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

more icon View the Photo Gallery

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.