Watching a Fall

The allure and shame of watching America’s last public hanging.

Christine Spillson | Boulevard | Fall 2017 | 18 minutes (5,070 words)

On the morning of August 14, 1936, Rainey Bethea stepped out a door and into the crowd whose reported numbers would conflict greatly, anywhere between 10,000-20,000, but whose number, reports agree, had been growing in the dark of pre-dawn Owensboro, Kentucky.  Though neither Bethea nor anyone else in the crowd could have known it, this would be the last public execution in the United States. When Bethea arrived for his scheduled hanging, he had his short-sleeved white shirt buttoned to the top so that his collar was closed.

He did not wear a necktie.

A path had been cleared for him. A tunnel, walled with human bodies, funneled him towards a stage. On the stage stood a scaffold, in the middle of which, was a trap door marked with an X. The X told Rainey Bethea where he would be standing and where the other men, some in white panama hats some not, should not stand. Not if they didn’t want to drop into history with the convicted man that they guided toward the center.

Rainey Bethea put one shoeless foot forward, pushing lightly down, as if to test the integrity of the space. As he moved onto the X it’s possible that, as Phil Hanna (“the humane hangman”) slipped on the noose he took a moment to whisper, “Remember, I am here to help you.”

The night before he was to be executed, Bethea took his last meal in a Louisville, Kentucky prison. One of the more widely printed pictures of Bethea shows him in the process of eating either lemon pie or mashed potatoes, both of which he requested. The black and white of the photo makes it difficult to tell which he is eating. In the picture, his shirt opens at the collar, revealing a cross tightly circling his neck. He stares out.

At some time between 5:23 a.m., when he arrived at the foot of the stairs, and 5:44 a.m., when he was pronounced dead, Bethea must have had a moment to stare out at the crowd that had gathered to watch him. He stood there watching them watch him watch them. A cycle that loops out into an infinite moment of observation. As he looked out he couldn’t have known that one of the men in the crowd had just told a reporter that he’d driven with six others from Florida to see the hanging. Bethea probably didn’t know that reporters were taking note of license plates from at least half a dozen other states and twenty different counties in Kentucky. The distance that they had traveled to be there didn’t matter, the audience was just a massive white monolith that pressed towards him from the front, the way dawn’s short but lengthening fingers reached toward him from his right, the way the stairs receded from his left, and the way that empty space beneath him pressed up toward his feet until it met the wood that held the X which, for that moment, still held his feet. Behind him, he must have known, there was nothing he could turn to see. Then there was the black hood to cover his face, a courtesy for the audience not Rainey Bethea; after that, he could see nothing at all.

***

My grandmother was there. My mother has tried to provide me an excuse for it. My grandmother, Dorothy Hagan before she was Dorothy Hagan Riley, was seventeen in 1936. She had left school three years earlier, after the eighth grade, to help support her family, her three brothers and two sisters. Her father, Jerome, walked every day to work in his tobacco field outside of town. While the living he made from it was enough to have moved his family from a log cabin with dirt floors and no running water and into a house in Owensboro, it was not enough to be enough. They had not made it far enough from the cabin and from rural poverty not to need more. A picture in my mother’s room shows her in that abandoned house, leaning out of a loft window that looks more like something that belongs to a barn than a home, and I stand below with my sister and my grandmother.

My grandmother, I am told, wouldn’t have gone to see a man hanged. My great-grandfather, I am told, wouldn’t have gone with his teenage daughter to see a man hanged. The definitive proof of this is that he was considered by all to be a Christian man. But they did. They were there. In that Friday’s predawn darkness, my great-grandfather chose not to walk to his fields outside of town but deeper into its center.  They walked together the few blocks from their home on Fifth Street and north towards the Ohio River and the parking lot that sat between First and Second streets (where the city convention center now stands) where the execution was to take place. They are somewhere there, possibly in the picture, definitely in the crowd of men in white hats, white shirts, and women in long skirts. After I asked, after I tried to make sense of it, of why the grandmother who I remember having jars full of those terrible puffy orange “circus peanut” candies, who made the world’s sweetest pecan pie and the South’s best biscuits and gravy, would have gone to watch a man killed, my mother calls me to offer her theory. She has come to it long after I originally posed the question and perhaps as a way to explain to herself why her mother would have been there. What lesson could she have been attempting to learn that wasn’t worth repeating to her children?  My mother tells me about the job in town. She argues that, if it was crowded like I say, then maybe it was hard to get home, hard to get out of the center of town, hard not to attend. She does not acknowledge that there is a distinction between having been there and having watched. I was told that she watched. I also know that it was done at dawn, that it was not evening, that she would not have been leaving. She had left her home early enough to attend.

