I've always had a morbid curiosity about "last meals" — the specific food requests made by death row inmates about to be executed. And I'm not alone; in 2014, a photo series depicting death row inmates' last meals went viral, and was viewed by millions. While looking at those photos, I found that I thought less about the crimes and the perpetrators themselves, and more about, well, the food: "Wow, that's really what you picked? For your last meal ever?" As a person with strong opinions about pretty much everything, but especially food, I had a difficult time putting myself in someone else's shoes while selecting an optimum "last meal". So one week, I endeavored to understand these choices a bit more: by eating the last meals of serial killers for lunch.
To be clear, I personally have not serial killed anybody. People have metaphorically died of embarrassment due to being near me at Taylor Swift concerts or buffet tables with cheese plates, sure; but they have not actually died real deaths. And yet for years, despite my squeaky-clean criminal record, I have had an idea of what my "last meal" would be: two slices of sourdough toast with slightly burnt Jarlsberg cheese, two sunny side up eggs, Darjeeling tea with cream and sugar, and peanut butter cake with chocolate chips. Yeah, it's oddly specific, but so are most last meal requests. Ask anyone, and it's more than likely that they've given it some thought — despite the fact that the odds of most of us ever having enough foresight to know which meal will be our "last" are pretty slim.
Which is exactly why many of us are to captivated by the concept of "Last Meals." Although variations of this type of last rite date back to the ancient Greeks, and last meals for condemned prisoners are popular worldwide, the tradition is thought to have formally originated in the U.S. in Texas around 1924, although the state recently banned them. In the U.S., the condemned are usually given a "Special Meal" one to two days prior to their execution rather than just before. There are very few limits on it, except that they are not allowed requests of alcohol or tobacco, and in some states there is a price and distance limit.
When you examine these last meals, though, you can't help but put yourself in the shoes of the person who chose them, even if only for a few seconds. Whether out of curiosity, or horror, or judgment, the finality of this choice and the assumptions you make about the person based on them are oddly compelling. So at the beginning of this experiment, I wasn't sure what to make of my own interest in reading about this; I thought that maybe by recreating it myself, I would find some clarity.
Rhonda Belle Martin: Hamburger, Mashed Potatoes, Cinnamon Rolls, and Coffee
In 1956, 49-year-old waitress Rhonda Belle Martin of Montgomery, Alabama, confessed to murdering her mother, two of her five husbands, and three of her seven children with poison. She also attempted to poison her fifth husband, who was a son-in-law from a previous marriage, but while the attempt injured him, it did not kill him, and he was left with his lower body paralyzed. The traces of arsenic found in his body prompted law enforcement officials to exhume Martin's deceased family members and led to her confession; she was sentenced to death by electric chair on Oct. 11, 1957. A note left behind in her cell — written a year prior to her death — requested that her body be donated to science "to see if someone can find out why I committed the crimes I have committed."
Martin's last meal request was, according to prison records, a hamburger, mashed potatoes, cinnamon rolls, and coffee. While I can't attest to how that would sit in the stomach of someone waiting for the electric chair, I can attest to the fact that if you eat it in the middle of a work day, you are at some point, in plain view of your coworkers, going to nearly fall asleep at your desk.
It was the simplicity of this meal, though, that made it curious. It was not lost on me while eating it that it was strange for someone who worked in a diner and probably ate diner food for years to request diner staples as a last meal, when you could feasibly request anything you wanted.
But when you look at a typical last meal, you see this pattern a lot: rather than go all out with a fancy dish that is exotic or expensive, something they perhaps weren't able to indulge in prior to their convictions, most prisoners choose something that is familiar to them. In fact, across the board, a lot of inmates choose something in the vein of a home cooked meal, or popular fast food. There's a reason this kind of food puts you to sleep — it's lulling. Comforting. The kind of food that makes you feel like you are in a safe place. In that context, it wasn't hard to understand why Martin chose it (or why I was falling asleep at work).
Aileen Wuornos: Coffee
Notorious female serial killer Aileen Wuornos was convicted of murdering six men between 1989 and 1990, shooting each of them to death along the highways of northern and central Florida. Wuornos eventually confessed to the murders, claiming that she met her victims working as a highway prostitute and that she had shot all of them in self-defense. The case was so prominent that within two weeks of her arrest the movie rights to it were sold, and Wuornos's story was eventually adapted into several books, theatrical works, and films, including Monster, which earned Charlize Theron an Academy Award for her depiction of Wuornos.
Before her execution by lethal injection on Oct. 9, 2002, Wuornos was offered a final meal of under $20, which she declined for a simple cup of black coffee. While this might have held some significance to Wuornos, it did pretty much nothing for me, a bedraggled twentysomething who had already consumed two cups of coffee prior to lunch; drinking this one was probably the culprit behind both a slamming headache and my inability to shut up for the rest of the afternoon.
It did make me wonder, though: why, when you have one final thing that you have a say in — one last indulgence that you're allowed in life — would you waste it on a cup of coffee? There is some part of me that has always thought that if I knew I was going to die, I would just throw caution to the wind, food-wise. No more questioning the healthiness or calorie count of anything, no more restricting yourself the way that most of us inevitably do (whether we try to be body positive or not). As a person who puts a lot of thought and value on the food I eat, it was strange to think that someone might request something so simple and impersonal, and it added yet another layer of disconnect. When we hear stories like these, we often can't help but look for some part of ourselves in them; I couldn't see any part of myself or anyone I know in a choice like this one.
