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Lynchings & Hangings - Page 9

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Anti-lynching CampaignOne wire service dispatch read: "Cheering, booing, eating and joking, 20,000 persons witnessed the public execution of Rainey Bethea, 22, frightened Negro boy, at Owensboro, Ky., yesterday. In callous, carnival spirit, the mob charged the gallows after the trap was sprung, tore the executioner's hood from the corpse, chipping the gallows for souvenirs. Mothers attended with babes in arms, hot dog vendors hawked their wares and a woman across the street held a necktie breakfast for relatives. The woman sheriff, at the last minute, decided not to spring the trap."

An embarrassed Kentucky General Assembly quickly abolished public executions and before long those states still sanctioning public executions followed suit. Rainey Bethea was the last man publicly executed in the United States.

 

Falling eight feet, the rope tightened and broke Bethea’s neck. The still-warm body was then attacked by souvenir hunters, tearing off pieces of clothing and some even attempting to cut pieces of flesh from the poor man’s body. The spectators were backed away so that two physicians could examine the body and when a pulse was found, a large groan went up from the crowd. From the time that the trapdoor fell to when Bethea was pronounced dead at 5:45 a.m., 14 minutes had passed. When the final determination was made that the man was officially a corpse, several people began fighting over the hood that covered his head. Only 37 days had elapsed between his arrest and his execution.

 

After Bethea’s body was hauled away in a pauper’s basket, Sheriff Florence Thompson told reporters that she had decided against flipping the lever herself because, "I did not want people pointing to my children and saying, their mother was the one who hanged a Negro at Owensboro."

 

Afterwards the reporters, who had paid dearly to get to the “boonies,” rushed off to write their stories. Many people contend that in their disappointment to see the first woman in U.S. history perform an execution, they took their anger out against the spectators and the town of Owensboro. Exaggerating an event which needed no further embellishment, the headlines cried: “The Center of Barbarism,” “Children Picnic as Killer Pays,” and "They Ate Hot Dogs While a Man Died on the Gallows."

 

In 1937 and again in 1940, yet two more anti-lynching bills passed through the House of Representatives, but were defeated in the Senate. Although the NAACP had failed to get a federal law passed, lynchings had almost disappeared by 1950. The NAACP's 30-year struggle to publicize the barbarity of lynch mobs had penetrated even the most backward and racist regions of the country.

 

It was not one single event alone that spurred the people to action when finally the Civil Rights Movement was born. Instead, the Movement developed out of the post-World War II society in the mid-1950s and early 1960s. Instead, each individual struggle and its subsequent achievement altered the tone of society and the expectations of present and future generations.

 

As a reaction to the Civil Rights Movement, southerners revived the ever-effective lynching, which had been in decline, to combat the achievements of of the movement. The violent deaths inflicted both on locals who attempted to work within their own community as well as on "outside agitators" from such Civil Rights organizations as the Congress of Racial Equality attempted to maintain the status quo of Southern society through the implicit threat of the lynch mob. Lynching, however, had the opposite of its intended effect. Instead of silencing the black population and dissuading them from organizing, several well-publicized lynchings galvanized the Civil Rights movement, introduced a national audience to the violence inflicted by an archaic social order, and even forced the federal government to become involved in what had been a state government concern.

 

Even after the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, lynchings persisted in the Deep South, the most significant of which was the illegal execution of nineteen year old Michael Donald.

 

 

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In 1981, a black man who was charged with the murder of a white policeman, stood trial in Mobile, Alabama. When his trial took place, the jury was unable to reach a verdict.  Upset Ku Klux Klan members believed that some black members of the jury had affected this outcome and at a meeting after the trial, Bennie Hays, the second-highest ranking official in the Alabama Klan said: "If a black man can get away with killing a white man, we ought to be able to get away with killing a black man."

 

On Saturday March, 21, 1981, Bennie Hays' son, Henry Hays, and James Knowles, decided they would get revenge for the failure of the courts to convict the African American for killing a policeman.

 

Traveling around Mobile in their car, they soon found Michael Donald walking home. Donald had nothing to do with the murder of the police officer and was in no way involved in the trial. He was just a an innocent man that the Ku Klux Klan chose randomly to exact revenge for the acquittal of the other man during the trial. When the pair spotted Michael Donald, they forced him into their car, drove to the next county and lynched him.