***

The story of the execution of Rainey Bethea is likely not the story of an innocent man wrongly accused and put to death. It is not the story of a man being railroaded because of a city’s need for closure. Some disagree and the state of the justice system at the time certainly invites doubt but, by the time of his execution, Rainey Bethea had confessed to his crime on five separate occasions and had pleaded guilty during his trial. The first confession started in the back of a police car while being transported between jails after his arrest.

Sitting in the back of a Jefferson County police car, he leaned forward, “I might as well tell you something.” A small shape in the long back seat of the giant black Ford, he tells the two men driving him from Owensboro to Louisville that he entered Lishia Edward’s home, which he had worked in previously, by walking over the roofs of neighboring buildings and then prying at a loose window screen. In this first confession, possibly made while he was still intoxicated from the whiskey that he had been drinking earlier, he admits to choking the 70-year-old woman and then beating her and raping her. In this version, she does not move when he is finished and turns away to search the room for jewelry. By his fifth confession, she is alive when he leaves, and she tells his back as he exits out the window, “I know you.” But there, in his first confession, she doesn’t move as he left. He knew why the police focused on him and shook his head as if he can’t believe it even then, days later: “When I left, I forgot my ring.”

***

The crime that Rainey Bethea was convicted of committing, though horrific, becomes an essential but small detail in the story as it was brought to the nation. It was a story of a woman sheriff and the humane hangman. It was the story of a black man to be hanged by white men at the orders of a white woman in the South, and that was the way that it was presented. It was the story of a county that had elected to charge a man with rape rather than with murder, though the prosecutor believed him guilty of both, because in Kentucky one could punish rape by a public hanging in the town where the crime occurred; a murderer would be executed privately by the state with an electric chair.

In a decade that had seen 103 lynchings by the end of 1936 and would see another sixteen in the four years before its end, the public, court-sanctioned execution of an African American was, even so, a spectacle worthy of note and worthy of condemnation by the media of a country whose states had largely already removed the punishing of capital crimes from the public view. Even in a decade in which 2/3 of those executed by the government were African- American, the public nature of the event made it worthy of wider attention.

Rainey Bethea’s death was the story of a black man to be hanged by white men at the orders of a white woman in the South, and that was the way that it was presented.

The tension was obvious enough for anyone with an eye for drama to notice. The dynamics of race and gender and class were working together to create a story that was hard to look away from. Florence Shoemaker Thompson, the sheriff of Daviess County Kentucky, had been sheriff for only a few short months when Bethea was sentenced to hang. Sheriff Thompson had not run for the job. After her husband died in April of 1936 while in the office, a judge appointed his widow to fill the vacant seat. The appointment came from pity — she was a housewife with four young children that she needed to support — and from practicality — the vacancy needed to be filled swiftly so that law enforcement for the county could continue to function.

In his 1992 book, The Last Public Execution in America, Perry Ryan tells us that “hers is not the story of a feminist” rather “hers is the story of a simple but brave and forthright woman.” He characterizes Thompson as a good cook and an excellent seamstress who just wanted what was best for her children. This portrayal of the woman is reductively simple, just as the contemporary accounts of her go little beyond the picture of her as a sheriff in skirts. The press, and thus much of the nation, wondered if this woman who had only recently stepped outside of the home to work would be able to fulfill the duty required of a county sheriff if an execution was to be served out in their county. Could she, would she, pull the lever to make Rainey Bethea drop? How could they look away until they knew?

***

About a year ago, while eating dinner with my family in Florida, I very awkwardly brought up the topic of the execution of Rainey Bethea. My mother had invited her sister and brother over for dinner since I was home for a visit. I sat on the side of the dining room table that faces the smoked mirror wall that forms one side of the room. It is a relic of the house’s 1970’s origin that my mother finds charming and has refused to change in various renovation projects. I believe that she also thinks that it works to nicely reflect the light from the same era’s smoked glass bubble light chandelier that hangs over the dining room table, another relic of the house’s past that she has determined to keep.

I had watched a segment on The Rachel Maddow Show about the last public execution to take place in America. Maddow started the segment by talking about Florence Thompson inheriting her late husband’s job as the sheriff of Daviess County and the focused media attention that surrounded the execution. The point that Maddow was working to arrive at was that, though it was terrible, there was a sense of transparency to the processes, a transparency that had been notably absent during a botched lethal injection in Arizona. The story continued to stay in my mind as I thought about my grandmother’s connection to the place. I knew that while my mother and her siblings had not been born in or ever lived in that city, they had spent every summer there as children, since it was the town that their mother was from and the place where the majority of her family still lived. So when I brought it up over dinner in a sort of “did you know about this” way, I was surprised that my mother and her siblings looked at me with an “of course we knew that” look. They tell me that my grandmother attended but couldn’t explain why.

