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They hanged him down by the river.
August 11, 2011 1:56 PM   Subscribe

Seventy-five years ago today, Rainey Bethea was the last person to be publicly executed in the U.S.

Photo of Bethea led to execution

Photo of hanging, crowd

As for Florence Thompson, who had succeeded her husband Everett as sheriff upon his death in 1935, she received both death threats and marriage proposals after the execution. But she won election to the remaining two years of the term in a landslide on Nov. 3, 1936.

Still, James Thompson said his mother lived with the decision to carry out the execution until she died in 1961. Thompson describes his mother - and by extension, Owensboro - as hard working and committed to carrying out her duties as required.

"She did a good job in the end," Thompson said.
posted by longsleeves (44 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

 
Why isn't Florence in the photos?
posted by orrnyereg at 2:10 PM on August 11, 2011


It's worth mentioning that Bethea was the last person in the US whose public execution was officially sanctioned by the government.

There were plenty after him, in Kentucky alone.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 2:16 PM on August 11, 2011 [15 favorites]


"Why isn't Florence in the photos?"

She approved the execution in her position as Sheriff but apparently was not on the gallows platform.
posted by longsleeves at 2:20 PM on August 11, 2011


Apologies, I'll retract part of that - there were over a hundred recorded lynchings in the US that happened after 1936, but I'm not actually sure any of them were in Kentucky.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 2:26 PM on August 11, 2011


Call me when you can say "last person to be executed". Til then it's a minor semantic point.
posted by seanyboy at 2:29 PM on August 11, 2011 [2 favorites]


The news article is pretty bare-bones--I'd like to know more about the trial. Why didn't the state pursue the murder charge? Not just over the public v. private execution difference, surely.
posted by orrnyereg at 2:33 PM on August 11, 2011


Executions should still be public.

What are we trying to hide?
posted by notyou at 2:34 PM on August 11, 2011 [2 favorites]


Not to quibble, but the execution was actually on August 14th. If anyone would like to see a picture of Florence Thompson, there's one in a gallery associated with the NPR story on this subject from 2001.
posted by pappy at 2:34 PM on August 11, 2011


The first thing I saw when I clicked on the page was a picture of Rick Perry and I thought for a second he was using the anniversary as part of a campaign speech to bring it back.
posted by any major dude at 2:39 PM on August 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


All executions are public executions, whether held in private or not. They may not be seen by the public, but they are endorsed in the name of the public, and paid for by the public. We can't sign off on our complicity on barbarism that we pay for, like it or not. What's really tragic is that capital punishment exists mostly because it's pushed as a deterrent by ignorant people, and politicians who use fear to create support for barbaric acts of all kinds.
posted by Vibrissae at 2:39 PM on August 11, 2011 [2 favorites]


What are we trying to hide?

Shame, mostly.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:42 PM on August 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


Nothing beneficial to contribute, I just don't agree with the death penalty and agree with most of what is said here.
posted by Malice at 2:42 PM on August 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


> Executions should still be public.

If you're somewhere in SE Texas (or you can listen online) you can tune into Execution Watch. They break from normal programming to cover any executions taking place in Huntsville, TX (the busiest killin' jail in all the US). The whole process is highly ritualized, and just hearing about it through mobile phones is very macabre.
posted by Horselover Phattie at 2:45 PM on August 11, 2011


When I was living in Singapore, back in the early '80s, you could go to see them hang people at the prison near the airport. I never even considered trying to go. I have no idea what current policy is.
posted by nomisxid at 2:47 PM on August 11, 2011


And when I say "highly ritualized" I mean like when the jail coroner rushes the recently executed's body to the funeral home they've contracted with so any next of kin can touch the body while there's still warmth. This is a specific thing they arrange in advance since no physical contact is allowed prior to execution. Also, you'll know the execution is not going to be delayed when the witnesses are put in a van and driven from a house on the prison grounds to the death chamber. It's such a bizarre thing to hear live.
posted by Horselover Phattie at 2:49 PM on August 11, 2011


Call me when you can say "last person to be executed". Til then it's a minor semantic point.

