Monday 11 February 2013

Morbid obsession

This is becoming an obsession, and not a mild one.

I'm prompted by my 31st January blog Elizabeth David on Death Row to write some more about the last meals of condemned prisoners. What follows is culled and adapted from Wikipedia - something I have so far avoided on this blog (and in life generally) but some things are too good not to share and this stuff is all rather off-trail. 

In the United States, the tradition is usually to serve the meal a day or two before execution, and perhaps for that reason it's referred to as a 'special meal'. The real last meal is whatever they happen to have after that, if anything, on the day they are judicially slaughtered, and is therefore unlikely to be special (apart from the thought-provoking context, which I suppose loads any regulation prison slop with metaphysical resonance).

Traditions vary in different states. In Florida, the law dictates that the ingredients must be sourced locally, and the total budget is $40. This falls to just $15 in Oklahoma, which I suppose means sending a warder out to pick up a KFC Boneless Banquet for One. In Louisiana, the prison warden traditionally joins the condemned prisoner for the last meal; on one occasion, the warden (clearly a good egg) stumped up for an inmate's lobster dinner. Generally the choices are resolutely downbeat (burgers and fries and pizzas) and a surprisingly large number of prisoners waive their right to order something, settling for whatever happens to be on the prison menu. Others seize the day, and here are some examples:

Barton Kay Kirkham was executed in Utah in 1958. He had pizzas and ice cream, 'because you get cheese, meat and everything in one meal. Not so much fuss.' 

Victor Feguer, a drifter who murdered a doctor, was the last man to be executed in Iowa, in 1963. In a Firbankian gesture he requested a single olive with the stone still in it. He was given a new suit before he was hanged, and a second new suit was provided for his burial. When the suits were changed the olive stone was found in one of the pockets. 

Gary Gilmore (the only name in this list to ring any bells with me, and that thanks to a punk single by a band called - was it? - The Adverts) faced a firing squad, also in Utah, in 1977. His last meal was a hamburger, hard-boiled eggs, a baked potato, a few cups of coffee, and three shots of contraband Jack Daniel's whiskey.

Dennis Wayne Bagwell, executed in Texas in 2005, had a medium rare steak with A1 Steak Sauce, fried chicken breasts and thighs, BBQ ribs, French fries, onion rings, bacon, scrambled eggs with onions, fried potatoes with onions, sliced tomatoes, salad with ranch dressing, two hamburgers, peach pie, milk, coffee, and iced tea 'with real sugar'.

James Edward Smith, also executed in Texas in 1990, requested a lump of dirt. This was denied. so he settled for a cup of yogurt. If that seems like a downbeat occasion compare the chosen by Velma Barfield, executed by lethal injection for murder in North Carolina in 1984. She faced oblivion sustained by nothing more than a bag of Cheez Doodles and a 12-ounce can of Coca-Cola.

Something about Death Row management in Texas brings out the prankster in its inmates. In September 2011, the state ended the 87-year-old custom of granting all special meal requests after Lawrence Russell Brewer (a White Supremacist and even by Death Row standards a nasty piece of work) requested, and received, the following:

two chicken-fried steaks with gravy and sliced onions; 
a triple-patty bacon cheeseburger; a cheese omelet with ground beef, tomatoes, onions, bell peppers, and jalapeños; 
a bowl of fried okra with ketchup; 
one pound of barbecued meat with half a loaf of white bread; 
three fajitas; 
a meat-lover’s pizza (topped with pepperoni, ham, beef, bacon, and sausage); 
one pint of Blue Bell Ice Cream; 
a slab of peanut-butter fudge with crushed peanuts; 
three non-alcoholic root beers. 

Once it was delivered he flatly refused to touch any of it on the grounds that he wasn't hungry. The abolition followed a complaint by a Texas Senator, the Houston Democrat John Whitmire, who called the meal 'inappropriate'. Brewer was killed by lethal injection.

Thomas J. Grasso, executed in Oklahoma in 1995, was an exemplary trencherman: two dozen steamed mussels, two dozen steamed clams, a double cheeseburger from Burger King, a half-dozen barbecued spare ribs, two strawberry milkshakes, half a pumpkin pie with whipped cream and diced strawberries and a 16-ounce can of spaghetti with meatballs (and this made me ponder) served at room temperature In the short time left to him between the special meal blow-out and the final curtain he issued a public statement complaining that he had requested SpaghettiOs, not spaghetti. 

And finally, Ronnie Lee Gardner, executed in Utah in 2010, tucked into Lobster tail, steak, apple pie, vanilla ice cream, 7-Up and a screening of The Lord of the Rings film trilogy.

This opens a whole new line of enquiry. Unless I wind up on Death Row in Texas or Oklahoma, where different priorities and lower budgets prevail, I'd plump for  three dozen Whitstables, a crate of Nigerian export Guinness, brown bread and butter, a family-size bar of Cadbury's Fruit & Nut chocolate and the Sgt. Bilko box set. Of course there's nothing to prevent me from doing this anyway. And with cigarettes.

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