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22 Meals To Die For: Death Row Last Meals And Our Fascination With Them

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Have you ever mused about what you would want for your last meal? For those who are facing capital punishment, it isn’t merely a game. They are going to think long and hard about what they want, because it is actually their last meal.

There have been many articles written about “last meals” of death row inmates in the United States, including in major newspapers such as the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune, a book has been published about the topic, and artists have created large bodies of work about last meals.

Our fascination with this topic has also been the focus of journalists, cultural studies and psychologists.

First, What Are The Rules?

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After a governor signs the execution warrant for a death row inmate, they enter a period known as death watch. Prior to this time, the inmate is served three meals a day. The first meal is served around 5 a.m., followed by the second meal between around 10:30 a.m. and 11 a.m., and the third meal from about 4 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. The prison staff prepares the food, which is then transported to the cells in insulated carts. Inmates are given sporks for implements and eat directly from the trays given to them.

Before the scheduled execution takes place, the inmate has the option to request a last meal, and while all states adhere to some rules, there are also some that vary state to state. The last meal is often consumed a day or two before the scheduled execution. 

History Of The Last Meal

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The tradition of the last meal has its origins in ancient Greece and later spread to Rome, where gladiators would partake in a final feast before facing their grueling exhibition in the coliseum. It was a way to celebrate life before inevitably facing death. From this, various traditions have preceded the end of life, including the custom of requesting a last meal. Some associate the last meal with the Last Supper in Christian traditions, while others view it as a way to reintroduce humanity into an otherwise inhumane situation. 

Last Meal Requests Are Not Always Fulfilled

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Currently, restrictions often dictate that prisoners select foods already available within the prison system, or within a predetermined cost limit. Requests for alcohol or tobacco products are typically denied. In cases where a prisoner’s request cannot be fulfilled due to prison restrictions, substitutions are made by the officials.

For instance, if a prisoner asks for lobster, it would likely be refused as the prison is unlikely to have it available. A request for filet mignon could end up being a hamburger patty, by the time the inmate received their meal. 

It is said that the meal must be nutritionally balanced (although many that you are about to read about do not appear to be) and meet any dietary restrictions the prisoner may have. So, we guess if they are deathly allergic to peanuts and wanted a last meal blowout of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, that just isn’t happening. You are also about to see that at times, quite extravagant meals were served.

The Meal To End All The Meals

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Lawrence Russell Brewer was convicted of murder and scheduled for lethal injection by the state of Texas. His last meal request was elaborate and was granted. When it arrived, he refused to eat. As a result, as of 2011, Texas no longer grants last meal requests.

Here was his menu:

  • 2 chicken fried steaks smothered in gravy, with sliced onions
  • 1 triple meat bacon cheeseburger with fixings on the side
  • 1 cheese omelet with ground beef, tomatoes, onions, bell peppers, and jalapeños
  • 1 large bowl of fried okra with ketchup
  • 1 pound of barbecue with half a loaf of white bread
  • 3 fajitas with fixings
  • 1 Pizza Hut Meat Lovers pizza
  • 3 root beers
  • 1 pint Blue Bell vanilla ice cream
  • 1 slab of peanut butter fudge with crushed peanuts

Last Requests Are Not Always Food

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While we want to get to what food has been requested, we also wanted to point out that food is not always the last request. There have been last requests for Holy Communion (Jonathan Wayne Nobles, executed in 1998) and “Justice, equality, and world peace” was requested by Odell Barnes before is execution in 2000.

James Edward Smith (executed 1990) requested a lump of dirt, but as he said he wanted it in order to perform a voodoo ritual, which would ensure his soul’s departure from Earth, he was given a small container of yogurt, instead. Smith issued a warning to the officials, claiming that his ghost would haunt the prison for the next 300 years.

The Most Expensive Last Meal

shrimp, melon, pie and steak.
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Regarding the most expensive final dinner granted, it is likely that Robert Dale Conkin’s last meal holds that distinction. In 2005, Conkin was scheduled for execution in Georgia. For his final meal, he requested and consumed the following:

  • Filet mignon wrapped in bacon
  • De-veined shrimp sautéed in garlic butter with lemon
  • Baked potato with butter, sour cream, chives, and real bacon bits
  • Asparagus with hollandaise sauce
  • French bread with butter
  • Goat cheese
  • Cantaloupe
  • Apple pie with vanilla bean ice cream

Ronnie Paul Threadgill – Not So Fast

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Ronnie Threadgill was put to death in Texas in 2013 at the age of 40. 

