August 14 - 1936 - The Execution of Rainey Bethea
Although he was a convicted of a horrible violent crime, Rainey Bethea was not too atypical for many criminals. He had a criminal record, having been convicted of grand larceny, and he committed the rape and murder of a 70 year old woman in Owensboro, Kentucky after breaking into her home to rob her. Having left a prison ring multiple people had seen him wear at the crime scene, Bethea was instantly identified at the suspect and was quickly charged with the crime. If he was found guilty of murder, he would be executed in the electric chair at the state prison. If he was found guilty of rape, he would be executed in the county where he committed the crime by hanging. So the prosecutors chose the rape charge. Since he had confessed multiple times, his guilt was never in question. Therefore, he would be hanged in Daviess County by the county sheriff, who was the widow of the recently deceased sheriff. That made Florence Thompson the rare female sheriff at the time. Facing an execution, Thompson got two volunteers, a Louisville policeman and an Illinois amateur expert on hanging. In front of a crowd of 20,000 people in Owensboro, Rainey Bethea was hanged. All of these factors made the laws about public executions change and caused Rainey Bethea to be the last person publicly executed in America.