The city of Owensboro is known for a lot: bluegrass music, barbecue, and its downtown riverfront.
It’s also known for holding the last public execution in America.
Eighty years ago, tens of thousands of people from all over the country crowded Owensboro’s downtown and newspapers all over the country carried the front page story of the hanging of a black man convicted of raping a white woman.
The echoes of that event are still being felt in Owensboro eight decades later, especially for one woman who witnessed the event as a young girl.
It was still dark early that morning of August 14th, 1936.
Rachel Abbott, who was five at the time, was still asleep when her older sister tiptoed across the room to her bed and woke her up. “I didn’t know what was going on,” Abbott recently told WKU Public Radio. “My sister was eight so she probably knew more about it than I did.”
What was going, just two blocks away, was the hanging of Rainey Bethea.
The 26-year-old African-American was found guilty of the rape of 70-year-old Lischia Edwards, who was white. Bethea had previously worked for Edwards. She was also murdered, but Bethea wasn’t prosecuted for the killing. The penalty for murder was death in the electric chair behind the walls of the state prison at Eddyville.
Rape was punished by hanging in the county where the crime occurred.
The case received national attention based several factors: the crime itself, the racial components of it, and the fact that Daviess County’s female sheriff was expected to conduct the hanging. More than 20,000 people turned up to see Bethea led to the gallows.
Sheriff Florence Thompson was elected after filling out the term of her husband, who died in office. She wound up watching the hanging from a car a block away. The act itself was carried out by a professional hangman from Illinois who volunteered for the job.
And even now, at the age of 86, Rachel Abbott says she remembers the scene. “I wondered ‘What in the world are those people doing sleeping in the dark and outside?’ You could smell the food cooking. ‘Course me and my sister didn’t have any breakfast, we didn’t have any money and we were hungry, too.”
But there was too much going on to worry about food.
Rachel and a handful of other children were able to slip through the crowd and get right up to the steps of the 25-foot gallows. No one knows why, but as he was being led up those steps, Rainey Bethea stopped, took off his shoes and socks, and put on a fresh pair of socks. He left his shoes on the steps.
“I was innocent of it all, I didn’t know what was going to happen,” Abbott said. “I seen what they were doing but I didn’t realize what they were doing. He came out of the right side of the crowd and sat down as close as me and you and he was just as calm. He wasn’t crying, he wasn’t fussing, nothing--I guess he just accepted it. But he looked over at the girl that came out of the crowd with him and he told her ‘I didn’t do this’”.
But a lot of people believed he did do it, both then and now.
Perry Ryan’s been a prosecutor in the Kentucky attorney general’s office for nearly 30 years. He’s also the author of 1992 book about the case, The Last Public Execution in America. He says the case against Bethea was solid.
“This is not a case of a railroading in the sense that an innocent person was convicted,” Ryan said. “He made five different confessions to the crime and in one of the confessions he told police where he had hidden Mrs. Edwards’ jewels. The justice was swift and sure in 1936.”
However, not everyone agrees that justice was so sure for Rainey Bethea.
Richard Brown is on the board of the Kentucky state Human Rights Commission and has been a leading voice for Owensboro’s African-American community for decades. The 73-year-old says he’s heard stories about Bethea’s execution being racially motivated since he was a little boy. “From my knowledge that I received from African-Americans at the time, it was. Now this is a tale listening, sitting on the porch during my early days, listening to these elderly black women who had their stories surrounding the hanging of Rainey Bethea.”
Brown says the story of Bethea’s conviction and hanging still come up around Owensboro all these years later. One recent instance of that, Brown says, took place when the old Executive Inn hotel was demolished in 2009. The hotel sat on the spot where the hanging took place.
Owensboro’s Rose Hill-Elmwood Cemetery is across town from the courthouse. At the back of the cemetery, away from the graves that go back to well before the Civil War, is a place called Potter’s Field.
Indigent people have been buried there without a marker or headstone for over a hundred years.
Prosecutor and author Perry Ryan says somewhere in the field lies the body of Rainey Bethea.
“He did have a funeral service. A local mortuary at least gave him that respect and his body was transferred here quickly. His request to be buried in South Carolina was not honored because there was no money to send the body there,” Ryan said.
That’s one of the things that continues to haunt Rachel Abbott even after all these years.
Even though she wasn’t quite six years old when she witnessed Bethea’s hanging, she says she feels sorry that Bethea’s mother never got her son’s body back to South Carolina. Abbott says she also feels sorry for Lischia Edwards, for Bethea himself, and for the city of Owensboro.
She’s long since moved out of Owensboro. She lives in Dawson Springs now in a neat, well cared-for home. Her only concession to age is a live-in home care lady. Her home is full of memories of a long life chronicled in the pictures hanging on the walls and sitting on the shelves and coffee tables.
But she still carries Bethea’s hanging with her.
“I remember it well, but I didn’t want to. I tried to get away from it because it was hurting me so bad,” she said slowly, growing emotional as she recalled the event. “I started having me nightmares after I was older. It’s like his spirit was just hanging all around me. The first thing you’d know I’d start crying because I felt he wanted me to help him get buried, get sent back to his gravesite by his father. I still have tears running when I think of it.”
Abbott says her daughter has told her to “let it go.”
“I said, ‘I can’t let it go, that’s part of my childhood.’ I’ll die with it because I can’t let it go.”