“She always just shook her head if it came up,” my aunt told me while we ate dessert. From what I can gather she never actually said a word about it to any of her children. But they never really asked about it. They didn’t ask her why she went. When I ask if she was racist or if her father was racist I get the reply, “No, of course not.”

I try to imagine going to see the execution out of a sense of justice or to get a feeling of closure. These are reasons that are offered for capital punishment, the reasons why they held public executions in the community that was affected by the crime, the reasons that might support my grandmother’s attendance. The victim had lived on the same street as my grandmother. It is said that everyone in town knew Lishia Edwards. Perhaps she felt personally injured. Perhaps she, and what was likely a majority of the Owensboro, felt that to watch the execution was to watch justice being done.

In 2001, when Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City Bomber, was to be executed, the government received more than 250 requests from those who had lost someone in the bombing for access to view the execution. Oneta Johnson lost her mother in the bombing, her body hadn’t been found until ten days later in the rubble. Ms. Johnson said that she hoped that seeing McVeigh dead might make her feel better. The Entertainment Network Inc. in Tampa, FL tried to sue the government so that we could all watch. They wanted to webcast the footage of McVeigh being executed to anyone willing to pay $1.95. The Entertainment Network Inc. lost its suit.

***

When Bethea was incarcerated in 1935 for the theft of two purses from the Vogue Beauty Shop located on Frederica Street in Owensboro for which he pleaded guilty to grand larceny, he was given a physical at which time his weight was noted as being 128 pounds and his height was recorded as 5’4”. Because of his small stature and slight build, he would, according to the 1947 Army Manual for military executions, need to drop a distance between 7’10” and 7’7” for an optimal outcome. An optimal outcome here would mean that he did not drop too far and too long, which could result in decapitation, or drop too short and too briefly which would result in a slow strangulation that could subsequently take up to forty-five minutes.

G. Phil Hanna would have known this. He might have known these figures and recommendations by heart when he stood waiting at the top of the scaffold that day in August. Bethea’s execution would be his seventieth. The hangman would have known how far a man needs to fall. He would have known that it is recommended that a hanging rope should be made from manila hemp fibers, and should be not more than one-and-a-quarter inches in diameter but not less than three-quarters of an inch. Hanna, by that point, would know that the experts suggest that the rope be thirty feet in length and that the rope should “be boiled and then stretched while drying to eliminate any spring, stiffness, or tendency to coil” and that the “portion of the noose which slides through the knot will be treated with wax, soap or grease to ensure a smooth sliding action through the knot.” A smooth sliding action through the knot would be vital to the execution, so when Hanna bought his hanging rope, or rather had one specially made for him in St. Louis out of a long-strand hemp fiber (which would be softer and less scratchy), he was willing to pay $65.

He knew the importance of a good rope. He kept all thirty-eight feet of it coiled and protected in a special box. He could observe you, estimate your weight and tell you how far you’d need to drop for a good hanging, something that he did to a reporter interviewing him in 1933 for The Decatur Daily Review. “I tie the knot” Hanna said. “Your neck would require about eight turns of the rope.” He knows that a man with a long neck might require thirteen turns of the rope but had learned to eyeball it with accuracy. He then demonstrated the noose’s construction, the twists and turns that he would require of the rope. If it weren’t just a demonstration, if it were a real hanging, he would treat the knot with pure castile soap and then sprinkle it with a scented talcum. If this were a real hanging, he would have gone to the jail and introduced himself to the condemned man by saying his name and then, “I am here to help you.”

The victim had lived on the same street as my grandmother.  Perhaps she felt personally injured. Perhaps she, and what was likely a majority of the Owensboro, felt that to watch the execution was to watch justice being done.

Hanna was a curiosity in the same way the woman sheriff and the town square hanging was a curiosity for the press. He had already earned his reputation of “humane hangman” when he was recommended to Sheriff Thompson because he had his own equipment and the experience and expertise to carry off the sentence. He also didn’t demand any payment. Hanna saw his work of execution facilitator (perhaps a term that he’d appreciate given that he did not like being called a hangman) as vocational rather than occupational and he had never, in any of his seventy hangings, actually sprung the trapdoor.

