their long wait, surprisingly moderate for an occasion on which the law was exacting the supreme penalty."
"There was not the semblance of ‘mob impulse' or ‘eagerness for the kill,'' the editors concluded. "For the sensation seeking star scribes of quacks of American journalism, it was entirely too tame an affair. This is the reason that some of them reported it as they wanted it to be—not as it was."
The same day as the Messenger-Inquirer editorial, the Louisville Courier-Journal published its opinion on the hanging in an editorial titled "A disgusting holiday."
Steven Higgs can be reached at .