Many scholars maintain that the unprecedented nationwide attention and coverage the execution received caused the United States to outlaw public executions. Therefore, Bethea was the last individual to be hanged publicly in the United States.
Among the hundreds of letters that Sheriff Thompson received after it came to public attention she would perform the hanging was one from Arthur L. Hash, a former Louisville police officer, who offered his services free of charge to perform the execution. Thompson quickly decided to accept this offer. He only asked that she not make his name public.
Thompson also received a letter from the Chief Deputy United States Marshal for the District of Indiana telling her of a farmer from Epworth, Illinois, named G. Phil Hanna who had assisted with hangings across the country. Bethea's hanging would be the 70th which Hanna had supervised.
On August 6, the Governor of Kentucky, Albert Chandler, signed Bethea's execution warrant and set the execution for sunrise on August 14. However, Sheriff Thompson requested the governor to issue a revised death warrant because the original warrant specified that the hanging would take place in the courthouse yard where the county, at significant expense, had recently planted new shrubs and flowers. Chandler was out-of-state, so Lieutenant Governor of Kentucky Keen Johnson signed a second death warrant moving the location of the hanging from the courthouse yard to an empty lot near the county garage.
Rainey Bethea's last meal consisted of fried chicken, pork chops, mashed potatoes, pickled cucumbers, cornbread, lemon pie, and ice cream which he ate at 4:00 p.m. on August 13 in Louisville. At about 1:00 a.m., Daviess County deputy sheriffs transported Bethea from Louisville to Owensboro. At the jail, Hanna visited Bethea and instructed him to stand on the X that would be marked on the trapdoor.
It was estimated that a crowd of 20,000 people gathered to watch the execution with thousands coming from out of town. Hash arrived at the site intoxicated wearing a white suit and a white Panama hat. At this time, no one but he and Thompson knew he would be pulling the trigger.
Bethea left the Daviess County Jail at 5:21 a.m. and walked with two deputies to the scaffold. Within two minutes, he was at the base of the scaffold. Removing his shoes, he put on a new pair of socks. He ascended the steps and stood on the large X as instructed. He made no final statement to the waiting crowd. After Bethea made his final confession to Father Lammers, of the Cathedral of the Assumption in Louisville, the black hood was placed over his head and three large straps were placed around his ankles, thighs, arms, and chest.
Hanna placed the noose around Bethea's neck, adjusted it, and then signaled to Hash to pull the trigger. Instead, Hash, who was drunk, did nothing. Hanna shouted at Hash, "Do it!" and a deputy leaned onto the trigger which sprang the trap door. Throughout all of this, the crowd was hushed. Bethea fell eight feet and his neck was instantly broken. About 14 minutes later, two doctors confirmed Bethea was dead. After the noose was removed, his body was taken to Andrew & Wheatley Funeral Home. He had wanted his body sent to his sister in South Carolina. Instead, he was buried in a pauper's grave at the Rosehill Elmwood Cemetery in Owensboro
Many newspapers, having spent considerable sums of money to cover the first execution publicly performed by a woman, were disappointed, and several journalists took liberties in reporting the event, describing it as a "Roman Holiday," some falsely reporting that the crowd rushed the gallows to claim souvenirs, and at least one newspaper falsely reported that Sheriff Thompson fainted at the base of the scaffold.
Afterwards, Hanna complained that Hash should not have been allowed to perform the execution in his drunken condition. Hanna further said it was the worst display he experienced in the 70 hangings he had supervised.