The Final Choice: The Materiality of Last Meals
In 2012 Gary Carl Simmons sat down for an enormous meal including a Pizza Hut Super Supreme Deep Dish pizza; 10 8-oz. packs of Parmesan cheese; 10 8-oz. packs of ranch dressing; one family size bag of Doritos; 2 large strawberry shakes; two cherry Cokes; one super-size order of McDonald’s fries; and two pints of strawberry ice cream. By about 4:45 one observer reported that he had eaten roughly half of the nearly 30,000-calorie feast before he was marched off to the Mississippi death chamber. At 6:16 that evening he was declared dead after he was executed by lethal injection for a grisly 1996 murder.
The last meal has become a standard ritual in the contemporary execution, an oddly fascinating public episode in the final moments before society passes its ultimate judgment on one of our own. Today the ritual of a final meal and the last words of the condemned are the only particularly public dimensions of a death sentence. Last meals seem to provide us a final idiosyncratic insight into the mind of the irredeemable; they provide exceptional clarity for the notion of “comfort food”; and the ritual itself may rationalize capital punishment or even humanize the ultimate sentence. The final meal is symbolically fascinating because it balances a fine line between, on the one hand, human compassion and fascination for irredeemable citizens, and, on the other hand, a vengeful mob instinct that bourgeois execution ideology hopes to deny.
Executions were once massive public events in which final meals were not especially significant. The public execution began to be perceived as cruel in the late-19th century as the transition began toward a more middle-class vision of execution. In 1871, for instance, the New York Times detailed a South Carolina hanging and concluded that it was “a blot on our civilization that in any part of the land this savage anachronism should still be tolerated. It is bad enough to be obliged to strangle human beings as though they were vermin, without making the sad necessity a show for their fellows.”
Sentiment began to turn against the spectacle of public execution in the 20th century. A public hanging in Louisville, Mississippi in 1911 was the first public execution in the state for 35 years, and “the scene surrounding the scaffold has seldom been equaled in the South, where executions are universally private and as far removed from the public gaze as possible.” The New York Times reported that “vendors had secured concessions of all kinds and restaurants had been hastily constructed about the scaffold for feeding the throngs with sandwiches, coffee, lemonade, and peanuts. … It was more like a gala picnic than the dispatching of a soul to eternity.” Between 10,000 and 20,000 spectators mobbed the United States’ final public execution in August, 1936, when Rainey Bethea was hung in Owensboro, Kentucky. Bethea reportedly had a last meal of fried chicken, pork chops, mashed potatoes, pickled cucumbers, cornbread, lemon pie, and ice cream, and a photograph was taken of Bethea in a moment that foreshadowed the theater of the last meal.
Choreographed media coverage now nearly always marches through the final meal as a stage in the narrative. That meal is nearly always presented formulaically and with little or no comment. On January 15th, for instance, Dennis McGuire requested a final meal of “roast beef, fried chicken, a bagel with cream cheese, fried potatoes with onions, potato salad, butter pecan ice cream and a Coke for his special meal”; and on January 9th Michael Lee Wilson “ordered a stuffed-crust pizza with parmesan cheese as a final meal, along with a Cherry Dr Pepper, a pomegranate and cherry mash candy.”
The press sometimes ridicules the final culinary choices made by the condemned. Last October William Frederick Happ was dispatched after consuming “a 12-ounce box of assorted chocolates and 1 1/2 quarts of German chocolate ice cream,” a selection The Independent characterized as a “sickly sweet combination.” In 2011 The Daily Mail called Eddie Duval Powell’s last meal of sandwiches, corn chips and soda from the vending machine the “saddest last meal ever.” For the most part, though, culinary choices of the condemned seem to be outside polite commentary.
The last meal is framed in many ideologues’ minds as a final kindness extended to the convicted, and when the accused accepts the final meal privilege it implicitly rationalizes capital punishment itself. Daniel LaChance suggests that last meals paint inmates as “autonomous actors endowed with free will and distinct personalities.” In this analysis, the convicted receive the privilege of a choice, a ritual that “reinforces the construction of offenders in contemporary discourses as self-made monsters, as figures endowed with both agency and intrinsic evil.” Consequently, Timothy McVeigh had the agency to request two pints of mint chocolate chip ice cream, but his execution is rationalized by his unwillingness to respect basic human rights when he murdered 168 people.
Angie Wheaton argues in a similar vein that execution rituals like the final meal aspire to secure the compliance of the condemned and silence challenges to capital punishment. Rituals like the final meal provide a structured series of choices for the condemned, and accepting the meal and cooperating in their very death implies the condemned has accepted their fate.The final meal request is certainly a confirmation of the security we all secure from food. A 2012 study of 193 last meals found that the requests were for high calorie “comfort” foods, with more than two-thirds including fried foods, especially French fries. Some are idiosyncratic and personal: for instance, in 1984 Velma Barfield had a final meal of Cheez Doodles and Coca-Cola; in 2003 John Baltazar requested Cool Whip and cherries (which were not available in the prison). The patterns suggest that in the moments of highest stress “comfort” is defined by familiarity.
