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.

Henry Hargreaves' interpretation of John Wayne Gacy's last meal (image from )

Henry Hargreaves’ interpretation of John Wayne Gacy’s last meal (image from New Zealand Herald)

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.”

Hours before his 1936 public execution, Rainey Bethea was captured eating his final meal.

Hours before his 1936 public execution, Rainey Bethea was captured eating his final meal.

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.

Mat Collishaw's painting of Sammie Felder Jr.'s last meal including chitterlings, chicken, shrimp, and bacon (from Time).

Mat Collishaw’s painting of Sammie Felder Jr.’s last meal including chitterlings, chicken, shrimp, and bacon (from Time).

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.

Julie Green's "Florida 23 September 2008; Final meal request of two fried-chicken breasts, turkey sausage, fried rice, prison-made chocolate-chip cookies and Coca-Cola’" (from theartblog).

Julie Green’s “Florida 23 September 2008; Final meal request of two fried-chicken breasts, turkey sausage, fried rice, prison-made chocolate-chip cookies and Coca-Cola’” (from theartblog).

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.”

Henry Hargreaves interpretation of Ronnie Lee Gardner's last meal, which included lobster, steak, and a watching of the Lord of the Rings (images from ).

Henry Hargreaves interpretation of Ronnie Lee Gardner’s last meal, which included lobster, steak, and a watching of the Lord of the Rings (images from New Zealand Herald).

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.

Sources

Lorne Dwight Conquergood

2002 Lethal Theatre: Performance, Punishment, and the Death PenaltyTheatre Journal

54(3):339-367. (subscription access)

Brent Cunningham

2013 Last Meals. Lapham’s Quarterly.

Doug Duda

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.

Jane Fritsch

2001 Execution Protocol: Please Order Your Last Meal Seven Days in Advance.  New York Times 22 April: WK7.

David Garland

2010 Peculiar Institution: America’s Death Penalty in an Age of Abolition.  Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

Daniel LaChance

2007 Last Words, Last Meals, and Last Stands: Agency and Individuality in the Modern Execution ProcessLaw & Social Inquiry 32(3):701-724.  (Subscription access)

Ken Leyton-Brown

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 mealsAppetite 59(3):837-43. (subscription access; public summary here)

Angie Wheaton

2013 Revulsion and Palatability: The Staying Power of Death Penalty Rituals – Last Meals and Beyond.  Master of Science Thesis, Eastern Kentucky University.

Images

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

Mat Collishaw painting Sammie Felder Jr. last meal image from Time

Rainey Bethea last meal image from Find-a-Grave

Posted on January 27, 2014, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 64 Comments.

  1. peregrinacultural

    I always like reading your posts. You challenge us to consider what many times we don’t even notice. Thank you.

  2. I agree. On so many levels. I consider myself a conservative but not as it regards executions and civility.

  3. Fascinating stuff. I really hadn’t considered how last meals represent an attempt to justify capital punishment, but of course it makes perfect sense. I’m curious as to the specifics of the ritual: who is present in each case, how long each prisoner is given (evidently quite a while, if one had time to watch the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy), and what other kinds of ritualized actions accompany the food and its consumption. I imagine it’s all highly variable.

    Particularly interesting how some of the condemned, like Brewer, subvert the last meal tradition as a last-ditch act of resistance. As you note, he was certainly an unsympathetic figure, but mocking the system in that way somehow reveals how superficial its gestures towards humanity really are.

    • I think you’re correct that Brewer crossed an unspoken line by refusing the symbolism of the last meal and seeming to abuse the goodwill of the community that delivered his sentence. On the one hand his refusal perhaps confirms why he was judged irredeemable;on the other hand, he does reveal that the goodwill of the last meal may be hollow symbolism.

  4. Very interesting insight- I never thought of it that way. Thank you for giving me a new perspective

  5. I am new to this.. But I love your insight on the specifics of the rituals.

  6. This is such a thoughtful post. The topic is unique and dark, and the fact that you used so many examples added a lot of depth and personality to the piece.

  7. If we are to have capital punishment, then as much as possible they should be public and in the light of day. Capital punishment is the granting of the people to the state the authority to take life. It is a very serious matter, and one that can be subject to terrible abuse. An execution hidden away from the bright light of public scrutiny, including last suppers, is a dangerous step on the slippery slope of the state usurping its authority to take life. Bright lights and thorough media coverage, and live public access to executions are critical in keeping executions by the state within the law.

  8. Seriously Brilliant. I just finished writing an article on comfort food – and what a great segue – - ’til our last breath, we are driven to the familiar. I especially like the way you ended it talking about how their selection is somewhat of a “window” into their soul. So true. I found your article truly intellectually compelling

  9. Interesting that you would use the word “picnic”

    • I think the Times intended that term to be jarring in 1911 and illuminate the complications of turning an execution into a leisure event.