Having hired Hanna to bring his portable scaffold, his thirty-eight-foot rope, and his experience in sixty-nine previous hangings, Sheriff Thompson was faced with making the decision of who would officially pull the lever to spring the moment that would ultimately kill a man. It was, strictly speaking, her duty. She refused to answer any questions posed by an interested public and a persistent press about whether she would be acting as the executioner. She started receiving requests for “reserve seating” tickets and questions as to when they might be going on sale from people all over the country. She spoke to her priest, she spoke to her friends, but she wouldn’t speak to the press. This was a mistake. By not telling anyone what her decision was she creates mystery. This mystery, the will-she or won’t-she aspect of the story became a mystery that had a defined expiration date and that would end with a death regardless of her decision. How could it fail to sell papers?

Dear Mrs. Thompson,

I am writing you this letter, offering you my services … for several reasons, … First you are a woman and have four children, none of which I am sure would want you to spring the trap that sends Rainey Bethea into eternity. Second, I wouldn’t want my mother to be placed in such an unpleasant position. Third, I am an ex-serviceman and served … in France in 1918 and 1919, and I know just how you would feel after the execution if you went through with it. You may think it wouldn’t bother you, after it is all over, but I know different … Please do not give this letter to anyone for publication … I am not hunting for publicity. I only want to help you.

Your friend,
A.L. Hash

The press didn’t know that Sheriff Thompson had been corresponding with Arthur L. Hash, a former Louisville policeman, and that he had offered to take up this responsibility on her behalf. He cites his wartime service in France as evidence that he knows what she would feel in the aftermath of the execution, even though the death wasn’t the result of a choice that she had made. “You may think it wouldn’t bother you after it is all over, but I know different,” Hash tells her. Perhaps aware that duty and obligation wouldn’t remove the immediate connection between her hand on the lever and the sudden rushing sense of a body moving quickly through space before the abrupt snap. And, of course, it will be witnessed, written about, photographed and talked about.

***

In his writings about incarceration and punishment, Michel Foucault made an observation similar to so many of the newspapers writing contemporary accounts of the execution of Bethea. The public aspect of punishment often turned into a carnival. If the purpose of public execution was once to terrify a population into being law-abiding citizens, to act as a type of control of the masses by the smaller coalitions of people in positions of power, modern public executions slipped further and further from the horror that they sought to inspire. Rather than reaffirming the authority of those in power, public executions started to degrade it and, through the lawlessness of the crowd, offered those attending as witnesses a glimpse of their own collective power.

France continued to behead people in public spaces until 1939 (and continue to behead people in private until capital punishment was banned in 1977). The final public use of the guillotine was photographed by people in the crowd. One person was able to film it. The video and photographic evidence of the social revelry before and after the execution was said to be disturbing enough to the wider French population and the French government that the use of public executions was reassessed.

Of course, this was the very narrative that Foucault was denying. He didn’t believe that the authorities developed some sentiment about the brutality of the practice, that they suddenly saw wrong and cringed from the horror. It was an issue of control.

Guy Debord, author of The Society of the Spectacle, would likely have agreed but for different reasoning.

The whole life of those societies in which modern conditions of production prevail presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. All that once was directly lived has become mere representation. Images detached from every aspect of life merge into a common stream, and the former unity of life is lost forever…The spectacle appears at once as society itself, as a part of society and as a means of unification.

For this context, the last public execution in the U.S., we might understand this to mean that we get a greater and greater transference of power from the action and the representation of the action. In an earlier society, the government or those with power had, for the most part, direct and limiting control of the images of a public execution. They scheduled it; they carried it out. Once people have the ability to take these images themselves and distribute them widely and in whatever context they chose, the power of the spectacle transferred from those that once controlled the execution to those who observe it and then redistribute it.

After 1936, control of these images was reestablished. With executions moved indoors, journalists may watch, if they are selected (usually through a lottery system), but they may not bring cameras or recording devices. They may be searched and stripped of all personal items and given a small spiral notebook that they can use. The families of victims watch like Oneta Johnson watched. In several states volunteer witnesses also watch. In Missouri, at least eight “reputable citizen” witnesses are required at each execution. Virginia, reportedly, has a list of twenty to thirty rotating witnesses compiled from a bank of hundreds of volunteers, because six are required to be at every execution. One of the volunteer witnesses, a paint store salesman from Emporia, told one reported that he had witnessed fifteen executions. When applying to be a witness, you must answer the question “why?” Why they would they want to sign up to watch people die. Some write in that it is a civic duty, some admit to being curious. Florida, though it requires volunteer witnesses, has stopped asking why.