Victor Feguer: One Olive, With The Pit Inside
Victor Feguer, a drifter from Michigan, was sentenced to death for the 1960 murder of Dr. Edward Bartels. While living in a boarding house in Iowa, Feuger began going through a phone book and calling doctors to assist his wife (who, as it happens, did not exist); when Dr. Bartels arrived in response to the call, Feguer kidnapped him and took him across state lines, killing him in Illinois with a gunshot to the head. But Feguer's murder of Bartels was not notable just for its randomness, but in its timing. Feguer's death by hanging on March 15, 1963 was the last execution of a federal inmate for 38 subsequent years, after Furman vs. Georgia changed the nature of federal death penalty laws in 1972. Another federal inmate would not be executed until 2001.
Feguer's final meal was one of the more unusual requests: just one olive, with the pit still inside. He said that he hoped an olive tree, a symbol of peace, would grow from his grave after he consumed it. As with the black coffee meal, I made it maybe two hours before having a very large "snack" (read: lunch).
But of all the last meals I'd consumed so far in this experiment, this might have been the most unsettling, simply due to its nature: someone convicted of a senseless murder using a last meal to advocate for something that seemed so inherently innocent and good. It's easy to look at people who do terrible things as all-around terrible. Was this request borne of some desire to absolve himself for what he had done, or simply to change public perception of him? Of the hundreds of last meals recorded from death row inmates, this is the one that frequently shows up in articles speculating about them time and time again — so if his intention was to leave an impression, he certainly did.
Ted Bundy: Standard "Last" Prison Meal Of Steak, Two Sunny Side Up Eggs, Hash Browns, Toast With Butter And Jam, Milk, And Juice
There are very few people who don't recognize the name Ted Bundy. Bundy, who is one of America's most infamous serial killers, confessed to 30 murders committed between 1970 and 1974, and is speculated to be involved in even more prior to that. His victims, primarily young women, were often lured by his charisma and looks; he frequently posed as an injured person or authority figure to earn their trust, and occasionally attacked victims asleep in their homes. After his first arrest in Utah in 1975 for aggravated kidnapping and attempted criminal assault, he came under suspicion for other murders, and ended up escaping authorities twice before his final recapture in Florida in 1978. He was eventually sentenced to state-sanctioned death in Florida on January 24, 1989, by electric chair.
Bundy declined the offer of a personalized last meal, instead opting for the standard last prison meal: steak, over easy eggs, hash browns, toast with butter and jelly, milk, and juice. This meal seemed a fitting one to end the experiment, seeing as it was one was that many other people on death row had eaten as well.
But what made this "last meal" especially eerie is how uncomfortably similar it was to what I would have requested myself. By the time I'd finished eating it, I was both massively full and had thoroughly spooked myself out in a way that I hadn't experienced with the other meals. For the duration of this experiment, I had been trying and failing to fully understand what motivated these last meal requests. Once I finally could relate to one, I felt so uneasy about having something in common with anyone who was capable of these kinds of acts — particularly Bundy, who targeted people very similar to me — that I found that I really would rather not relate to it at all.
If anything, eating all of these "last meals" brought up a lot of questions, not just about the content of the meals themselves, but about the nature of their existence. It is a strange thing, to offer someone this kind of choice before killing them; there is an inherent compassion in the giving of food, and even more of one in allowing someone a "comfort" food. It shows a kind of humanity that that may seem distinctly different from the act that will follow, depending on your thoughts about the death penalty.
So why offer them? Why offer what one inmate on death row, Barry Lee Fairchild, reportedly referred to as "putting gas in a car that don't have no motor"?
Brent Cunningham addressed the phenomenon at length in an essay for Lapham Quarterly, writing, "The state, after all, has to distinguish the violence of its punishment from the violence it is punishing, and by allowing a last meal and a final statement, a level of dignity and compassion are extended to the condemned that he didn’t show his victims." The idea is designed to soften and bring deliberation to the otherwise inhumane act that must occur, in some way assuring the public that this decision was made with intent, or for some greater good. In that regard, last meals and last words are a collective way to clear our consciences — no matter how much we think the person in question deserves the punishment, or even those last rites.
This, of course, doesn't quite account for our fascination with the "last meals" of brutal killers. The fact that there are not just hundreds of articles, but entire websites devoted to chronicling inmates' last meals, is a testament to the public curiosity regarding the concept. The idea of it kind of forces us to look at death in an uncomfortable way — we can almost dismiss the idea of death on a day-to-day basis, because it's something most of us don't have any conceivable control over. But there is something morbidly interesting and almost a little comforting about the idea of being able to choose the circumstances leading up to your death; it is somehow equally unsettling to remember that odds are, you won't be able to control any aspects of it, let alone the fact that it is decidedly coming for us all.
Of course, we (hopefully) would not want our own last meals and subsequent deaths to happen in the manner of someone on death row for horrific crimes. So the concept remains just that: a curiosity, part of some strange desire to find the humanity even in the inhumane. For me, this little experiment was an unexpected reminder of how fleeting life is in general, and made me feel less bad that I indulgently eat slightly lesser version of my "last meal" for lunch every Saturday. Forgive me for this truth, but I have to quote Emma Stone, because she sums up my final thoughts on this better than I could myself: "You're a human being, you live once and life is wonderful, so eat the damn red velvet cupcake."
Images: Hannah Burton/Bustle