      • There is an urban legend surrounding its use in America It is clear that picnic was not derived from “pick-a-nigger,” “pick-a-nig,” or similar racist phrases. However, some of the almost 4,000 blacks who were lynched between 1882 and 1962 were lynched in settings that are appropriately described as picnic-like. Phillip Dray, a historian, stated: “Lynching was an undeniable part of daily life, as distinctly American as baseball games and church suppers. Men brought their wives and children to the events, posed for commemorative photographs, and purchased souvenirs of the occasion as if they had been at a company picnic.” 2 Bray did not exaggerate. At the end of the 19th century, Henry Smith, a mentally challenged 17-year-old black male, was accused of killing a white girl. Before a cheering crowd of hundreds, Smith was made to sit on a “parade float” drawn by four white horses. The float circled numerous times before the excited crowd tortured, then burned Smith alive. 3 After the lynching the crowd celebrated and collected body parts as souvenirs.

        Often the lynch mob acted with haste, but on other occasions the lynching was a long-drawn out affair with speeches, food-eating, and, unfortunately, ritualistic and sadistic torture: victims were dragged behind cars, pierced with knives, burned with hot irons or blowtorches, had their fingers and toes cut off, had their eyes cut out, and were castrated — all before being hanged or burned to death. One Mississippi newspaper referred to these gruesome acts as “Negro barbeques.” 4

        In many cases — arguably in most cases — lynch mobs had a particular target and confined their heinous aggression to a specific person. Blacks were lynched for a variety of accusations, ranging from murder, and rape (often not true), to trying to vote, and arguing with a white man. In 1938, a white man in Oxford, Mississippi declared that it was “about time to have another lynching. When the niggers get so they are not afraid of being lynched, it is time to put the fear in them.” 5 There were many blacks lynched randomly, to send a message of white supremacy to black communities. As noted by Dominic J. Capeci, a historian, when it came to lynching, “one black man served as well as another.” 6

        (taken from http://www.ferris.edu/jimcrow/question/jan04.htm)

  10. 20 piece nugget and ill be happy

  11. The last meal is a bewildering, last minute display of compassion or maybe it’s recognition that the person to be executed is, in fact, human with human tastes, preferences and memories. It’s a diversion from the sickening reality of what the state does next.

  12. I saw an interesting show about this on a PBS station, it was very interesting.

  13. Very Interesting!
    My last meal would be cheese burgers…many of them.

  14. “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.” That’s a really interesting and well written way of thinking of it. I never really gave it much thought before your post. . . things that make you go hmmmm.

  15. Reblogged this on simplicity school and commented:
    My last meal would be Cebu lechon skin, salmon sashimi, garlic rice from Aida’s, chicken inasal, hakaw with chili garlic oil, cansi with lots of marrow, fromage a raclette, bacon, smoked sausages, Chorizo el Rey, pecan pie a la mode from Calea.

  16. I’ve always found the idea of a last meal to be a desperately sad one. I understand these people have been convicted of really, really despicable things, which is why they’re sentenced to death, but I still have a problem with the death penalty. Of course, I’ve never been a victim of such a crime, nor has anyone close to me. I’m sure I would feel a desire for vengeance. But I’m also not sure killing the person would necessarily help my grief and anger. Hard to say, I suppose.

    While I find your article very interesting, I suppose I don’t find what the prisoners eat to be very interesting. I think we hope that by knowing about the choices they make for their last meal, we might gain some insight into them as people. It’s as if, at the last moment, maybe we want to really know that they’re ‘like us’? I don’t know.

  17. Reblogged this on BodyImageIntuition and commented:
    Very interesting. I’ve never really thought about having the last meal or even considering that of a convicted prisoner.

  18. I’m joked about the idea of the last meal but never really thought seriously about it. Very interesting…

  19. I’ve joked about the idea of the last meal but never really thought seriously about it. Very interesting…

  20. What an interesting article. I never thought too much about this particular topic, but it seems as though a choice of a last meal really says a lot about a person, doesn’t it? These people’s choices were a last grasp to remember a time when they probably weren’t so evil.

  21. Thank you for this depth into a topic that goes often untouched. Just awesomely written.
    Cheers!

  22. I really enjoy this perspective on the last meal.

  23. It’s interesting because it does shed insight, albeit small, into the mind of the condemned. It is a subject I have been mulling over for a while since I watched a documentary about Huntsville. The man responsible for ushering the prisoner into the death chamber suggested there have been times when the prisoner did not have time for the last meal because of last minute stays that where then rescinded. I’m sure this is rare but if it does what does it say about humanising the event and compassion?

