“I don’t like to die with my shoes on”
Rainey Bethea, 24, arrived in Owensboro, Kentucky in 1933 and soon got on the wrong side of the law. In April 1935 he stole two purses and was sentenced to a year in the state penitentiary. When he was released on 1 December 1935 he returned to Owensboro where a month later, on 6 January 1936, he was arrested for being drunk and disorderly. He was fined $100 but since he was earning just $7 a week he went to prison for three months instead and was released on 18 April.
On a summer’s day two months later, Bethea drunkenly broke into the house of Lischia Rarick Edwards, a 70-year-old woman. When she awoke he raped and strangled her. He was caught because he left his prison ring at the scene. Bethea was arrested a week later as he boarded a river barge. The police saved Bethea from being lynched as feelings in Owensboro were running high.
Bethea confessed but said that he did not know whether Lischia Edwards was live or dead when he raped her. This was a serious point as in Kentucky in 1936 it was not illegal to have sex with a corpse. The penalty for murder and robbery was death by the electric chair whereas for rape it was death by hanging. In the end Bethea was charged with only rape, not the other crimes. However, according to Kentucky State law, it was the job of the county sheriff to hang condemned criminals but in Owensboro the county sheriff was a woman. Florence Thompson had become sheriff on 13 April 1936 by default after her sheriff husband had died. Local man Arthur L. Hash offered his services. Unfortunately, even though it was sunrise, Hash turned up drunk and stumbled around the scaffold before finally locating the lever that sent Bethea to his doom.
322 East Fifth Street, Owensboro, Kentucky, USA
Sunday 7 June 1936
At 5.32am on 14 August 1936 at Owensboro, Rainey Bethea became the last person to be publicly hanged in Kentucky (not America, as is often reported). He had removed his footwear before he ascended the 13 steps to the gallows, “I don’t like to die with my shoes on,” he said. An estimated 15,000 people turned up at sunrise to watch the farce, expecting to see Florence Thompson become America’s first female executioner. Angry newspaper reporters who had invested heavily in the prospect misreported that Florence fainted on the scaffold. It took 15 minutes for Bethea to slowly strangle to death.