Jonathan Salem Baskin

No Show

Today, a public spectacle ended.

It was just after sunrise on this day in 1936, but over 20,000 people had already gathered to watch a hanging in Owensboro, Kentucky. They were collected in an empty lot next to a garage because the sheriff, Florence Thompson, was worried that the crowd would trample the new flowers and shrubs that had been planted around the courthouse. She’d invited a guest executioner — a former Louisville police officer named Arthur Hash — to pull the lever to open the trapdoor, breaking the neck of the condemned criminal. Hash had trouble finding the lot, and arrived drunk. When prisoner Rainey Bethea arrived from the prison, his shoes were removed, and he stood on an “X” as instructed as the noose was placed around his neck. As parents lifted their children onto their shoulders to get a better view, Bethea fell 8 feet and died. A hush fell over the crowd as the corpse was carried away. It would be the last public execution in America.

So ended one of history’s greatest forms of entertainment. There was nothing more joyous or engaging in medieval times than a good ‘ol execution, and for generations some of the most innovative minds worked to come up with more visual and viscerally gruesome ways to kill people. A carnival-like atmosphere surrounded most executions, which were held in public both as a preventative to future crime, and a palliative for the hardship of everyday life. People enjoyed such techniques as crucifixion, impalement, crushing, burning, disembowelment, beheading, stoning, slow slicing, drowning and, as noted, hanging. A movement for “humane” execution emerged in the late 18th century (it gave the world the quickly efficient guillotine), and many countries eventually banned it altogether, whether in public or behind doors. But the practice continues in America, sans any entertainment benefit since it occurs in private and usually via lethal injection, which is notably unremarkable for its dramatic value. Thirty-two states still met it out, even though there’s never been a shred of evidence proving that executing criminals does anything to prevent future crime.

But it used to be one helluva show.