John Wayne Gacy devoured a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken washed down with Diet Coke prior to his execution. Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh had two pints of mint chocolate chip ice cream. And Aileen Wuornos, the serial killer played by Charlize Theron in the film Monster, only sipped a cup of coffee before she kicked back on Florida’s lethal injection table. Some inmates order multi-course meals that cause rickety prison tables to groan beneath their weight, while others opt for just a snack or a smoke—assuming they can bum a cigarette in today’s tobacco-free prison society.
Death penalty rituals have always varied from state to state, not only in the method of execution but also in the care and treatment of the accused during his final hours. One factor that remains constant, however, is the act of feeding the condemned prisoner a special last meal before they shake hands with the Grim Reaper. Whether it’s a gourmet feast, fast food takeout, or a favorite childhood recipe, every man or woman is allowed to partake in one final meal of their choice.
This ritual seems to hold immense importance not only for the inmates and prison officials but for the general public as well. Almost every news story about an execution lists the condemned man’s last meal alongside his last words and other details of his final moments, making one wonder why this greasy little morsel of information is so important.
Do last meal menus somehow shed light on the inner psyche of the condemned man himself? Like a mystic reading tea leaves, do we hope to learn more about a killer by examining the gravy smears on his plate? Could a proven connection between cheesecake lovers and axe-murderers aid law enforcement officials in solving crimes? Or could it simply be that the public’s appetite for Death Row trivia is as large as some of the condemned men’s appetites?
The size and complexity of each last meal depends greatly on where the execution takes places. Some states—such as Virginia—only honor requests for food commonly found in the prison kitchen. Other states allow prisoners to order out from local restaurants or request special items from the supermarket. Have a hankering for fresh seafood? Better commit your capital crime in Florida or California, where condemned men chow down on steamed crab legs and lobster. If your evil heart is set on steak, you’ll find that choice cut of beef in Indiana or Mississippi. And if you like to relax with a stogie after a big meal, better make sure you’re arrested in Nevada where prison rules still allow a last cigar or cigarette.
Sometimes it’s the simple things that tempt convicted taste buds. Before Texas banned special last meal requests, the humble cheeseburger was one of the most popular items. Most prisoners chose fries on the side, and some asked only for ketchup while others piled on lettuce, onions, tomatoes, pickles, mustard, and mayonnaise. Nearly half of Texas’ condemned men threw dietary caution to the wind and requested double meat and cheese. Others opted for a healthy side of salad or broccoli.
Even the simplest requests, though, can sometimes stir up controversy. Thomas Grasso, executed in Oklahoma in 1995, ordered a can of Franco-American SpaghettiOs as part of his last meal, but the prison chef screwed up and substituted a can of plain old spaghetti and meatballs. Grasso was still fuming about the mix-up when it came time to speak his final words, which were “I did not get my Spaghettios, I got spaghetti. I want the press to know this!”
On the other hand, what about those really, really hard to fulfill requests, such as the convict who wanted one last serving of his mother’s German ravioli? Fortunately for Gerald Bivens he was incarcerated in Indiana, one of the more accommodating states, and his mother was allowed to cook the meal in the prison kitchen and then share it with her son. It was the first time in Indiana’s history that a family member had been allowed to prepare an inmate’s last meal.
Many inmates, including true crime superstar Ted Bundy, choose not to eat a final meal at all. Bundy was given Florida’s default last meal of steak, eggs, and hash browns, but he was so nervous about his date with “Old Sparky” that he didn’t even nibble at it. Others eat a last meal but make no special request, choosing to join their condemned comrades by having whatever’s on that day’s menu. In most states, though, ordering the daily special is a culinary game of Russian Roulette, and depending on the day of the week you could wind up with something that makes lunch at your local elementary school look like dinner at the Four Seasons. After all, nobody in their right mind would purposefully order vegetarian hot dogs or lima beans and boiled cabbage—but how many folks on death row are in their right minds, anyway?
Some people argue that condemned prisoners don’t deserve the courtesy of an extravagant last meal, and wonder how such a generous tradition ever came into being in the first place. Some claim it’s a remnant from the late-1800s when the sheriff’s wife was responsible for feeding any prisoners housed in the local jail at the time. Before a hanging, she would rustle up an extra-fancy meal so that horse thieves and other varmints wouldn’t swing on an empty stomach. Other researchers trace the ritual back to 18th-century London, when parade-like hanging processions traveled three miles from the prison to the gallows with stops along the way for eating and drinking, like some morbid version of Mardi Gras.
While the exact origins of this long-standing tradition remain uncertain, it continues to provide curious minds with food for thought.
This is Ty Treadwell’s first article with Crime Ticker – you can read more at www.lastsuppersbook.blogspot.ca