A single black box sat on the grass at the north end of Elmwood Cemetery in Owensboro, Kentucky. It was long enough and wide enough to hold the body of a man who measured a few inches above five feet and weighed less than one hundred fifty pounds.
His name was Rainey Bethea.
Rainey was the young black man that had just been hung in a public square before a crowd that certainly exceeded ten thousand people.
The crowd maintained “a calm and quiet demeanor … throughout their long wait”, an editorial in the local paper declared, pushing back against out-of-town journalists who described the scene as chaotic and raucous. “I heard the snap of the neck” one still-living witness recounts. “It is my earliest childhood memory.”
Now Mr. Bethea lay still in that lone pine box, awaiting his turn to be lowered six feet down.
Two men did the work, two black men, grave diggers familiar with their task, names now unknown. They broke the green sod at a place chosen at random for the penniless young man destined for what was known then and now as Potter’s Field.
“Nigger done messed with the white lady,” one said to the other, explaining what had happened. “Got himself hung.”
Who knows how many others now fill that seven acres of gently rolling sod?
In the year of our Lord two thousand and ought, a simple stone slab was erected to add dignity to the place. “I had a hand in selecting the words,” my guide said as she read them aloud: Death, the only immortal who treats us all alike, whose pity and whose peace and whose refuge are for all—the soiled and the pure, the rich and the poor, the loved and the unloved.
The writer was Mark Twain, famous author from Missouri; the reader was Lora Wimsatt, popular columnist from right there in Owensboro.
A bronze plaque sits on the ground and explains it all:
From 1873-2000, Potter’s Field was the final resting place for gamblers down on their luck, average citizens without money for graves, and others who died far from home with no one to claim them. No one is sure how many men, women, and children are buried here. It is believed they number nearly 1,000.
Rainey Bethea wanted to be taken home, to South Carolina, and buried beside his father. He so wrote in his last letter, but I will save that story for another day.
Today I note the two black men, doing a job they had done so many times before: sometimes for the rich and famous and sometimes for the poor and infamous. That day, August 14, 1936, was certainly the latter.
“My mother, her sister and a neighbor boy were the only witnesses to the burial of Rainey Bethea at Elmwood Cemetery,” Wimsatt had written to me in an email after reading my first article in this series.
Their names are Marjorie, Nevilyn, and J.C. and they were, respectively, seven, eight, and seven years old. Only Nevilyn left behind her memories, spoken over a phone and transcribed as she recalled them 78 years later.
“We were living out on 19th Street…. That was on the east side of the big cemetery…. We liked to play there and see what was going on…. That was the fun part, edge our way up to the graveside and watch the funeral.”
But when her narrative turned from the general to the particular, she said: “This was not a funeral; it was just a burial…. I think it was the same day he was hanged…. It was a wooden box, and there was a hole there and these two guys, two black men … and there was just a truck…. Marge and J. C. and I were all just standing there watching and it was fascinating.”
“Whitey hung him because he done something to whitey” one grave digger said to the other, according to Nevilyn. The two black men were “laughing and making jokes, all kinds of remarks…. They … put him in the ground and covered him up…. We were three dirty little kids, barefoot, standing there watching,” she said;
Watching indeed—but what they were watching may be the most famous burial in the multi-century history of the Elmwood Cemetery of Owensboro, Kentucky.
#2 in the GTM File
(A 1500+ word transcript of this memory written by Lora Wimsatt on October 2, 2014, is in my possession, a gift of Lora Winsatt on October 20, 2020)