10 Last-minute Stays of Execution

The Fourth Time Wasn't a Charm
A huge crowd of more than 15,000 people gathered to witness the public hanging of Rainey Bethea in Owensboro, Ky. in 1936. Public outrage over the manner of execution made this the last public hanging in the U.S. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Washington state's Jake Bird freely admitted that he was a murderer. In fact, by various accounts, he claimed to have committed or been involved in least 29 and as many as 44 killings. Oddly, he professed innocence in the one murder of which he actually was tried and convicted, the 1947 ax murder of Bertha Kludt in Tacoma. His argument was undermined a bit by a persuasive piece of evidence — a bloody ax that he was carrying when he was arrested near her home [source: Associated Press].

But although he possessed little formal education, Bird came up with an ingenious ploy. By proclaiming that he had committed scores of other murders, he forced then-Gov. Mon Wallgren to postpone his execution, so that authorities would have a chance to investigate and see if Bird's admissions cleared up long-unsolved cases. (While he may have been exaggerating, he wasn't lying completely, because they linked him conclusively to at least 11 killings in seven states.) Additionally, Bird used legal maneuvers to obtain two more last-minute stays from state and federal courts.

But on July 15, 1949, Bird's luck finally ran out. After consuming his fourth "last meal," he was hanged at Washington State Penitentiary, in Walla Walla. No one claimed his body, which was buried in the prison yard [sources: Associated Press, United Press].