In 1936, though, there was no need to apply for a spot. The execution was downtown, public lot, open humid air. The people were crowding and climbing, the press was swarming. The widely distributed narrative of the execution wouldn’t be the one that constructed by the police or the courts or even the guillotine operator or the hangman. It was the details shared in the papers, in the photographs. The execution was constructed characters: the Lady Sheriff, the Humane Hangman, the Condemned Man, and finally a newcomer to the show — Arthur Hash aka “Daredevil Dick from Montana”. These people become the show and it’s a show that we must now watch to the end.

We might watch out of a need for closure; we might watch out of a feeling of obligation to act as a witness; we might watch because we believe that this is justice; we might, too, still be watching because now it is a story and, even if we know the ending, we can’t resist turning the page.

***

On the day of the execution, 1,300 reporters were present and ready to make the news. Twenty-thousand people stood waiting in the dark vacant lot for history to happen. Vendors had set up the day before and sold the crowd hotdogs and soda. Parents brought their children. People climbed trees, climbed buildings, climbed telephone poles, climbed cars, including the one that would take away Rainey Bethea’s body after the hanging. Phil Hanna stood at the top of the gallows and tested the trapdoor three times to make sure they wouldn’t stick or swing up to hit Bethea on his way down.

Then dawn was arriving and the crowd was growing restless. Some had been up all night at house parties. Some had spent the night traveling to town or trying to sleep in the lot adjacent to the scaffold. Some had tried to sleep underneath the scaffold. The people were growing restless for the event that they had come to see. Shortly after 5:00 a.m., when the dark wasn’t as dark as it had been all night, some in the crowd began to yell “bring him out” and “let’s go!”

Rainey Bethea exited the Daviess County jail and walked the approximately 800 feet to the steps of the scaffold. From witness accounts, at this moment either the crowd cheered or grew hushed. Obviously, it couldn’t be both. At the bottom of the thirteen steps that lead up to the trapdoor, Bethea paused. Sitting down for a moment on the bottom step, he said “I don’t like to die with my shoes on.” He removed one shoe and then the other. He took another moment to remove one sock and then the other and to put on a new, clean pair before standing to take his first step up. He was finally at the top and at the literal center of the attention. He knelt before Father Lammers and said his final confession. Bethea’s ankles, thighs, and arms were then strapped together with leather bindings. The bindings made his body compressed and rippled. Hanna slipped on the noose and arranged it so the knot rested behind his left ear.

It became obvious as the moment neared and Sheriff Thompson didn’t appear, that she had chosen someone else to handle the duty of springing the trap. The picture that the press had come for, the headline that they all wanted, wouldn’t be happening that day. It would never happen. Perhaps fearing her presence would make it more of a circus, Sheriff Thompson sat in a car parked fifty yards away. She had chosen to deputize Arthur Hash who climbed the stairs in a white suit and a panama hat, dodging the reporter’s questions about who he was by saying, “I’m Daredevil Dick of Montana. Take a drink with me when this is over and I’ll tell you my name.”

***

In a moment, it will be over. In a moment, the man will drop and the dreadful physics of a hanging will go as smoothly as Hanna promised with his grim expertise. A moment after that, spectators, in a frenetic rush, will descend upon the still, but hanging, body to tear at it, to rip at the concealing hood and shred it for souvenirs. So many wanted a small piece to take home with them. It will be this frenzy, the barbarism, the reports, the headlines and photographs that show to the world a cheering crowd and the total annihilation of the order that this execution was proposed to uphold that would drive future death behind walls and screens and the transparent, illusory distance of the glass observation window behind which sit those that have retained their right to watch.

***

At the top of the scaffold, Hash appeared to be drunk and staggering. His wife, Cordie, hadn’t been able to understand why he would agree to play the role of executioner, possibly not knowing at the time that he hadn’t just accepted it but sought it out. He sought out this role, to be not only one among many in the crowd, but to be one among few at the top of the gallows’ stairs and to be the sole person with the responsibility of pulling the lever which would hang Raniey Bethea. “Can you imagine him doing a thing like that,” Cordie Hash said “when there are other people in the state who would do it?”

Can we imagine?

When the moment arrived Hash seemed unsure of what he was doing. The moment expanded and went on. He fumbled. Finally, someone helped him spring the door.

* * *

This essay first appeared in Boulevard, St. Louis’ biannual print journal, founded by fiction writer Richard Burgin in 1985. Our thanks to Spillson and the Boulevard staff for allowing us to reprint this essay at Longreads.