Another minor semantic point: it won't be possible to say has definitively happened that until there is only one person remaining.
posted by dubold at 2:51 PM on August 11, 2011 [2 favorites]


should have read "that has definitively happened".
posted by dubold at 2:53 PM on August 11, 2011


If you're somewhere in SE Texas (or you can listen online) you can tune into Execution Watch.

The very first case on that page is about a man who has been given an execution date despite Doctors and Scientists saying it would have been impossible for him to have committed the crime because he was incarcerated at the time of the murder. Yet, they don't seem to be releasing him.

Justice at work!
posted by Malice at 2:56 PM on August 11, 2011


Horselover Phattie - Interesting. I was expecting Execution Watch to have a morbid celebratory vibe. I was surprised to find that the host and founder, Ray Hill, is actually a former inmate who has lost several friends to the death penalty. However, despite the good intentions, I just don't think I could bring myself to listen to that.
posted by bloody_bonnie at 2:58 PM on August 11, 2011


> Yet, they don't seem to be releasing him.

Since when the the Texas criminal court system let facts get in the way of a procedurally sound case?
posted by Horselover Phattie at 2:58 PM on August 11, 2011 [7 favorites]


Seems then there are countries that still have public executions; some that have them but closed to the public; and those nations that have done away with executions.

Here is a chart of which countries rank highest to lowest in executions. Guess who is number one.

chart here
posted by Postroad at 3:03 PM on August 11, 2011 [2 favorites]


They watched as the execution team put a black hood over Bethea's head. Then they saw Bethea fall through the trap door. Doctors pronounced him dead about 10 minutes later.

10 minutes? It is my understanding that hanging often results in a severed spinal cord and more or less instant death, but sometimes just results in strangulation. I wonder of 10 minutes was the "normal" time to wait, just to make sure. . .or if he kicked and struggled for that long.

Intentional executions, no matter the method or the rationale, are ghastly.
posted by Danf at 3:07 PM on August 11, 2011


From the Execution Watch page:

After Woods was convicted and sentenced to death in a double homicide outside Dallas, a co-defendant admitted to killing the couple, saying Woods was present but did not participate in the slayings. The co-defendant received a life sentence. Woods' death sentence was allowed to stand under the law of parties. Texas is the only state in which the law of parties permits the death penalty for those convicted of participating in a crime involving a murder -- even if someone else committed the murder and receives a lesser punishment.

Wow. Just. Wow.
posted by Malice at 3:10 PM on August 11, 2011 [7 favorites]


Texas is the only state in which the law of parties permits the death penalty for those convicted of participating in a crime involving a murder -- even if someone else committed the murder and receives a lesser punishment.

Not to defend Texas, because I would be shocked if this is how it's used, but. If we pretend that the death penalty were okay, it might make sense to sentence the actual murderer (Bodie or Poot) to some term of years while sentencing another person involved in the crime (Stringer Bell) to death.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 3:33 PM on August 11, 2011


notyou: “Executions should still be public. What are we trying to hide?”

The purpose of execution is to give mercy to those souls who have done things so terrible that the worthwhile parts of their lives are behind them.

Public spectacle isn't congruent with the quality of mercy.

That's why executions are not and should not be public.
posted by koeselitz at 4:19 PM on August 11, 2011 [2 favorites]


The purpose of execution is to give mercy to those souls who have done things so terrible that the worthwhile parts of their lives are behind them.

No snark, but are you being serious, koeselitz?
posted by joe lisboa at 4:28 PM on August 11, 2011 [5 favorites]


The purpose of executions is to satisfy the human thirst for violent revenge and ritualized violence and to use the threat of violence to control subject populations as well as to legitimize killing them in more generalized ways.

It's in all of us, this desire to kill.
posted by spitbull at 4:37 PM on August 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


joe lisboa: “No snark, but are you being serious, koeselitz?”

It's crazy to me that we show this kind of mercy to animals, but find doing so for humans beyond the pale.