Texas systematically recorded every Final Meal Request between 1982 and 2003 on their web page and prepared final meal requests for 87 years. No states address requests without some conditions (e.g., available supplies, budget, etc, and no state permits alcohol), so the requests are routinely subject to the interpretation of corrections’ officials. Texas eliminated the final meal practice in 2011 after Lawrence Russell Brewer requested an enormous meal that he did not consume. The unrepentant White supremacist was among the most unsympathetic of condemned, one of three men who murdered African-American James Byrd, Jr. by dragging him behind a truck for three miles. Yet last meals and final words are not rehabilitative practices; rather, they hope to cement observers’ support for capital punishment by lending it a sense of humanity the condemned routinely denied to their victims.
By the moment the last meal is being consumed, few observers interrogate the often-heinous crimes that brought these people to the death sentence, and few media pundits are willing to concede the legal system could deliver mistaken justice. On January 7th the Miami Herald added a rare commentary when it noted that Askari Abdullah Muhammad’s (formerly Thomas Knight) “final meal, unlike his life, was mostly sweet: portions of sweet potato pie, coconut cake, banana nut bread, vanilla ice cream, strawberry-and-butter pecan ice cream and Fritos corn chips — all washed down by a quarter of a bottle of Sprite.”
One of the implications of prosaic last meals is their tendency to humanize the most monstrous offenders; that is, the gesture of offering a final meal can make capital punishment itself seem humane, but domesticating food choices of the condemned may simultaneously cast the condemned as sympathetic and not simply as monsters. Photographer Henry Hargreaves, for instance, is among the observers who have examined how the food choices of the condemned potentially humanize the worst offenders. Hargreaves’ images reconstruct final meals like John Wayne Gacy’s bucket of KFC (along with shrimp, fries, and strawberries) or Ronnie Lee Gardner’s request for lobster, steak, apple pie, and ice cream while watching The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Hargreaves is one of many artists who have been drawn to the symbolism of the last meal. Photographer Mat Collishaw’s works, for instance, imagine last meals as 17th-century still lifes. The Last Meals Project collects images of the condemned, their final meals, and the barest details of their sentence and execution. Julie Green paints last meal requests on ceramics, a decade-long project she refers to as “The Last Supper.”
Like many observers, these artists recognize the profound symbolic power of food and the fascination we have with that handful of men and women who receive the ultimate punishment. In a process that is now largely bureaucratic and private, the last meal is one of the only hints we have into the mind of the condemned. It at once binds us in a prosaic, humanizing sense to irredeemable fellow citizens even as we uneasily acknowledge or accept capital punishment conducted in our collective name.
Lorne Dwight Conquergood
2002 Lethal Theatre: Performance, Punishment, and the Death Penalty. Theatre Journal
54(3):339-367. (subscription access)
2013 Last Meals. Lapham’s Quarterly.
2007 Eat Like There’s No Tomorrow and Other Lessons Learned from Last Meals. In Food and Morality: Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, ed. Susan R. Friedland, pp. 103-108. Prospect Books, Devon, England.
2001 Execution Protocol: Please Order Your Last Meal Seven Days in Advance. New York Times 22 April: WK7.
2010 Peculiar Institution: America’s Death Penalty in an Age of Abolition. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
2007 Last Words, Last Meals, and Last Stands: Agency and Individuality in the Modern Execution Process. Law & Social Inquiry 32(3):701-724. (Subscription access)
2010 The Practice of Execution in Canada. UBC Press, Vancouver.
New York Daily Times
1857 Five Men Hung: Execution of John LaPorritt [sic], Israel Shoultz [sic] and Jacob Nuestin, at St. Louis. New York Daily Times 26 June: 2. [proper spellings were La Pointe and Shultz]
New York Times
1871 Public Executions. New York Times 6 March: 4.
1911 Make Holiday of Hanging: Public Execution in Mississippi Draws Crowd to See Negro Die.
New York Times 31 August: 4.
1925 Gets Death Meal, Lives: Chicago Negro, Reprieved, Insists on Pre-Hanging Chicken Dinner.
New York Times 6 November: 25.
1936 10,000 See Hanging of Kentucky Negro. New York Times 15 August: 30.
2001 Word for Word: The Last Hanging There Was a Reason They Outlawed Public Executions
New York Times 6 May: WK5.
Perry T. Ryan
1992 The Last Public Execution in America. Unpublished electronic manuscript.
Brian Wansink, Kevin M. Kniffin, and Mitsuru Shimizu
2012 Death row nutrition: Curious conclusions of last meals. Appetite 59(3):837-43. (subscription access; public summary here)
2013 Revulsion and Palatability: The Staying Power of Death Penalty Rituals – Last Meals and Beyond. Master of Science Thesis, Eastern Kentucky University.
Henry Hargreaves John Wayne Gacy and Ronnie Lee Gardner images from the New Zealand Herald
Julie Green Florida 23 September 2008; Final meal request image from theartblog
Rainey Bethea last meal image from Find-a-Grave