The popularity of horror stories, like those of Stephen King, and horror movies such as Friday the 13th, and the SAW progression of sequels, along with the multitude of forensic shows on television, demonstrate the appeal of such bizarre topics. Nancy Grace has built an entire career on exploiting morbid crimes. And don’t forget murder mysteries, which are perennial bestsellers. And, of course, all the traffic jams on California’s highways as all the cars slow down so that their passengers can stare wide-eyed at the carnage wrought by the most recent traffic accident.
There are whole websites on the internet dedicated to Serial Killers and mass murderers. Indeed, MSN’s homepage recently depicted the latest photos of Charles Manson.
People are literally beguiled by the grim and gruesome.
Which brings up the following question: why would people be captivated by the last meals of men and women condemned to execution? Because the choice of one’s last meal provides a chilling peek into the evil resident in the human mind. What does a monster want to eat for his last meal in this life? Does his choice of food carry psychological implications? If he chooses Dr. Pepper and burritos – and I like Dr. Pepper and burritos too – does that mean I might be like him? The very thought horrifies me. At the same time, it titillates me.
For his last meal, Ted Bundy dined on steak, eggs, hashbrowns and coffee. Michael Pennington had vegetarian pizza, salad and strawberry ice cream. Serial killer John Wayne Gacy chose fried foods: fried chicken, fried shrimp and French fries. For dessert he ate strawberries. Velma Barfield, whose favorite method of murder was arsenic, dined on Cheez Doodles, washing it down with Coca-Cola. Whereas the woman who murdered seven men, Aileen Wuornos, didn’t request anything. At the last moment, she had a hamburger. That’s all that was available. Timothy McVeigh only wanted ice cream.
The two strangest requests for last meals came from Victor Feguer and Adolf Eichman. Feguer had kidnapped a doctor and killed him. His last meal consisted of a single olive, which he swallowed whole – with the pit. He hoped the pit would grow and sprout from his dead body. And Eichman, the infamous Nazi architect of murder, demonstrating a wry sense of humor, asked for a bottle of Israeli wine.
The infamous California murderer, Robert Alton, stuffed himself with Kentucky Fried Chicken and Domino’s Pizza. Joan of Arc – God’s starry-eyed zealot and visionary – maintained her religious renown until the very end. Her last meal was Holy Communion, celebrating her adoration of God, her Mad Lover.
The psychological implication each of these last meals reveals is almost impossible to divine. Except for this: each individual knew this was their last meal. And food, to human beings, is much more than simple survival. For human beings gather and “break bread” at all sacred or momentous occasions. People eat at weddings, funerals, baptisms, graduations and job promotions. It’s a way of affirming the events that make us human. It’s a way of setting the events of our lives apart as something special, making them sacred in the most general sense of the word. Consecration takes place.
Thus it would appear that in each of the last meals, the condemned – even though they were vicious killers – were commemorating their own lives. In effect, they were acknowledging the sacredness of life.
Which explains why we – the executioners – grant each of them the privilege of a last meal. We, too, hold life to be sacred and it afflicts our very humanity that we have been forced to take the life of one who no longer deserves to live.
The custom of granting a last meal is an old tradition, beginning with the ancient Greeks, Egyptians and the Romans. All three ancient civilizations were superstitious and believed that if a last meal was bestowed, the spirit of the dead man would rest peacefully. Otherwise, the spirit would wander aimlessly, never finding final serenity. And in searching for relief, the spirit would bedevil his executioners. No one wanted spooks plaguing them for the rest of their lives.
Famous Last Meals
Gary Gilmore, 1977. Hamburger, eggs, potatoes and unauthorized bourbon. Gilmore had asked to be executed immediately. Delighted that his request had been granted, Gilmore spent his last hours on earth dancing with his family members and drinking bourbon that had been smuggled into the prison.
Thomas Grasso, 1995. Grasso dined like a king: steamed mussels, a Burger King double cheeseburger with mustard, mayonnaise, lettuce and tomato. Followed by a can of Franco-American spaghetti with meatballs, a mango, half a pumpkin pie topped with whipped cream and a strawberry milkshake. However, Grasso had requested Spaghetti-Os. He did not receive them. Which, based on his last words, was unforgivable. Looking at the gathered news reporters, he said, “I did not get my Spaghetti-Os. I got Spaghetti. I want the press to know this.”
Ted Bundy, 1989. Bundy did not eat a last meal. His last known meal (the night before his execution) was the same meal served to all the other inmates: a burrito and Mexican rice.
Gerald Mitchell, 2001. Mitchell wanted only candy. He dined on one bag of assorted Jolly Ranchers.
Lewis Gilbert, 2003. Gilbert ate a half-gallon of vanilla ice cream, which is the most popular flavor in the world, along with a box of ice cream cones and a box of Whoppers.
Timothy McVeigh, 2001. McVeigh asked for two pints of mint chocolate chip ice cream.
Robert Madden, 1997. Madden wanted a homeless person to serve his last meal to him. The authorities refused his request.
Odell Barnes, Jr., 2000. Barnes, who was famous for his mocking wit, asked for “justice, equality, and world peace.”
Aileen Wuornos, 2002. Wuornos elected not to have a last meal. She asked for only coffee. Shortly before her execution, she ate a commissary hamburger, along with another cup of coffee.
Walter LaGrand, 1999. LaGrand dined on six fried eggs, sixteen strips of bacon, hash browns, a pint of pineapple sherbert, a steak, a cup of ice, 7-Up, Dr. Pepper, Coke, hot sauce, and coffee with two sugars. Later, because of a stomach-ache, he asked for Rolaids, of which he chewed four tablets. He felt much better.
John Wayne Gacy, 1994. Gacy, who had once managed a KFC restaurant, murdered 33 young men. He had Kentucky Fried Chicken, fried shrimp, strawberries and a Diet Coke as his last meal.
Robert Buell, 2002. Buell asked for one black olive. His strange request was a copycat of Victor Feguer’s, who was hanged in 1963.
Jimmy Dale Bland
Jimmy Dale Bland, who was executed on June 26, 2007.
Bland’s last meal consisted of hot and spicy chicken breasts, two slices of sausage pizza with extra cheese, a slice of German chocolate cake, a pint of French vanilla ice cream and a Dr. Pepper.
Convicted of killing his employer with a .22 caliber rifle. The employer, who was 62-years old, hired Bland as a construction worker. Bland had recently been released from prison after serving twenty years for a previous murder, and had been looking for work.
Bland had borrowed his employer’s Cadillac to visit his girlfriend, who lived nearby. When Bland brought the car back, he was in a bad mood. The visit had not gone well. His girlfriend had dumped him. Bland began arguing with his employer and, in a fit of rage, shot him in the back of the head. Taking the body, he dumped it in the water of a creek, hiding it under some logs he found nearby.
Two days later, while driving the Cadillac, Bland was stopped for reckless driving. He was drunk. After being arrested, Bland confessed to the murder.
Bland was tried and convicted of first degree murder. According to his attorney, David Autry, Bland had lung cancer. The cancer had metastasized, spreading to Bland’s brain. Doctors confirmed this fact and told the court that Bland would be dead in a few months.
Bland was executed on schedule. “Capital punishment prevents death by natural causes,” said Asst. Oklahoma Attorney General Seth Branham.
Bland’s last words were spoken to his family members, who were present at the execution. “I’m sorry for what happened. I love you all. I love you all,” said Bland, who was seated in the death chamber.
Turning to the prison officials, Bland said simply, “I’m ready.”