Michael F. asks: Are executions really held at midnight like shown in the movies? If so, why?
By the time Rainey Bethea was executed on August 14, 1936, most of the United States had ceased executing people publicly. However, in Kentucky in 1936 an execution could still be held publicly and, according to the jury at his trial, Bethea deserved such an end, though not without controversy given the fact that the whole thing from murder to scheduled hanging took place in only about two months. On top of that, this was the case of a young black man who had previously only been convicted of a few minor, non-violent crimes being sentenced to death for rape and murder without any real defense on his behalf. He also claimed the confessions he gave were given under coercion. Whatever the case, the jury deliberated for less than five minutes and returned with the sentence of death by hanging, a mere three weeks after the crime was committed.
Approximately 20,000 people gathered around the gallows to witness the execution. When the time came, the trap door was opened and the rope snapped Bethea’s neck. After 14 minutes, his body was taken down and he was confirmed dead. This was the last public hanging ever performed in the United States.
So what does any of this have to do with executions being held at midnight? While a common Hollywood trope is the classic execution at midnight, it turns out for most all of history, this really wasn’t a thing. As with the case of Bethea, executions were largely a public spectacle and, outside of mob murders, people weren’t exactly keen on gathering at night to watch someone be killed; so executions tended to occur at more civilized hours.
Interestingly, the fact that people preferred day time executions actually appears to be one of the chief reasons executions were, for a time in the United States, initially switched to late night, giving us the Hollywood trope that has largely endured to this day.
The earliest examples of this change occurred in the late 19th century as certain states began looking to curtail the spectacle that was public executions. As professor John Bessler of the University of Baltimore School of Law states, “There was pickpocketing at these public executions, thefts and sometimes violence. They were trying to get rid of the mob atmosphere that attended these public executions.”
The fix was easy- simply move the execution time to an hour when most people are sleeping, getting rid of the boisterous crowds and accompanying extra media coverage.
Now, given the switch to banning public executions completely, you might at this point be wondering why the nighttime time slot endured and became popular enough for a time to become a common trope?
One of the principal reasons often cited is simply to cut down on potential for more red tape in certain cases. While there are exceptions, in many states in the U.S. death warrants were, and in some cases still are, only legal for one day. If the execution is not carried out on the specified date, another warrant would be required which, as you…
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