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I did my Senior Thesis on this event. The popularity was in some ways a fluke: Under Kentucky law at the time if a Sheriff died his wife could fulfill the rest of his term- which was the case in Owensboro: the wife of the deceased sheriff was the acting sheriff at the time Bethea was to be executed. Because it was within the duties of the sheriff to presides over the executions (and usually be the one to actually conduct them) a news story sprung up about the “Kentucky Hang-woman,” which attracted a lot of outside attention from the press, resulting in numerous reporters being sent to Owensboro, including (if I remember correctly) reporters from the New York Times. This is also partly the reason for the large turnout: executions were rare enough to attract crowds, and the added spectacle of the “Kentucky Hang-Woman” just increased the allure.
On the day of the execution, the sheriff refused to be the one to actually conducted the execution and had a deputy do it, making the reporters present upset that they had been denied their story. In response, they made one up- claiming that the onlookers had swarmed the body and torn it and the scaffolding apart for souvenirs, called the whole affair a “Carnival of Death” (a blatant lie- almost every witnesses describes how somber the atmosphere was after the execution). The incident got a lot of press, and it was such an embarrassment for Kentucky that it banned public executions forever.
Interesting fact: the scaffold at the execution was provided by a private citizens, who had attended a botched hanging when he was younger and had been so traumatized by the event that he would travel the state and offer his services to make sure hangings were conducted properly.
Edit: Thanks for the gold!