In the United States, we have a terrible record with executions, and the difficulty of knowing here whether justice is actually being done indicates to me that a moratorium on executions would probably be the most just thing.

However, I don't have anything against executions on principle, no. I really mean it, yes. I think it's possible for people to do things so terrible that the good part of their lives is over, and I think it's an odd sort of romanticism to believe that everybody is capable of redemption in this life. I don't accuse anyone here of that kind of romanticism, and I know there are other reasons to be against any death penalty on principle, but this is my reason: because I believe there are times when it is merciful to put someone out of her or his misery.
posted by koeselitz at 4:43 PM on August 11, 2011


A major problem with executions is not simply that they are inhumane etc but rather than so often we discover that innocents have been killed. More so now with DNA to reveal our errors within the system.
posted by Postroad at 4:55 PM on August 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


The purpose of executions is to satisfy the human thirst for violent revenge and ritualized violence and to use the threat of violence to control subject populations as well as to legitimize killing them in more generalized ways.

Ostensibly it's a deterrent. But I am not at all convinced that people weigh the pros and cons and decide they're going to kill because 25 years to life in an American maximum security prison is not really all that bad.
posted by Hoopo at 5:00 PM on August 11, 2011


Hoopo: “Ostensibly it's a deterrent. But I am not at all convinced that people weigh the pros and cons and decide they're going to kill because 25 years to life in an American maximum security prison is not really all that bad.”

I agree, and I don't think execution is really defensible in a coherent way as a deterrent. The threat that you'll be murdered if you do something is only a strong concern on the minds of most citizens in a police state.
posted by koeselitz at 5:03 PM on August 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's crazy to me that we show this kind of mercy to animals, but find doing so for humans beyond the pale.

I think the more apt comparison is to euthanasia, then, not executions. Generally, the mercy killing of animals occurs under the principle that if they knew what we knew, they'd consent, but they can't. I suspect few people consent to their own executions, and it's a bit troubling if we're at the point of saying, "If [Inmate # 123456] only knew what we knew about his capacity for redemption, he'd agree killing him is the right thing to do."

Still, it's an interesting philosophy on executions that is very foreign to my way of thinking but probably explains some of the support for them, so thanks for that.
posted by dixiecupdrinking at 6:15 PM on August 11, 2011


dixiecupdrinking: “I suspect few people consent to their own executions, and it's a bit troubling if we're at the point of saying, ‘If [Inmate # 123456] only knew what we knew about his capacity for redemption, he'd agree killing him is the right thing to do.’”

It may seem troubling, but I really think this is the job of government. If we take it upon ourselves to punish someone, we're already making claims about what is and what is not good for people, and about what people are and are not capable of redemption.
posted by koeselitz at 6:20 PM on August 11, 2011


"I believe there are times when it is merciful to put someone out of her or his misery."
posted by koeselitz

Even when they don't want to be? We're not talking about pets here.
posted by longsleeves at 7:17 PM on August 11, 2011


"A major problem with executions is not simply that they are inhumane etc but rather than so often we discover that innocents have been killed. More so now with DNA to reveal our errors within the system."

This wasn't a problem in this case. He was executed because he confessed to the rape and murder of a 70-year-old woman named Lischia Edwards. After breaking into her bedroom at night and choking and raping her, he stole her rings while leaving one of his own rings - and lots of fingerprints - behind. He confessed on multiple occasions, identified where the jewellery he'd hidden could be found and pleaded guilty at his trial. If he hadn't raped and murdered a defenceless old woman, whose name hasn't been worthy of mention so far before now as far as I can see, he wouldn't have been hanged that day.
posted by joannemullen at 8:54 PM on August 11, 2011


This wasn't a problem in this case.

Probably not. But none of this makes a case for capital punishment. And none if it makes watching a man be hanged in public less barbaric.
posted by Hoopo at 10:48 PM on August 11, 2011


Still, it's an interesting philosophy on executions that is very foreign to my way of thinking but probably explains some of the support for them, so thanks for that.

