Last Meals on Death Row, a Peculiarly American Fascination

Last Meals on Death Row, a Peculiarly American Fascination

At some point last Oct. 1, Russell Bucklew was served a gyro, a smoked brisket sandwich, two portions of fries, a cola and a banana split. We know this because, shortly after he was executed at 6:23 p.m. that day, the Missouri Department of Corrections gave details of the condemned man’s final meal request to a small group of journalists.

I read about Mr. Bucklew’s food choices courtesy of

Henry Hargreaves

But before setting out on the culinary adventure to end them all, I thought it only proper that I investigate the real last meals of the condemned — that I put some bitter meat on the bare bones of the game.

One thing soon became clear. While more than 50 nations have the death penalty and continue to use it, only the United States appears to have acquired a highly developed literature on its culinary aspect, both popular and scholarly: There are countless accounts of orders for fried chicken and burgers, for tubs of ice cream and chocolate-chip cookies; for the food of a great childhood day out, ordered by men — and it is mostly men — about to be executed by the state.

There are academic papers with titles like “Final Meals: The Theatre of Capital Punishment,” by Christopher C. Collins, a doctoral candidate at Southern Illinois University. The 2009 article cast the serving of such food as part of the dramatic ritual of state-sanctioned death.

There was the 2007 paper “Last Words, Last Meals, and Last Stands: Agency and Individuality in the Modern Execution Process,” by Daniel LaChance of the University of Minnesota. He argued that the practice of allowing the condemned to choose a last meal — a selection then amplified by the news media — portrayed death-row inmates as “autonomous actors, endowed with agency and individuality.”

In short, he said, it helped mark them as “self-made monsters who are intrinsically different by choice.” That, in turn, helped sustain the death penalty by emphasizing the notion that they deserved it.

Yet another paper, published in 2012 by the journal Appetite, is a detailed analysis of what the authors refer to as “death-row nutrition.” It was co-written by Brian Wansink, who resigned his professorship at Cornell University in 2018 after questions were raised about the methodology used in many of his studies of consumer food choices. Nevertheless, the paper is still regularly quoted, perhaps because of the granular detail it offers.

It analyses 247 last meals, all of them ordered by condemned prisoners in the United States from 2002 to 2006. The average meal came in at 2,756 calories, but four requests, from Texas and Oklahoma, were estimated to have gone beyond 7,000. The choices headed deep into diner territory — 70 percent of the prisoners asked for fried food. Many requested specific brands: 16 percent ordered Coca-Cola, and three inmates wanted Diet Coke.

These academic studies sit alongside popular representations, like the stark photographic recreations of last meals by Jacquelyn C. Black, or the 2004 cookbook by Brian D. Price, a former Texas prison inmate who prepared many of the last meals at the prison where he was incarcerated, and wanted to share the recipes. He called it “Meals To Die For.”

In 2011, Texas abandoned the bespoke last meal for death-row inmates, after the killer Lawrence Russell Brewer placed a vast order — two chicken-fried steaks, a pound of barbecue and so on — but ate none of it. The New Zealand-born photographer Henry Hargreaves was struck by the news, and began researching the subject.

“For me the death penalty was no longer an abstract thing,” Mr. Hargreaves told me recently. “The detail of death-row meals brought home the human aspect. I thought, if I can empathize with these people through their last meals, other people can, too.”

He set about recreating last meals in his Brooklyn apartment and shooting them. Here was the Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh’s order for mint chocolate-chip ice cream. Here was the bucket of fried chicken requested by the serial killer John Wayne Gacy, once a Kentucky Fried Chicken manager. And here was the meal requested by Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, the Italian immigrants executed in 1927 for the killing of two men in an armed robbery; their case elicited protests around the world, and 50 years later, the governor of Massachusetts proclaimed that they had not been given a fair trial.

“With these images, I didn’t want to preach right or wrong,” said Mr. Hargreaves, whose collection, titled “No Seconds,” was exhibited at the 2013 Venice Biennale. “I wanted people to look at them and think about the issues involved. That’s what art should be about.”

Except perhaps for “Last Supper,” a 2005 documentary by the Swedish art filmmakers Mats Bigert and Lars Bergstrom that includes testimony from prison guards in Thailand, South Africa and Japan, all of this material is American. This may be because many of the other countries that impose the death penalty, like China, Iran and Saudi Arabia, do not have news media free enough to report the details of executions.

The fascination in the United States stems in part from a well-established true-crime culture, said Ty Treadwell, an author of the book “Last Suppers: Final Meals From Death Row,” first published in 2001 and still in print, “The line between news and entertainment in the U.S. has become somewhat blurred,” he said in a phone interview. “And people are interested in lives very different from their own, be they the Kardashians or death-row inmates.”

Michael Owen Jones, a professor emeritus at the University of California, Los Angeles, interrogated the subject in his thoughtful 2014 paper “Dining on Death Row: Last Meals and the Crutch of Ritual.”

Reporting about death-row meals is not new, he wrote, quoting from an 1891 editorial in The Fort Worth Gazette that railed against the fascination: “Some day some newspaper will forget to report the articles of food comprising the last meal eaten by a murderer under sentence of death and then the whole bottom will fall out of newspaper enterprise.” It continued, “There is too much attention paid to sickly details in setting forth the fact of the execution of a man too dangerous to live.”

Professor Jones wrote in an email that the interest in death-row meals was born merely of a desire “to think about one’s own last meal and what it would consist of, wondering what if anything could be inferred about the personality of the executed person from the requested final meal.” It could also be used, he said, as justification for supporting or opposing the death penalty.

Indeed it could. Kristina Roth, senior program officer for criminal justice programs at Amnesty International USA, which opposes capital punishment, contended that “the publicity around condemned prisoners’ last meals sometimes means the general public are made to think about the grim reality of facing execution at a predetermined hour.

“The ‘ordinariness’ of the last meal is a sort of connection between the macabre world of death row and everyday life,’” she said in a statement.

Michael Rushford, president of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which supports capital punishment, disagreed. “The 60 percent who support the death penalty don’t care either way,” he told me.

Robert Dunham is executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit group that provides analysis and information about capital punishment but does not take a position. He described the interest in death-row meals as “voyeuristic sensationalism. It has nothing to do with the merits or flaws of capital punishment.”

It is, he said, a “vestigial hangover” from the days when hangings and lynchings were public events. “The fact that executions have been moved indoors hasn’t eliminated the salaciousness that accompanied them in the past.”

It seems that, because we’re no longer able to huddle around the steps of the gallows to watch executions up close, we make do with a litany of familiar dishes reported from afar. From that, we attempt to understand a little more about the person behind the terrible crime they may have committed and, in turn, try to imagine the terrible punishment that follows.

It’s a curious obsession, given that these death-row dinner requests probably tell us very little about either. They also happen to be a very long way from our idle fantasies of the one meal that we hope might define us, when we ourselves are a very long way from death.

Jay Rayner is the restaurant critic for The London Observer and the author of the new book “Jay Rayner’s Last Supper: One Meal, A Lifetime In The Making.”

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