Fifteen thousand people turned up to watch the last public execution held in the United States. But there was a problem. In the state of Kentucky it was the job of the county sheriff to hang the condemned man, and in this case the county sheriff was a woman.

When this became known, one Arthur Hash offered his services free of charge to perform the execution. Florence Thompson, who had become sheriff only because her sheriff husband had died three days earlier, gratefully accepted this offer, as well as Hash’s stipulation that his name should not be revealed. The execution was set for sunrise on Friday, August 14th, 1936, when the condemned man, Rainey Bethea, mounted the scaffold before the vast crowd. Everyone still thought that the woman sheriff would be the executioner.

Hangman Hash had an assistant, Phil Hanna, who had assisted at previous hangings, but had never pulled the fatal lever, and didn’t want to in this case. Hanna placed the noose around the victim’s neck, then signalled to Hash to pull the lever. But Hash had arrived on the scaffold dead drunk and had no idea what to do. A hush fell over the crowd as the drunkard staggered about. Finally he found the lever and pulled it, and Bethea fell eight feet to his death.

Newspapers who had invested heavily to cover the first execution of a man by a woman were furious when they saw the drunken Hash on the scaffold, and embellished their reports to make up for their disappointment, even claiming falsely that Florence Thompson fainted on the scaffold.

Rainey Bethea’s crime was that he broke into a house and raped and murdered a 71-year-old woman. He was caught because he took off his ring at the crime scene and left it there by mistake.