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Birth Year : 1913
Death Year : 1936
Rainey Bethea, an African American, was originally from Roanoke, Virginia. When he was 22 years old, he was charged with the murder and rape of a 70 year-old white woman in Owensboro, KY. He was convicted of rape, and on August 14, 1936, Bethea became the last person in the United States to be executed before the public. It was estimated that about 20,000 people were on hand to witness his hanging. An unsuccessful appeal for Bethea's life had been made by African American lawyers Charles Eubank Tucker, Stephen A. Burnley, Charles W. Anderson, Jr., Harry E. Bonaparte, and R. Everett Ray. Bethea's death warrant was signed by Governor Albert B. "Happy" Chandler. Rainey Bethea was buried in an unmarked grave in Owensboro. For more see The Last Public Execution in America, by P. T. Ryan; and K. Lawrence, "1936 Hanging remains last public execution," Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer, 09/24/2004, Section S, p. 49; and listen to "Last public execution in America" and view the photo gallery on National Public Radio (NPR).
Subjects: Executions, Lawyers, Undertakers, Cemeteries, Coroners, & Obituaries
Geographic Region: Owensboro, Daviess County, Kentucky / Roanoke, Virginia
Birth Year : 1854
Death Year : 1886
William Biggerstaff was born a slave in Lexington, KY. He moved to the western U.S., where he was executed for killing Dick Johnson. Biggerstaff claimed self defense; nonetheless, he was hanged in Helena, Montana. His death was captured by African American photographer James P. Ball. For more see Representing Death; and Relections in black, by D. Willis-Thomas.
Subjects: Executions, Migration West, Photographers, Photographs
Geographic Region: Lexington, Fayette County, Kentucky / Helena, Montana
Birth Year : 1779
Death Year : 1791
A 12 year-old slave, one of the first teens and the youngest teen to be executed in Kentucky; he was hanged for murder July 30, 1791, in Woodford County. According to author Adalberto Aguirre, there were 1,161 slaves executed in the U.S. between the 1790s and 1850s, and 51 of the executions took place in Kentucky. For more see A. Aguirre, Jr., "Slave executions in the United States," The Social Science Journal, vol.36, issue 1 (1999), pp.1-31.
Geographic Region: Woodford County, Kentucky
Birth Year : 1893
Death Year : 1911
Jim Buckner was the first prisoner to be electrocuted in Kentucky. Convicted of a murder in Marion County, KY, he was put to death on July 8, 1911. For more see P. T. Ryan, Legal Lynching: the plight of Sam Jennings, p. 172.
Geographic Region: Marion County, Kentucky
John Brown, Hanged With Kentucky Rope
End Year : 1859
The rope used to hang abolitionist John Brown (1800-1859) came from Kentucky. Prior to his hanging, samples of rope were submitted by South Carolina, Missouri, and Kentucky. The ropes were put on exhibit for the public to view. The ropes from South Carolina and Missouri were not used because it was thought that they were not strong enough, so the rope from Kentucky was selected. John Brown was hanged in Charlestown, WV, on December 2, 1859. In an article in the Charleston Gazette, 07/14/1929, it was stated that the rope used to hang John Brown was in the Kentucky Archives, but there is no evidence of that being true today. Two pieces of the rope are said to be on display at the Warren Rifles Confederate Museum [photo of rope]; the rope pieces were donated by the Richmond United Daughters of the Confederacy. The rope pieces are artifacts from a Virginia regiment that was present the day of the hanging. The original rope is also said to be in the State Museum Section of the West Virginia Division of Culture and History; the rope was part of the collection purchased from Boyd B. Stutler, who was a collector of John Brown items. The Massachusetts Historical Society also has a rope, with the noose, that supposedly was used to hang John Brown. The rope was given to the organization by William Roscoe Thayer, president of the American Historical Association in 1918. For more see The Public Life of Capt. John Brown, by J. Redpath; Progress of a Race, Or, the Remarkable Advancement of the American Negro, by H. F. Kletzing and W. H. Crogman [available full view via Google Book Search]; "Notes on John Brown Hanging Rope" and other items in the John Brown/Boyd B. Stutler Collection Database and other collections at the West Virginia Division of Culture and History website; "Brown rope is given Stutler on birthday," Charleston Gazette, 07/14/1929; and artifacts and library holdings relating to John Brown at the Massachusetts Historical Society.
See photo image of John Brown and additional information at the New Perspectives of the West - John Brown website at Kentucky Educational Television [KET].
Subjects: Activists, Civil Rights, Executions
Geographic Region: Kentucky / South Carolina / Missouri / Charleston, West Virginia
Death Year : 1785
Peter, a slave owned by Francis Vigo, was one of the first African Americans to be executed in Kentucky. On August 24, 1785, in Louisville, he was hanged on a charge of theft-stealing. He had been accused of stealing from Robert Watson and Company, though Peter said that he was innocent. For more see J. B. Hudson, "References to slavery in the public records of early Louisville and Jefferson County, 1780-1812," The Filson Club History Quarterly, vol. 73, issue 4, (October 1999), pp. 343-344.
Geographic Region: Louisville, Jefferson County, Kentucky
Death Year : 1808
Phoebe, a slave, was one of the first females executed in Kentucky, hanged in 1808 for a murder committed in Garrard County. For more see the Kentucky section of Executions in the U.S. 1608-2002:The ESPY File [.pdf].
