My Mother Witnessed the Public Hanging of a Black Man in Kentucky

My Mother Witnessed the Public Hanging of a Black Man in Kentucky

Hanging in Owensboro, Kentucky. Death marks time... the priest (in black coat) must leave the confessed Bethea Rainey to the hangman at his back. Rainey stands on the trapdoor... a few short seconds... then death.

SourceJoseph Costa/Getty

Why you should care

A female reporter covering the execution of a man by a female sheriff may have been her editor’s idea of a practical joke. 

Pope Francis declared last week that the death penalty is always wrong, challenging Catholics worldwide to put an end to state-sanctioned executions. The death penalty debate has raged in America for years, and this True Story looks back to a time — not so very long ago — when hundreds gathered for what would become the country’s last official public execution.

The classic newspaper execution story was part of the ace reporter’s repertoire in Depression-era Chicago. The condemned man’s courage or cowardice as he’s being strapped into the electric chair, his last words, the high-voltage jolt, the exact time when he was declared dead — it was all there in stark black and white. My father, Donald W. Newton, one of the Chicago Daily News’ cadre of virtuosic scribes, threw himself into those beat-by-beat accounts with Balzacian verve.

My mother, on the other hand, though an ace for a competing newspaper, was made of more delicate stuff. She had covered her share of murder trials for the Chicago Times, but she never fit the profile of the hard-boiled reporter. She was more comfortable writing touching human interest stories about, say, the famous Radium Girls, factory workers who destroyed their health by painting the hands of mass-produced watches with radioactive coloring.

Mary Alfredine Doty, my mom, was never one to revel in the competing brutalities of ruthless criminals and a vengeful criminal justice system. One day in 1936, however, she was brusquely thrust into the middle of it for a story that hit the front pages of newspapers across the country.

What the town of Owensboro had … was the prospect of the first-ever female executioner, carrying out her lethal obligations on a public stage.

She told me about this decades later, in one of her patented out-of-the-blue revelations of surprising things that I didn’t know about my mother. The conversation had drifted to lynchings, capital punishment and how Black people fared in the criminal justice system, and my mother got a far-seeing look, indicating she knew a thing or two about the subject. Yes, there had been a time when she had covered something like that. The public hanging of a Black man in Kentucky.

It was a familiar story: A 70-year-old White widow, raped and murdered in her own home by a 26-year-old Black man. The local prosecutor had elected to try the man only for rape — not murder or robbery — because the penalty in Kentucky would then be public hanging. For condemned man Rainey Bethea, there would be no escape in his final moments from public scrutiny in an enclosed death chamber. The jury in Bethea’s trial took less than five minutes to find him a worthy candidate for the hangman’s noose on a public gallows.

What made the story more than a local issue — another Black man meeting death at the end of a rope — was the designated executioner. In Daviess County, Kentucky, the local sheriff was supposed to attend to the nuts and bolts of execution. But the sheriff had recently died, and taking his place, by order of a bighearted county judge, was the dead sheriff’s wife, Florence Thompson.

“By law, it was the sheriff who had to carry out the hanging,” my mother explained.

What the town of Owensboro had in August 1936, then, was the prospect of the first-ever female executioner, carrying out her lethal obligations on a public stage.

It was a titillating story, and the newspapers played it for all it was worth, my mother said. People went nuts for the idea of this fine example of White Southern womanhood somehow delivering the coup de grâce to a Black rapist, she said. The city desk felt the need for a female reporter’s touch.

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Mary Alfredine Doty and the Chicago Times crew.

Source Photo courtesy of Edmund Newton

Little attention was devoted to the real protagonist of this drama, Bethea, a 26-year-old farmhand. He had confessed, of course, but he soon recanted. His team of lawyers — local courthouse regulars — advised the condemned man to plead guilty and beg for mercy. They subpoenaed four witnesses but never summoned any of them to the witness stand. In fact, the defense was notable for its total absence from the proceedings, my mother said.

“It was how things were done in those days,” my mother said, bowing her head. The big story, it seems, was Thompson. What would she do? How would she react?

By the morning of execution day, there was a garrulous, alcohol-marinated crowd of about 20,000 gathered in an empty field near the Ohio River around a makeshift gallows, some chanting for the show to begin, others hungover from all-night “necktie parties.”

Bethea was finally brought forward, handcuffed, mounting the steps of the gallows under the guidance of sheriff’s deputies. “Quiet and dignified,” my mother described him.

Then came Mrs. Thompson. “She was in the back of a black limousine, and she stepped out wearing a hat with a thick veil.” Accompanying her was a man in a white suit and Panama hat, a little woozy from drink, exchanging words with Thompson before climbing the steps himself.

The advertised gender breakthrough turned out to be a total dud. It was the man in white who pulled the black sack over Bethea’s head, fit the noose around his neck and guided him onto the trapdoor on the gallows platform. The lady sheriff sat in the car. After a long delay, the door snapped open, and the condemned man plummeted to his death.

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Edmund Newton.

Source Edmund Newton

A shocked pause. Then a rush forward toward the dead man. “The crowd surged toward the gallows, and people started tearing off pieces of the black cloth for souvenirs,” my mother said, still sensing the shock of the scene.

Maybe Bethea — who declined to speak any last words to the snarling crowd — will never get justice. But the contingent of Northern journalists reported fully on the ghoulish behavior of people in the crowd at the end of the proceedings.

It’s a black mark that offends Owensboro city fathers to this day. City officials and defenders of Owensboro still insist that none of this happened. The crowd was no more disorderly than spectators at a baseball game, they said. It was Northern reporters who, disappointed by the sedateness of the scene, collectively concocted the unruly crowd story — perhaps the first ever alleged “fake news” scenario.

My mother, known by friends and relatives as an unstinting truth-teller, almost saintly in her honesty, didn’t talk about the civics issues. She just somberly shook her head, as she often did when she learned of someone’s unspeakably repellent behavior. For me, anyway, that was incontrovertible proof that it happened the way my mother said it did.

The state of Kentucky, acknowledging the unseemly aspect of the hanging, soon called a stop to public executions (the last state to do so). Bethea’s execution was the last official public hanging in the U.S.

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