On August 14, 1936, Rainey Bethea, an African American man in his twenties, was hanged in Owensboro, Kentucky. Convicted of raping the elderly Lischia Edwards, a local white woman, Bethea was sentenced to public execution. The case was both remarkable and tragically typical for the region. White authorities in the American South had a well-documented history of labeling African American men as sexual predators and then meting out brutal legal or extralegal punishment for alleged crimes, often at the end of a noose. In that sense, the hanging of a young black man for the rape of a white woman was perversely ordinary. For the town of Owensboro, however, the execution came to represent the humiliating grand finale of a dark era in American history.1
In the summer of 1936, this case drew intense national media coverage, largely because the sheriff responsible for overseeing the execution was a white woman, the forty-four-year-old widowed sheriff of Daviess County, Florence Thompson. Upwards of twenty [End Page 377] thousand onlookers, most of them white, camped out overnight to witness the early morning hanging and the woman executioner. The tremendous attention was the last straw in a decades-long national trend away from public execution and resulted in Kentucky becoming the final state to ban the practice. Rainey Bethea thus attained the dubious distinction of being the last publicly executed convicted criminal in the United States.
In North America, debates over execution—public and private, legal and extralegal—stretched back to the late eighteenth century.2 Yet, for generations, crowds, sometimes in the thousands, gathered to witness hangings. The display of lynched black bodies had attained such cultural currency that postcards marked their passing. Black activists challenged such savagery for decades. Northern states moved to private execution via electric chair around the turn of the twentieth century, and most southern states joined them by the 1920s.3 Public hanging had come to be seen as uncivilized, whereas electrocution was widely considered “progress” because it removed execution from community view, placed it in the hands of professionals, and utilized the modern technology of electricity.4
Historically, lynchings reinforced the racial status quo, and white women played vital roles in that process as accusers and witnesses. The murders of black men were deliberately public in order to send a message not only to the African American community, but also to southern whites—male and female—as well. White men used white women’s sexuality as a pawn of racial oppression in order to terrorize black communities for the imagined sexual crimes of black men. As a result, mob violence served both white supremacy and patriarchy.5 [End Page 378]
Many scholars have emphasized the continuity between nineteenth-century lynching and the emergence of more “modern” capital punishment in the early twentieth century. By the 1920s, many southern states bowed to outside pressure and moved toward more “humane” ways of executing convicted criminals. In the twentieth century, although black men like Bethea often stood trial, justice was impossible when the threat of the lynch mob hung over court proceedings.6 According to historian Stephen B. Bright, “The death penalty is a direct descendant of lynching and other forms of racial violence and racial oppression in America.”7 Bethea’s execution bore many of the hallmarks of lynching culture. Given Kentucky’s history of racial violence within the broader context of southern lynch law, historian George Wright has argued that the 1920 amendment to the state’s capital punishment law, which allowed for public execution of rapists, was “clearly designed to appeal to the will of the mob.”8 Thus, many of the capital cases against black men in the South were attempts by law enforcement to pacify the thirst for vigilante justice and take control of their communities, while maintaining racial dominance.9
The public execution of Bethea, attended by thousands of women and children, contradicted years of modernizing trends such as privatization and elite control over capital punishment, done in private settings. In the Bethea case, the usual power dynamics—a white, female victim, and white, male defenders—were complicated by Thompson’s presence as sheriff. The victim...