I'm not sure it explains anything other than koeselitz's perverse view of what an execution accomplishes, because I've certainly never heard anyone express it in this way before. Executions are argued for as vengeance and as punishment and as deterrent - I've never heard it compared to the merciful killings of animals or euthanasia before today.

(I've heard the merciful killings of animals compared to euthanasia before. And this makes sense to me.)
posted by crossoverman at 12:06 AM on August 12, 2011


This wasn't a problem in this case

"Be just and if you can't be just, be arbitrary."
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:49 AM on August 12, 2011


If Americans really want the death penalty, then should we have a required "jury system" of sorts to pick the executioners from the general public? You know, your Aunt Barbara can't come to the family picnic today because she was selected for "execution" duty and must go down to the local prison to discharge her civil responsibility. I wonder how that would change the tenor of our national conversation?
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 4:39 AM on August 12, 2011


joannemullen: “If he hadn't raped and murdered a defenceless old woman, whose name hasn't been worthy of mention so far before now as far as I can see, he wouldn't have been hanged that day.”

That's a cowardly ducking of the question, and you know it. Executing people is a monumental responsibility, and you can't ignore that responsibility by sniffing about how 'if he didn't do the crime, he wouldn't have been punished!' Actually taking responsibility and trying to do the right thing is what separated a just state from bloody tyranny; and execution without mercy is simple murder. It's not hard to see what category public execution falls into.

Besides, you must know that you don't actually know if you're right. If he hadn't raped that woman, it's entirely likely that they still might have found a reason to hang him. He's black, for instance. Or were you aware that we used to hang people for that?
posted by koeselitz at 6:58 AM on August 12, 2011


This is my hometown. It doesn't have many claims to fame, and I remember feeling disappointed and unsettled when I learned that this was one of our more notable events. It's a nice place - quiet, although with more going on than you might expect in quasi-rural Kentucky, and with a particular mix of farming and industry that comes from its location along the Ohio River.

It's my understanding that Sheriff Thompson wasn't on the gallows platform because a woman executing a man would have been an unusual (or maybe unprecedented, I'm not sure) event. She'd received several letters containing offers from men in law enforcement to help with the execution, and accepted one from a police officer based in Louisville. The curiosity of having a female sheriff in charge, added to fact that the officer who ultimately carried out the execution showed up to perform his duties drunk contributed to the media circus, and led to state legislation that ended "hanging in the county seat where the crime was committed" as the required sentence for rape - hence making this the last public hanging. The Wikipedia entry for Bethea (for which citations are sparse, but I'd guess it pulls a lot of its information from the book "The Last Public Execution In America," noted at the bottom) is pretty detailed, if anyone is looking for more particulars.
posted by josyphine at 8:20 AM on August 12, 2011


Black man. Executed in the US South in the 1930s for raping and murdering a white woman. No actual witnesses, just a confession plus supporting evidence. Unfortunately the supporting evidence consisted of (a) fingerprints and (b) rings owned by the victim and the alleged attacker, to both of which the police would have had access once they had a patsy in custody.

No, I don't see any racist sub-text here, or any possibility whatsoever that the cops might have decided to hang a nigger pour encourager les autres when they couldn't find the real killer. Nope, everything about this legalised lynching smells absolutely perfect.
posted by cstross at 8:21 AM on August 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


PS: Some familiarity with the case of Mahmood Hussein Mattan might shed some light on my skepticism about the case against Rainey Bethea. Young, ill-educated, racially distinct suspect? Check. White woman as victim of murder? Check. Of course, it could never happen here ...
posted by cstross at 3:25 PM on August 12, 2011


crossoverman: “I'm not sure it explains anything other than koeselitz's perverse view of what an execution accomplishes, because I've certainly never heard anyone express it in this way before. Executions are argued for as vengeance and as punishment and as deterrent - I've never heard it compared to the merciful killings of animals or euthanasia before today.”

If you haven't heard of it, maybe you're not very familiar with the western philosophical tradition. This argument has been around at least since Plato.
posted by koeselitz at 10:08 AM on August 13, 2011


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