Why Do People Watch Public Hangings? [PHIL-OSOPHY]
I wanted to gain an understanding of our fascination with public executions. This lure has been recorded since the beginning of history, which is filled with accounts of people taking trips just to watch some nobleman or enemy of the state lose their life.
But what is it exactly that has drawn people to want to witness such violent and gruesome executions like someone being drawn and quartered? I'm not going to paint a word picture, but for those of you who have gutted fish, you may want a balcony seat. I suppose hanging is a much more merciful way to kick the oxygen habit, compared to burning at the stake, but why the human fixation?
This week commemorates a tiny mark in the pages of American history when the last ever public hanging in the United States took place before an estimated and rarin'-to-go crowd of between 10,000 to 20,000 observers. They corralled at Owensboro, Kentucky to watch the hanging of a young Black man, 22-year-old Rainey Bethea, who had been found guilty of raping and murdering a wealthy white widow. After his arrest, Bethea confessed to the crimes and admitted guilt.
Like the clappers at the Roman coliseums, photographs show people crammed together, immovable, some at the top of telephone poles, on rooftops and killing time suspended from their apartment windows, just to have bragging rights that they looked on at America's last public hanging.
Some local folks still get the shivers when they pass the Ash Street Jail, where Daniel Robertson, an alcoholic carpenter, was the last person to die in a public hanging in 1894. He premeditated the vicious stabbing death of his suffering wife, Mary. But moments before the executioner pulled the lever to the trap floor, the local paper wrote Robertson took his last bow courageously – and, paraphrasing his last words here, cautioned the spectators not to drink because it will kill you!
I need more time to do deeper research as to why people have been aroused to watch someone die in a sadistic manner, but I am pleased to notice the role of the audience and the process that transformed executions from bloodthirsty public spectacles to private, behind-the-scenes events, is a positive sign. If you want to see hangings and beheadings, Saudi Arabia has plenty every year.
In the meantime, my gut tells me that animal magnetism is hardwired and inherent. In other words, the drawing power to see blood is in our blood.
Phil Paleologos is the host of The Phil Paleologos Show on 1420 WBSM New Bedford. He can be heard weekdays from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @PhilPaleologos. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.