Friday, May 21, 2010

Truth Versus Fiction

Rainey Bethea (center) was hanged for raping a seventy-year-old Kentucky woman in 1936--media mis-represented aftermath

The Last Public Hanging in America
by Robert A. Waters

Early on, I learned to distrust the news media and have never found a reason to change my opinion. The story of the last public hanging in America is a case in point.

On August 6, 1936, Rainey Bethea was executed for the rape of seventy-year-old Lischia Edwards. The crime occurred in Daviess County, near Owensboro, Kentucky. There was absolutely no doubt as to the killer’s guilt. Bethea was black, Edwards white.

The Scopes “Monkey Trial” trial had occurred just eleven years earlier and white southerners had become objects of northern ridicule. Northern publications such as the New York Times and Time Magazine couldn’t write enough stories about the ignorant, racist South. So when this story broke, hundreds of reporters were sent down to Kentucky to excoriate the yahoos. At the expense of truth, they wouldn’t disappoint their readers.

Bethea was a petty criminal who’d been convicted of several crimes, including burglary, theft, and grand larceny. He worked sporadically as a laborer and loved to tip the bottle. On June 7, he’d been drinking all day when he decided to burglarize Edwards’s home. He climbed up on the roof and let himself in through the kitchen window.

When he entered the widow’s bedroom, she awoke. Bethea then strangled Edwards, and raped her.

While searching the house for valuables, the killer took off his own ring. He’d obtained it while serving time at the Kentucky State Penitentiary and it was unique, made of black celluloid. After stealing several gold rings from the home, Bethea fled. He went to a nearby barn where he buried his stolen loot. In his haste, he left his own ring behind.

At the time, Daviess County had a female sheriff. Florence Thompson had been appointed to fill the position after her husband, Everett, the former sheriff, died in office. She’d been sheriff for only a month when the murder of Lischia Edwards took place.

Investigators found Bethea’s ring at the scene of the crime. After several citizens identified it as belonging to the former convict, investigators obtained a copy of his fingerprints from the prison. They found matching prints “all over the Edwards house.” Four days later, he was captured while attempting to escape. Bethea quickly confessed and told investigators where to find the buried rings.

He confessed several more times and pled guilty to the charge of rape. At the time, the state of Kentucky mandated the electric chair for anyone convicted of murder and robbery. Public hanging, however, was the only punishment for rape. The state decided to try Bethea for the rape charge since they felt that his lawyers would wage long-lasting appeals if he were convicted of all three crimes because of the two different methods of execution. Bethea was tried, convicted, and sentenced to hang.

Sheriff Thompson was scheduled to hang Bethea. A woman hangman was a first and this brought more spectators and reporters to the scene. The sheriff, however, secretly arranged for a professional executor and a former sheriff to do the job. She later said, “I did not want people pointing to my children and saying their mother was the one who hanged a Negro at Owensboro.”

Approximately ten thousand people showed up for the hanging. They were generally quiet and respectful. There were no major incidents of taunting or booing. No one rushed the gallows for souvenirs. The only glitch was when the executioner showed up drunk and had trouble finding the trigger to release the trapdoor. He was finally guided to it and did his job. After fourteen minutes, the killer was pronounced dead. He was taken from the gallows and buried in a pauper’s grave.

Despite the subdued crowd, one wire service reporter wrote the follwowing: "Cheering, booing, eating and joking, 20,000 persons witnessed the public execution of Rainey Bethea, 22, frightened Negro boy, at Owensboro, Ky., yesterday. In callous, carnival spirit, the mob charged the gallows after the trap was sprung, tore the executioner's hood from the corpse, chipping the gallows for souvenirs. Mothers attended with babes in arms, hot dog vendors hawked their wares and a woman across the street held a necktie breakfast for relatives. The woman sheriff, at the last minute, decided not to spring the trap."

One headline read, “Drop Through Trap to Eternity Provides Populace With Roman Holiday.”

Time Magazine reported: “At 5:25 a. m. everything was ready. At 5:28 there was a swish, a snap. Doctors climbed through the supports, felt Bethea's pulse. The spectators closed in. At 5:44½ a. m. physicians pronounced Bethea dead. With a yell the spectators charged from every side, eager hands clawed at the black death hood. In a moment it was torn to shreds. The lucky ones stuffed the bits of black cloth proudly into their pockets. Slowly the crowd straggled away.”

The Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer’s rebuttal to the northern newspapers was biting. Here are some quotes: “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.”

Another blast from the same editorial: “When a priest held up his hand from the scaffold for silence, as Bethea was about to go to his death, there was no ‘blood thirst’ mob ‘shouting and yelling.’ Present were several thousand, who came from near and far to see a man legally hanged for the most heinous crime ever committed in Daviess county, and several thousand more, who turned out to see how the rest would act. When that hand went up in a gesture for silence, the buzz of the multitude’s conversations died down till the fall of the proverbial pin could have been heard.

“The smart scribes and sob sisters looked on. All they saw was a black man standing on a scaffold with a rope around his neck and a mass of people peering up at him. That was too tame, they would call it a ‘jeering’ throng. All they heard was the click of the trap door. That would not do. There would have to be ‘cheering.’ So they said there was. Then they heard cameramen from cities where nothing is cared about the horrible crime Bethea committed. They were bawling at officials to ‘move out of the way,’ to ‘give us a break.’ They had to have their souvenirs to show the half civilized readers of their yellow sheets. The boys and girls who had to tell the story needed more color to regale them with atrocious accounts of how the people behaved.”

It is now acknowledged that the media wildly exaggerated the “holiday atmosphere.”

Partially because of the negative publicity, public hangings were soon outlawed in Kentucky.

Though I looked up numerous websites, I was unable to find much information about the victim, Lischia Edwards. It’s obvious that the media had a pre-determined view of how it was going to cover the story and, regardless of truth, printed their slanted lies. The victim was not a part of their equation.

2 comments:

ιŸ‹δΊŽε€«ζˆ said...

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Paul Schmitt said...

My friend, this is a very good article. Do not mistake my reaction as made out of callousness or skullduggery. The crime is horrible, and this is a part of American history that is conveniently forgotten.

Isn't there an old expression regarding those that neglect to learn their own history?