 

An investigation resulted in the local police finding that Donald had been murdered over a drug deal gone bad. However, Beulah Mae Donald knew her son was not involved in drugs and resolved to obtain justice. Soon, Jessie Jackson and the FBI were involved and it did not take long before FBI agent, James Bodman was able to obtain a confession from James Knowles.

 

In June 1983, Knowles was found guilty of violating Donald's civil rights and was sentenced to life imprisonment. Six months later, when Henry Hays was tried for murder, Knowles appeared as chief prosecution witness. Hays was found guilty and sentenced to death.

 

But Beaulah Mae Donald was not yet done with her determination to obtain justice. She soon filed a civil suit against the United Klans of America. In February, 1987, an all-white jury found the Klan responsible for the lynching of Michael Donald and ordered it to pay 7 million dollars. This resulted in the Klan having to hand over all its assets including its national headquarters in Tuscaloosa.

After a long-drawn out legal struggle, Henry Hayes was executed on June 6, 1997. It was the first time a white man had been executed for a crime against an African American since 1913.


Through the years, other forms of capital punishment, such as the electric chair and more recently lethal injection, have largely replaced hanging in the U.S. today. The most recent hanging in the United States occurred on January 25, 1996 when Delaware
hanged Billy Bailey; Delaware has since abolished the method. Hanging remains legal only in Washington State, which last used it to execute Charles Campbell on May 27, 1994. In 1996 the State legislature amended the law to make lethal injection the default death penalty unless the convicted person chooses hanging. Today, the gallows and firing squads are anything but public, and are rarely used in the United. States.

 

However, hanging remains the second most widely used method of execution in the world today (the first is shooting) and in some places they remain public. In 2002, at least 115 men and 5 women were hanged in 10 countries; in 2002, at least 99 men and 1 woman; and in 2004 at least 150 men and 7 women suffered this fate.

 

 

Lynchings: By State and Race, 1882-1968 *

 

 

State

White

Black

Total

 

 

Alabama

48

299

347

 

Arizona

31

0

31

 

Arkansas

58

226

284

 

California

41

2

43

 

Colorado

65

3

68

 

Delaware

0

1

1

 

Florida

25

257

282

 

Georgia

39

492

531

 

Idaho

20

0

20

 

Illinois

15

19

34

 

Indiana

33

14

47

 

Iowa

17

2

19

 

Kansas

35

19

54

 

Kentucky

63

142

205

 

Louisiana

56

335

391

 

Maine

1

0

1

 

Maryland

2

27

29

 

Michigan

7

1

8

 

Minnesota

5

4

9

 

Mississippi

42

539

581

 

Missouri

53

69

122

 

Montana

82

2

84

 

Nebraska

52

5

57

 

Nevada

6

0

6

 

New Jersey

1

1

2

 

New Mexico

33

3

36

 

New York

1

1

2

 

North Carolina

15

86

101

 

North Dakota

13

3

16

 

Ohio

10

16

26

 

Oklahoma

82

40

122

 

Oregon

20

1

21

 

Pennsylvania

2

6

8

 

South Carolina

4

156

160

 

South Dakota

27

0

27

 

Tennessee

47

204

251

 

Texas

141

352

493

 

Utah

6

2

8

 

Vermont

1

0

1

 

Virginia

17

83

100

 

Washington

25

1

26

 

West Virginia

20

28

48

 

Wisconsin

6

0

6

 

Wyoming

30

5

35

 

 

 

 

 

 

Total

1,297

3,446

4,743

 

 

*Statistics provided by the Archives at Tuskegee Institute.

 

 

 

© Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated August, 2015.

 

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Lynchings, Hangings & Vigilante Groups - AutographedLynchings, Hangings & Vigilante Groups - By Kathy Weiser, Owner/Editor of Legends of America - Autographed - Execution by hanging was the most popular legal and extralegal form of putting criminals to death in the United States from its beginning. Brought over to the states from our English ancestors, hanging soon became the method of choice for most countries, as it produced a highly visible deterrent by a simple method. It also made a good public spectacle, considered important during those times, as viewers looked above them to the gallows or tree to watch the punishment. Legal hangings, practiced by the early American colonists, were readily accepted by the public as a proper form of punishment for serious crimes like theft, rape, and murder. It was also readily practiced for activities that are not considered crimes at all today, such as witchcraft, sodomy and concealing a birth.

Autographed. 8.5 x 5.5 x 0.2 inches, paperback -- 78 pages. Published by Roundabout Publications, 1st edition, January 2014.

 

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