Threadgill requested baked chicken, mashed potatoes with country gravy, vegetables, sweet peas, bread, tea, water, and punch. However, since Texas abolished last meal choices in 2011, Threadgill was given the same meal as everyone else in his unit.

John Wayne Gacy – Crazy for KFC

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John Wayne Gacy was executed in Illinois at the age of 52. Gacy’s requested last meal comprised 12 fried shrimp, a bucket of original recipe KFC, French fries, and a pound of strawberries.

It is worth mentioning that prior to his conviction, Gacy managed three KFC restaurants.

Ted Bundy – No Requests, But Got Steak

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Ted Bundy, a notorious individual known for his heinous crimes, was executed in Florida at the age of 43. 

When it came to his final meal, Bundy opted out of a special request and instead received the customary last meal consisting of a medium-rare steak, eggs over easy, hash browns, buttered toast with jelly, milk, and juice.

Timothy McVeigh – Give Him Ice Cream

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Timothy McVeigh, sentenced to death for the Oklahoma City bombing, was put to death in Indiana at the age of 33. He requested two pints of mint chocolate chip ice cream.

Aileen Carol Wuornos – Cup of Joe

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Aileen Carol Wuornos was a rare female serial killer, portrayed by Charlize Theron in the movie, Monster, for which she won an Oscar. Wuornos was known for her extreme psychopathy, which was on display during her incarceration.

Wuornos, who spent a decade on death row, faced execution in October 2002. Her final meal consisted of a cup of coffee. Just before her passing, Wuornos uttered her last words: “Yes, I would just like to say I’m sailing with the rock, and I’ll be back, like Independence Day, with Jesus. June 6, like the movie. Big mother ship and all, I’ll be back, I’ll be back.”

Allen Lee “Tiny” Davis – Brand Recognition

A&W root beer.
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Allen Lee “Tiny” Davis, at the age of 54, faced execution in Florida. In his final meal request was for lobster tail, fried potatoes, half a pound of fried shrimp, six-ounces of fried clams, half a loaf of garlic bread, and 32-ounces of A&W root beer. A good ad for A&W? Or not?

Ronnie Lee Gardner – The Cinephile

lobster tails.
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Ronnie Lee Gardner, met his end at the age of 49 in Utah. Gardner’s last meal included steak, a lobster tail, apple pie, vanilla ice cream – while watching the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

After his brother’s death, Randy Gardner became an opponent of the death penalty and would participate in anti-death penalty demonstrations wearing Ronnie’s prison jumpsuit. We are wondering how he got that suit…

Stephen Anderson – Radishes?

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Stephen Anderson, aged 49, was executed in California in 2002. Anderson’s last meal consisted of two grilled cheese sandwiches, a pint of cottage cheese, a hominy/corn mixture, peach pie, chocolate chip ice cream, and radishes. We like cottage cheese, and radishes, but for a last meal?

Ricky Ray Rector – A Civic Lesson

slice pecan pie.
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Ricky Ray Rector was put to death in Arkansas at the age of 42 in 1992. It is important to note that while ostensibly turning himself in, he shot a policeman in the back, after which he shot himself in the head. It is thought he tried to commit suicide, but he ended up being mentally incapacitated.

For his last meal, Rector requested steak, fried chicken, cherry Kool-Aid, and pecan pie, but then he left the pecan pie behind, telling a guard that he was “saving it for later.” In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court banned the execution of people with intellectual disabilities in Atkins v. Virginia, ruling that the practice constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. Some reports state that the slice of pie was not disposed of until after Rector had been executed.

Joseph Mitchell Parsons – Having It His Way

Burger King wrapper.
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Joseph Parsons was executed in 1999. 

For his last meal, Parsons asked for Burger King Whoppers, French fries, a chocolate shake, chocolate chip ice cream, and a packet of grape Hubba Bubba bubble gum.

Parsons’ lawyer said that his client chose a Burger King meal because of their slogan ‘have it your way’, which he believed was symbolic of Parson taking control of his own life, albeit just the very end.

