Brutal public execution where drunk hangman watched in front of carnival crowd

The last public hanging was labelled the “worst display” after being carried out to a huge stadium-like crowd by a drunken executioner.

The public execution of Rainey Bethea on August 13 in 1936, was in front of a media circus and a rumoured capacity of 20,000 people in Owensboro, Kentucky, the US.

Bethea, who was 26 or 27 when he died, confessed to the rape and murder of a 70-year-old Elza Edwards on June 7, 1936, after breaking into her house.

He had already been previously convicted of stealing a purse and sentenced to two years in the Kentucky State Penitentiary.

Bethea committed the crime that led to his execution while out on parole.

The man who was tasked to pull the trigger on Bethea’s execution was a former Louisville police officer named Arthur L. Hash.

He reportedly offered his services free of charge to Sheriff Florence Shoemaker Thompson.

Many media outlets had attended hoping to see the first woman in United States history to hang a man, but Thompson and Hash kept the whole thing a secret until the day.

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Hash arrived for the execution wearing a white suit and panama hat but was intoxicated from alcohol, according to

Professional hangman Phil Hanna, from Epworth, Illinois was assisting in the hanging, having experience handling dozens of executions.

Bethea was told to stand on the X before officers placed a black hood over his head and three straps to confine his ankles, thighs, arms and chest.

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Experienced Hanna fastened the noose around Bethea’s neck and signalled for Hash to pull the trigger but he did nothing in his drunken state.

Hanna shouted “do it” before a deputy had to step in and hit the trigger, releasing the trap door.

Bethea plunged 8ft as his neck broke instantly.

He was reportedly left for 14 minutes before doctors confirmed his death.

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Hanna complained following the execution that Hash should not have been allowed in his drunken condition.

He described the experience as the worst display he experienced in over 70 hangings that he had supervised.

Bethea had requested his body to be sent to his sister in South Carolina, but they Instead, buried him at the Rosehill Elmwood Cemetery in the same city as his execution.

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News reports labelled the hanging as a carnival-like atmosphere but when they were published, many eyewitnesses disputed the accounts.

This led to the Kentucky General Assembly abolishing all public hangings in 1938, making Bethea the last one to take place in America.

By this time, most other states had already banned public hangings.

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