The Last Public Execution in America

by Perry T. Ryan



No one knows exactly what occurred when Bethea attacked Mrs. Edwards, since the only eyewitness to the crime who lived to tell about it was Rainey Bethea himself. Bethea's own account differed slightly each time he told it, probably because he was too intoxicated to remember specific details. However, there are enough details which are consistent that we can conjecture what basically happened.

In the early morning hours of Sunday, June 7, the barefoot and intoxicated Rainey Bethea used a garbage can and an ash can to climb onto a low outbuilding roof, located south of Emmett Wells' house. He then walked across the roof, where he jumped onto the roof of another building which had once been used as servants' quarters. He walked to the residence on a roofed wooden walkway, and climbed up a slanting shelter over the kitchen door of one of the apartments of the house. He climbed over the kitchen roof to a bedroom window where Mrs. Edwards lived. Along his path, especially where he first gained access to the roof, he left muddy footprints.

Bethea's initial motive was probably to enter the bedroom, steal Mrs. Edwards' jewelry, and then leave undetected. Having worked for her, Bethea probably knew the layout of her quarters and where she stored her jewelry.

To enter the house, he removed a loose screen from the window, and stepped on the top of a sewing machine draped with a cloth cover and left a dirty footprint on the cover. Mrs. Edwards was asleep in a bed only a few feet from the window. At some point, Mrs. Edwards awakened, but before she could cry for help, Bethea grabbed her throat and strangled her mercilessly, leaving bruises around her throat. Pervertedly enjoying the violent control over his victim, he raised her gown above her waist and brutally raped the widow, causing lacerations within her body. Blood flowed onto her bed and covered his own sexual organs.

When he completed the rape, he grabbed the covers on the bed, reaching all of the way to the mattress and then partially covered her body. Searching for valuables, he stole several of her jewels, including several rings and a brooch. He removed a black celluloid prison ring from his own finger, placed it on the kitchen cabinet, and tried on one of Mrs. Edwards' rings. In his drunken stupor, he failed to retrieve his own ring. Using one of Mrs. Edwards' dresses as a sack, he packed the jewels and then quietly left the bedroom. No one else in the house knew he had been there.

Bethea disappeared into the darkness. Realizing that he could do nothing with the jewelry, he hid the jewels in a barn only a few feet south of the house where Mrs. Edwards lived.

The Newspaper Article About Fingerprints

Early in the morning of June 7, 1936, after the crime had been committed but before any journalist was aware of the tragedy which was about to be discovered on Fifth Street, the Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer published its joint Sunday edition. On the front page of the newspaper was an article about the use of fingerprints, a relatively new police technique of identifying criminals. The article discussed how fingerprints had been used to ascertain the identities of individuals who had committed various crimes. Bethea somehow acquired his own copy of the newspaper and saved the article, which read as follows:

Many Convictions Secured In

Daviess Through Fingerprints


William Vogel Expert on

Identification in

Owensboro Police Department

Through three years since finger printing and a bureau of identification were added to the Owensboro police department with Patrolman William Vogel taking active charge with the title superintendent of identifications, over 500 sets of criminal prints and scores of non-criminal prints have been taken.

Convictions in the Daviess circuit court th[r]ough finger print evidence given by Patrolman Vogel have been numerous, with two being sent to the penitentiary at the last term of court. In one of these cases the defendant had signified his intention of entering a plea of not guilty until confronted with his fingerprints found at the scene of a robbery, and then changed his plea to one of guilty. In the other the case went to the jury with it returning a verdict of guilty.

In these cases, as in many others, the fingerprints were all the evidence available for the prosecution. Of the many convictions gotten in the court here, one defendant was sent to the penitentiary to serve a life term as a habitual criminal, with the fingerprints as the only evidence against him. The jury set what is believed to be a record for quick work in returning a verdict in this case by reporting back into the courtroom seven minutes after retiring from it.

Attorneys Hard to Convince

According to Patrolman Vogel, his chief trouble in court has not been so much in convincing juries that the fingerprints found at the scene of the crime correspond with those taken directly from the fingers of the defendant but rather has been in ‘convincing defense attorneys.' In a recent case the defense counsel denounced fingerprinting as not certain and the indentification [sic] as not positive. A conviction was given by the jury, however.

Identification through fingerprints is made by the patterns left by the ridges and valleys in the finger when it touches an object. Oils and mineral salts leave their marks on glass, wood, or any other object and by application of a powder to this the fingerprint may be seen. These, when beside one made with ink directly from the finger corresponding to that which left the tell-tale print may be compared as to abrupt endings of lines, divisions the lines may make, and several other characteristics.

5,000,000 Prints Made

Since fingerprinting was introduced as a means of identification, over 5,000,000 prints have been made according to Vogel, and of that number of prints no two persons have been found to correspond. For this reason, it is said that fingerprinting is universally recognized as the only positive means of identification.

Other than criminal prints, efforts have been made here and in other cities to have non-criminals have their prints made that they might be sent to Washington where they are filed for reference in case of accidental death, amnesia, or other cases of lack of identification. Many identifications of bodies and persons suffering from loss of memory have been made through this means. Copies of these prints are not kept by the police department and are in no way connected with criminal identification.

Alongside the article was a photograph of a fingerprint, below which was pictured Patrolman Vogel. The following caption explained the illustrations:

Fingerprint identifications are made through comparison of patterns of the ridges on the fingers. Above is shown a typical print, with the straight lines from these sides pointing to identifying patterns. A conviction was returned by a circuit court jury on testimony given by Patrolman Vogel (bottom photo) on the above print recently.