We are a country obsessed with food.
I’m willing to bet that somewhere tonight, during a commercial break for Top Chef, a man will chow down on a bread bowl pasta from Domino’s while secretly wishing he had gone for the bacon ranch fries and 2/3 pound Thickburger he just saw advertised in a Hardee’s commercial. Later in the broadcast, he will be thinking Arby’s.
Cooking shows, pizza chains competing to see who can come up with the most-unappealing pasta dishes and fast food restaurants engaged in some type of nuclear arms race to see who can stack the most beef, bacon and cheese on a bun have become the norm in this country. When we aren’t eating or watching shows and commercials about food, we are planning our next meals.
So it really should come as no surprise to anyone that when John Allen Muhammad, the sniper who killed 10 people and wounded three back in 2002, was put to death by lethal injection last night, one of the first questions on everyone’s mind was: “What was his last meal?” (Chicken with red sauce and some cakes, in case you were wondering.)
We’ve long been obsessed with the last meals of death row inmates in this country. There are countless websites devoted to chronicling the final meals of the condemned. For years, Texas, the undisputed king of executions, made a point to publicly release inmates’ “special meal” (the preferred euphemism) on its website.
And some inmates have certainly had some rather noteworthy “special meal” requests.
Ricky Ray Rector, who killed a man in a nightclub, then shot a police officer in the back and gave himself brain damage from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head, asked for steak, fried chicken, cherry Kool-Aid and pecan pie for his last meal in 1992. Rector ate the rest of his meal, but told prison guards that he wanted to save the pecan pie for later.
Walter LaGrand, along with his brother, was charged with killing a bank clerk by stabbing him 24 times with a letter opener during a robbery. Before being executed in Arizona in 1999, LaGrand requested six fried eggs, over-easy; 16 strips of bacon; one large portion of hash browns; one pint of pineapple sherbet ice cream; one “breakfast steak,” well done; one 16-ounce cup filled with ice; one 7-Up; one Dr. Pepper; one Coke; one portion of hot sauce; one cup of coffee with two packets of sugar and, naturally, four Rolaids tablets. While the Rolaid tablets undoubtedly came in handy that night, LaGrand was ironically killed in the gas chamber.
Thomas J. Grasso, who strangled an 87-year-old woman in Tulsa, Oklahoma with her own Christmas tree lights on Christmas Eve before stealing a cheap TV set and $12 from her, was put to death in March of 1995. Grasso’s last meal consisted of a dozen steamed mussels; a Burger King double cheeseburger with mustard, mayonnaise, lettuce and tomato; a can of Franco-American spaghetti with meatballs; a mango; half of a pumpkin pie with whipped cream and a strawberry milkshake. Proving that his heart was indeed two sizes too small, Grasso made a point during his last words to make the following complaint: “I did not get my Spaghetti-O’s, I got spaghetti. I want the press to know this.” Duly noted.
Not all death row inmates go for extravagant final meals though.
Tommy Jerry Fortenberry, who shot four people during a gas station robbery in Attalla, Alabama, had a final meal consisted of vending machine snacks before his execution in 2003. Velma Barfield, the first woman put to death by lethal injection, was convicted of killing her fiancé by poisoning his beer (she also confessed to poisoning her mother and two elderly people under her care, though she was never tried for those crimes). Barfield declined her “special meal” and instead had a bag of Cheez Doodles and a can of Coca-Cola before being put to death in 1984.
Most of the more infamous killers on death row also went for fairly boring final feasts. Ted Bundy declined his last meal and was given a traditional medium-rare steak, eggs over-easy, hash browns, toast, milk, coffee, juice, butter and jelly. PETA, proving just how insane and off-point they are as an organization, petitioned Timothy McVeigh to have a meat-free last meal, so McVeigh ended up going with two pints of mint chocolate chip ice cream. John Wayne Gacy requested a dozen deep-fried shrimp, a bucket of original recipe chicken from KFC, french fries and a pound of strawberries. (I’m surprised he didn’t ask for a Happy Meal.)
So besides the fact that we are a food-obsessed culture to begin with, why are we so fascinated by these last meals? Why do news outlets always report what the condemned ate? Why did Texas spend years chronicling it? Why did I spend hours compiling the above list?
On some level, I guess discussing the last meal makes sense. For one thing, unless the inmate starts singing “Time Is On My Side” and an evil spirit passes from his body to one of the guards a la Edgar Reese in Fallen, there really isn’t much to report about an execution. I mean, I don’t want to spoil the ending for you, but they all tend to wrap up the same way. The only real fascinating variable in the whole proceeding is the last meal.
I think also we hope to find some sort of insight into these people’s minds. Perhaps knowing what they wanted to eat as their last meal on this earth will give us some glimpse into how these people think. Maybe we just want to know what comfort foods they cling to before being sent to their final resting place. Or maybe we are supposed to feel comforted in the fact that even though these killers have lost their humanity, we still show humanity to them by offering them a nice meal at the end of their lives.
But knowing that the man who terrorized me and everyone else living in the D.C.-Metropolitan area in 2002 ate chicken with red sauce before shuffling off this mortal coil doesn’t give me insight into his psyche or reaffirm my faith in humanity. I don’t feel comforted by this knowledge. I don’t think I’m better off knowing this.
Honestly, all I really feel right now is hungry. All I’m thinking is Arby’s.
Joel Murphy is the creator of HoboTrashcan, which is probably why he has his own column. He loves pugs, hates Jimmy Fallon and has an irrational fear of robots. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.