  24. I feel like there is a very strange thing happening here, because in reality it doesn’t really matter what the person’s last meal is since they are about to die. However, I think the strangeness is in the idea surrounding the guilt of the executioners and the people that have to deal with this process. In essence we are sending the message of “okay what’s your last wish, but because we can’t actually do much for you, what would you like to eat?” Hence the guilt. This is societies way of saying we feel bad for you and would like to help, but we really can’t.

  25. Fascinating, haunting, and eerie. Very well done. I had no idea you could order such elaborate meals.

  26. Reblogged this on blogmassive and commented:
    Cool

  27. This is such an interesting subject, albeit quite difficult to fully comprehend.
    I try to imagine myself carrying the tray to the condemned man, and I wonder just how the people who actually do this cope with their emotions afterwards.
    I wonder what I would choose if it were my last meal; and I wonder if I would have the heart to eat it.
    The photo of Rainey Bethea in particular will haunt me; I can’t help but feel that humanity has gone wrong somewhere that a photo like this should even exist.

  28. To me, most of what I enjoy about special meals is the company I’ve shared, rather than the food, no matter how good it is. I’d rather have an ill-prepared meal of fast food in the company of my friends and family than the most elaborate dinner possible, knowing I was going to die afterwards.

    Though, in all honesty, any meal could be one’s “last meal.” All the more reason to be mindful of each occasion we eat.

    This was fantastic. Thank you.

  29. Your treatment of the subject has been as enormously tasty as the meals you described. Whatever my meal would be, large or small, it would include a frosty can of Diet Mountain Dew with a few Fig Newtons.

  30. What did the political leaders in Texas expect from the white supremacist Lawrence Russell Brewer to avoid insult from the already supremely angry man? The offense they showed in Brewer not eating his meal was only a final reward to Brewer. The subsequent suspension of the final meal seals it.

  31. Wow. I had never really considered the idea that we might offer last meals as a way to salve our collective conscience. Food for thought indeed.

  32. Hilarious read! Congrats on getting pressed!!

  33. Reblogged this on aspaciousvacanyofthought and commented:
    An original analysis that goes beyond the usual method of simply posting lists of the food eaten.

  34. Reblogged this on Kentucky Marijuana Party and commented:
    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.

  35. Thank you very insightful post. I have sometimes thought people facing the death penalty might be too nervous or upset to eat, but you have shown a different side to comfort food.

  36. Interesting blog! I can’t help but think about what my last meal would be, and then I think, “Can I have guests”. I can’t imagine having such an important meal by my self. I find I enjoy my meal more when I”m sharing, even when I’m sharing with those I don’t like. I also think about last supper comparisons which also takes me to thoughts about sacrificial meals. I guess if I had to face this problem, and someone was still watching my flock of sheep, I would ask to have one of the lambs sacrificed, and ask for forgiveness while eating my last lamb.

  37. Strange that such decadence should precede such a mournful experience. I have no moral objection to these extravagant last meals, but if it were me, I’d spend my last moments preparing my soul for a meeting with my Maker. Delicious food would probably be a distraction at such a critical time. We’re talking Eternity here, people.

  38. I would be very interested in research into other cultures which still have the death penalty. For example China. Do the folk there get a last meal and if so is it rich or sweet foods too.

  39. Very sad the condemned can’t have a glass of wine to go with the meal. That’s inhumanity in itself! Tony

  40. Reblogged this on michaelroybrooks and commented:
    Imagine if you weren’t guilty……

  41. Excuse me. I don’t follow or agree with numerous postings suggesting humane treatment in exchange for those found guilty of murdering someone, and the outpouring of sympathy to those absent that emotion while performing their act of violence. Comparing capital punishment to barbarism is absurd in its role as just punishment for depravity. Without a deterrent to somehow curb the criminal tendency of violent offenders, what do advocates of abolishing the practice of capital punishment have in mind? Perhaps, feeding them to the lions as performed for public entertainment with the lives of Christians as the main course?

  42. Reblogged this on Jayne Deacon and commented:
    What would your last meal be and what does it say about you?

  43. I find the idea of the last meal, like capital punishment itself, to be grotesque: making a show of giving someone sustenance and then killing them, indulging them with a bit of pleasure before taking away their life, sending them to their death with a belly full of barely digested food. I am amazed that the prisoners have any appetite at all, given the circumstances.

  44. Reblogged this on Homie Williams. and commented:
    – J.W.

  45. Reblogged this on The Weird and the Wonderful: Reblogged and commented:
    Interesting topic and a well written reasoning and study.

  46. Quite interesting. It makes me wonder what I’d have as a last meal. Boiled crawfish would be nice. Maybe some fried chicken and a fat slice of lemon chiffon pie.

  1. Pingback: A escolha final: o papel das últimas refeições no corredor da morte | Livre Opinião - Ideias em Debate

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