Florence Shoemaker Thompson

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Florence Shoemaker Thompson
Florence Thompson.jpg
First female sheriff in the U.S. to oversee the carrying out of capital punishment
BornOctober 30, 1892
DiedApril 13, 1961(1961-04-13) (aged 68)
Spouse(s)Joseph Everett Thompson
ChildrenFour children, including James Thompson
Parent(s)Andrew Jefferson and Henrietta Fronie Shoemaker

Florence Katherine Shoemaker Thompson Riney (October 30, 1892 – April 13, 1961) was the first female sheriff in the United States of America to carry out an execution. Rainey Bethea, the last man to be publicly executed in the U.S., was convicted of rape and sentenced to death by hanging in Daviess County, Kentucky.

Road to Sheriff[edit]

Florence Shoemaker was born to Andrew Jefferson and Henrietta Fronie Shoemaker in Louisville, Kentucky. She married Joseph Everett Thompson on January 12, 1915 and had four children. Everett was sworn in as the sheriff of Daviess County on January 1, 1934. On April 10, 1936, Everett Thompson died of suspected pneumonia at the age of 42. After her husband died, Florence had no way to provide for her family. By law, the county judge needed to appoint a sheriff to finish Everett's position until someone else could be elected. The judge asked Florence to fill the vacancy (customarily known as widow's succession) and she accepted as a way to support her family.

Time as Sheriff[edit]

Florence Thompson was sworn in the day after her husband's funeral. Through her time as sheriff she rarely wore a uniform, but would sometimes wear a badge on her dress. She generally did not perform arrests but would do so when no one was available. In her first few years as sheriff she was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. On July 25, 1936, just over two months into Thompson's term, Rainey Bethea was sentenced to death by hanging for raping Lischia Edwards. Because of the way the law was written, Bethea had to be returned to Daviess County to have the execution carried out and because Florence was the sheriff at the time, it was her duty to carry out the execution. She was quite conflicted with the ruling. She wanted to carry out her duties, but being a devout Christian was concerned about her standing with the church should she follow through with the hanging. Her friend and confidant, Father Albert J. Thompson, priest at an Owensboro church, assured her she could perform all of her duties, including the execution and remain in good standing with the church.[1]

Months leading up to the execution[edit]

As news of the hanging got around, she was bombarded with reporters. They anticipated Florence Thompson to do the actual execution, which would make her the first American woman to kill a man by court order. The journalists nicknamed Thompson as "The Hangwoman" although she was described by those who knew her as "plump" and "matronly". She was portrayed as both a housewife and cowgirl. Florence Thompson received numerous letters from people across the nation. Some of the letters encouraged her to do the execution herself while others were distraught by the thought of her carrying out the task and asked her to think of her children. The secretary of the Louisville National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Bessie Etherly, wrote to the current Governor, Happy Chandler, concerned about the way the execution would take place. Governor Chandler wrote to Thompson requesting that she not make it a spectacle. He also included Etherly's letter with his. Thompson also received letters from people offering to carry out the execution for her. After consultation from priests and pastors of various faiths, Thompson decided not to perform the execution herself. Thompson had asked each of her deputies if they would like the job before offering the job to Arthur L. Hash, a former Louisville police officer.

The execution[edit]

Thompson had forbidden all of her children from attending and had made arrangements for her children to stay at her friend Elmer Dyer's home. Death threats had been made toward Thompson's children. A FBI agent drove Thompson to the scaffold the morning of the execution. Hash was so intoxicated that when given the sign to pull the lever, he did not do it and ultimately, one of Thompson's deputies had to lean on the lever to open the trap door. A reporter for The New York Times wrote: "Ten thousand white persons, some jeering and others festive, saw a prayerful black man put to death today on Daviess County's 'pit and gallows'."[2]

The aftermath[edit]

Reporters made up stories about how the hanging had gone. The Chicago Sun reported that Thompson fainted at the base of the scaffold, forcing Hash to perform the task. Some misreported that the crowd was rowdy and unruly while others reported that the crowd jumped on the body and began ripping off the hood. Because of these false reports and the nature of the hanging, Thompson received multiple marriage proposals and death threats. One threat said that they already had Hash and that they were coming for her and her children next.

Thompson's appointment by the county judge did not run the entire length of her deceased husband's term. Thompson decided to run and was elected by a landslide. Thompson received 9,811 votes. Simon B. Smith, a competitor received two votes and Tom Gall, her other competitor received one vote. On November 3, 1936, Thompson was elected to carry out the remainder of her husband's term. The citizens of Owensboro did not mind having a female sheriff and thought that she was handling the county's business well. Thompson decided not to run for sheriff again and carried out her duties till January 3, 1938, at which time Simon B. Smith was sworn in.

Later life[edit]

Thompson was appointed a deputy sheriff by Simon B. Smith and carried out a total of nine years in the sheriff's office. In December 1944, Thompson married J. Carl Riney after his wife, one of Thompson's friends, had died nine years prior. Her Parkinson's continued to progress. Her only relief was when visiting a masseuse in Dawson Springs, Kentucky periodically. As the disease progressed, Thompson would sometimes hallucinate about the hanging and was known to scream in her sleep saying, "I don't want to go up those steps." In July 1959 Thompson was admitted to Our Lady of Mercy Hospital in Owensboro, Kentucky. Twenty one months later, on April 13, 1961, she died there at the age of 68. Her funeral was held at St. Stephen's Catholic Cathedral by Reverend Anthony Higdon. She was buried beside her first husband, Everett, in the Mater Dolorosa Catholic Cemetery in Owensboro.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Ryan, Perry T. "The Last Public Execution in America". Retrieved 28 February 2013.
  2. ^ "10,000 SEE HANGING OF KENTUCKY NEGRO; Woman Sheriff Avoids Public Appearance as Ex-Policeman Springs Trap. CROWD JEERS AT CULPRIT Some Grab Pieces of Hood for Souvenirs as Doctors Pronounce Condemned Man Dead", The New York Times, 15 August 1936

Further reading[edit]