Geographic Region: Garrard County, Kentucky
Slave Execution Reimbursement
Start Year : 1798
The Kentucky Slave Code of 1798 allowed for the slaveholder to be paid the value of any slave who was executed. The process for payment was as follows: Once the slave was taken into custody by the sheriff, he or she was to be assessed a value. The auditor of public accounts was authorized and required to issue a warrant to the treasury for the amount in favor of the slave owner. The owner was to produce the certificate of the clerk of the court that said the slave was condemned, along with the sheriff's certificate that said the slave was executed or perished before execution; then the treasurer was required to pay the owner the assessed value of the slave. For more see A Digest of the Statute Law of Kentucky, vol. 2, Chapter CLXXIV - Slaves, Sec. 24, pp. 1154-1155.
Subjects: Executions, Slave Injury and Death Reimbursement & Insurance
Geographic Region: Kentucky
Birth Year : 1850
Benjamin Smith, from Harrison County, KY, enlisted in the U.S. Army on February 3, 1872 in Louisville, KY. He served with the 9th Cavalry, Company L. On August 26, 1876, Private Benjamin Smith accompanied Private James "Jimmy" Miller to a dance hall in West Las Animas, Colorado. The men were stationed at Fort Lyon, and Miller had been to the dance hall earlier that night and was insulted and forced to leave at gunpoint. The dance hall was reserved for whites on this particular night. When Miller returned with Smith, the two men fired into the dance hall from the porch and killed John Sutherland. Smith and Miller were tried in a civilian court: both were found guilty and sentenced to death. Smith's sentence was commuted to life in prison by Colorado Governor John L. Routt (1826-1907), who was born in Eddyville, KY. James "Jimmy" Miller, from Philadelphia, was hanged on February 19, 1877. It was the first execution in Colorado; statehood had been granted to the Colorado Territory on July 1, 1876. For more see "James Miller" in the Catalog of Colorado Executions website; the James Miller and the Benjamin Smith entries in On the Trail of the Buffalo Soldier II, by I. Schubert and F. N. Schubert; and "How a soldier was hanged," Logansport Journal, 02/20/1877, p. 2.
Subjects: Executions, Migration West, Military & Veterans
Geographic Region: Harrison County, Kentucky / Las Animas, Colorado
Birth Year : 1854
Death Year : 1868
Susan, a 13 year-old, was the last African American female child hanged in Kentucky: on February 7, 1868, she was hanged behind the New Castle, KY, courthouse for the murder of a white child who had been left in her care. [Her name is also given as Eliza in some newspaper articles.] Susan's body was allowed to hang for 20 minutes before she was pronounced dead. The rope used to hang her was cut up and the pieces were distributed amongst the spectators who had come to witness the hanging. Susan had been scheduled to hang in December 1867, but it was delayed after an appeal was made for a new trial. The appeal was denied. The child Susan killed was the three year old son of the Graves Family. She had stoned the child to death and hid his body. For more see Female hangings 1632-1900; "Execution of a Negro girl for the murder of a white child," New York Times, 02/14/1868, p. 6; and "Execution of a Colored girl in Kentucky," The Daily News and Herald, 02/22/1868, issue 44, col B.
Geographic Region: New Castle, Henry County, Kentucky
Van Venison, Harold
Birth Year : 1907
Death Year : 1938
His hanging on June 3, 1938, was the last legal hanging in Kentucky. Van Venison was convicted of raping a white woman in Covington, KY, in August of 1937. The execution law changed from hanging to electrocution in February, 1938. The Kentucky Attorney General determined that the crime had occurred before the law changed; therefore, Van Venison should be hanged, June 3, 1938. According to his death certificate, Harold Van Venison was a janitor who was born in Aiken, SC, and he was the husband of Mattie Van Venison. For more see P. T. Ryan, Legal Lynching: the plight of Sam Jennings, pp. 172-173.
Geographic Region: Aiken, South Carolina / Covington, Kenton County, Kentucky
Birth Year : 1845
Death Year : 1894
Veney was born in Kentucky. When he was a child, the Veney family members were slaves who eventually escaped from Kentucky to Canada, led by Anderson's stepfather, Levi Veney. The family settled in Amherstburg, Upper Canada; the city of Amherstburg had been a major tobacco growing territory that attracted escaped slaves from Kentucky who had knowledge of raising tobacco. As an adult, Anderson Veney remained in Amherstburg, where he had been a barber, but not making much money in that trade, he became a ship steward. When his first wife died, he moved in with a woman named Mattie or Martha, and she took his last name. In 1892, while in Cleveland, OH, Anderson Veney began having severe headaches, was forgetful and had a difficult time sleeping. He became convinced that his wife was cheating on him, and a few months after he returned to Amherstburg, he killed her. In court, Anderson was defended by African Canadian lawyer Delos Rogest Davis of Amherstburg and Mahlon K. Cowan of Windsor. Veney's sanity was argued back and forth, and the final verdict was that he was sane when he killed Mattie and should therefore be hanged. In one version of the story, the federal cabinet reviewed the case, and rather than hang an insane man, it commuted Veney's sentence to life in prison; in less than a year he died of phthisis in the Kingston Penitentiary hospital. In another version, Veney was hanged in 1893. For more see Anderson Veney in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online [free, full-text on the Internet]; Smith: New Canaan Black Settlement, Ontario, Essex County at ancestrylibrary.com; and Disorder in the court: trials and sexual conflict at the turn of the century, by G. Robb and N. Erber.
Subjects: Barbers, Executions, Freedom, Migration North, Court Cases
Geographic Region: Kentucky / Amherstburg, Ontario, Canada