Gary Carl Simmons Jr. – No Sense In Dieting

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Gary Carl Simmons Jr. was executed in 2012 after a last-meal request of two Pizza Hut Supreme Deep Dish pizzas, almost 5-pounds of Parmesan cheese, 10 cups of ranch dressing, a very large amount of jalapeño nacho cheese with sliced jalapeños and Doritos, 1.2L of Cherry Coke, 2 large strawberry shakes, and strawberry ice cream.

It was calculated that it was almost 30,000 calories worth of food.

Gerald Lee Mitchell – Simple & Sweet

Jolly Ranchers candy.
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Gerald Lee Mitchell was executed in 2001. His only last request was a bag of assorted Jolly Ranchers candy.

Barton Kay Kirkham – Thinking of Others?

pizza and ice cream.
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Barton Kirkham was executed in 1958. He asked for pizza and ice cream because, he said, “you get cheese, meat and everything else in one meal. Not so much fuss.”

Dobie Gills Williams – Sugar Rush

chocolate bars.
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Dobie Gills Williams was executed in 1999. Some of us crave salt, others want sugar. Williams was the latter. He said he wanted a “sugar rush” and requested ice cream and 12 chocolate bars.

Philip Ray Workman – Altruistic

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Philip Ray Workman was executed in 2007. 

In a gesture of reconciliation, instead of indulging in a grand farewell feast, Workman appealed to prison authorities to provide pizzas to the homeless. His plea was refused. In an act of protest, Workman made the decision to abstain from consuming any food before his execution.

On the day of his demise, homeless shelters in Tennessee were inundated by the arrival of pizzas from various locations across the country.

Workman’s final words were filled with remorse: “I express my heartfelt apologies for the sorrow and suffering you have endured. Yet, I maintain my innocence in regard to those lives taken. It is my hope that we all attain personal growth and understanding from this experience and break the cycle of animosity and retribution. Let us come to appreciate the true essence of this world. I grant forgiveness to all involved in this flawed process.”

Thomas Joseph Grasso – He Was Specific

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Thomas Grasso was executed in March of 1995.

His last meal request was for 24 steamed mussels, 24 steamed clams, a double cheeseburger from Burger King, six barbecue spareribs, two strawberry milkshakes, pumpkin pie with whipped cream and diced strawberries, and a can of Spaghetti-Os with meatballs, curiously, to be served at room temperature.

Most of his request was fulfilled, however, In his last statement, he emphasized his disappointment, stating, “I did not receive the Spaghetti-O’s I requested; instead, I was served spaghetti. It is important for the media to be aware of this discrepancy.” Noted.

David Leon Woods – Happy Birthday

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David Leon Woods spent 22 years on death row before being executed in Indiana, on May 4, 2007. He was granted his last meal, which was pizza and birthday cake, which he was allowed to have with his family. His birthday was 3 months after his execution.

Marion Albert Pruett – Fried Food Fanatic

fried food.
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Marion Albert Pruett was executed in 1999. His last meal consisted of Pizza Hut stuffed crust pizza, four Burger King Whoppers, French fries, fried okra, fried eggplant, fried squash, a whole pecan pie, and 3 two-liter Pepsi bottles. Apparently, he initially was thinking of asking for roast duck.

Dennis Bagwell – Living Large

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Dennis Bagwell was executed in 2005. He had quite a large last meal request of steak, fried chicken, BBQ ribs, French fries, onion rings, bacon, a dozen scrambled eggs with onions, fried taters with onions, sliced tomatoes, a salad with ranch dressing, two hamburgers with everything, peach pie, milk and coffee, and iced tea with real sugar. No point in using no-calorie sweeteners at this point.

Victor Harry Feguer – An Olive?

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Photographer Henry Hargreaves created a book called “No Secrets”, which detailed photos of death row inmates’ last meal requests. He believed that their choices said volumes about who they were in life.

His favorite was the choice of Victor Feguer, 28, who was executed by the state of Iowa in 1963. His request? A single olive, intact with pit. What this meant to Victor is anyone’s guess, but Hargreaves found poetry in it: “”It’s just such a polarizing image. We think about last meals and is it something that’s going to be totally gluttonous, and then he just has a single olive. You know, it’s so simple, beautiful and kind of final. It’s like a full stop at the end of his life.”

After his execution, examiners found the pit in the pocket of his suit. The story goes that Feguer hoped he’d be buried with the pit so an olive tree, a symbol of peace, would grow from his grave.

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