The last public hanging in the USA

It took just five minutes on 25 June 1936 for the jury to find 27-year-old black resident Rainey Bertha guilty of the rape and murder of Lischia Edwards, a 70-year-old wealthy woman who resided in Owensboro, Kentucky. Under Kentucky law at the time, the maximum penalty for rape was public hanging, despite most States now adopting the electric chair for all executions. Bertha was to be sent to the gallows in full public view after an unsuccessful appeal.

It’s estimated that about 20,000 men, women and children turned up to watch the hanging unfold, with thousands arriving from neighbouring towns. Bertha left the Daviess County Jail at 5.21am on 14 August accompanied by two deputy sheriffs, and after taking the haunting trip to the top of the gallows, a black hood was placed over his head and a noose firmly tied around his neck. Bertha fell just over eight feet to his death, with his neck breaking instantly.

Although the sentence was relatively routine, it came into national headlines due to the sheriff of Daviess County being a woman. Sheriff Florence Thompson was to be the first woman to oversee the hanging of a man, a major milestone at the time.

Newspapers spent a small fortune to cover the event, but ended up fabricating their reports after being disappointed with the spectacle of the hanging itself; depicting chaos at the gallows and Thompson even fainting at the sight of the hanging at one point. The ensuing media circus led to the abolishment of all public executions in Kentucky on 30 May 1938.

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