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The Last Public Execution in America

audio icon Hear Renee Montagne's story for Morning Edition
(Language Advisory: this audio contains language that may be offensive to some listeners.)

Renee Talks To Two Witnesses Listen as two witnesses describe what they saw at America's last public execution

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The hanging
Rainey Bethea was hanged on August 14, 1936. It was the last public execution in America. Photo: Perry Ryan, author of The Last Public Execution in America.
May 1, 2001 -- The United States has a long history of so-called "legal" public executions. The last one was carried out in Owensboro, Kentucky, in 1936 when Rainey Bethea was hanged after his conviction for the rape and murder of a 70-year-old woman.

Hundreds of reporters and photographers -- some from as far away as New York and Chicago -- were sent to Owensboro to cover what was then the country's first hanging conducted by a woman. At least 20,000 people descended on the town to witness the execution. Bethea walked toward the gallows shortly after sunrise and was pronounced dead at around 5:45 a.m. that same day.

In 1936, reporters blasted what they called the 'carnival in Owensboro.' Many scholars say Bethea's execution -- and the coverage it received -- led to a banning of public executions in America. However, that will change with the closed-circuit television coverage of Timothy McVeigh's execution. The convicted Oklahoma City bomber is scheduled to die by lethal injection May 16* at a federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana.

Thirteen-hundred media representatives plan to cover the execution, while survivors of the 1995 bombing, family members and rescue workers will be able to see it via closed-circuit TV in Oklahoma City.

McVeigh himself has requested that his execution be televised, writing in a published letter to The Daily Oklahoman that he wants to "hold a true public execution."

 * Editor's note: The scheduled execution of Timothy McVeigh on May 16 was postponed after FBI officials acknowledged they had not turned over thousands of documents to McVeigh's lawyers during his trial.



   
   
   
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