hat’s in a Last Meal?

Why are we intrigued by death row last meals? A google search of “last meals on death row” produced over 3.5 million results. There are famous last meals, strange last meals, haunting last meals, and everything else. The concept captures the morbid imagination of everyone from movie producers to scientists . . . and us.

In early Europe, many believed that executed people returned to haunt those who sent them to the gallows. Food meant making peace. By accepting a last meal, the condemned “forgave” his executioners, insuring that the soon-to-be ghost was pacified. The better the food, the stronger the deal.

Researchers are often fascinated by the subject. In a recent study of 247 individuals executed in the United States, Drs. Brian Wansink and Kevin Kniffin of Cornell University studied the subject. They concluded that the last meal might be a way for the doomed to make a statement about guilt. People who denied guilt were almost three times more likely to refuse a last meal. Prisoners “at peace” with their fate asked for 34% more calories of food – an average of 2,756 calories. Only 20% chose to eat nothing. The researchers suggested that the last meal offers insights into “self-perceived or self-proclaimed innocence.”

Haunted or hungry, guilty or innocent, what does that last meal really mean? Is it a way to make a not-so-subtle statement to the world they’re departing?

Consider David Leon Woods, who spent 22 years on death row, for murder. He was executed on May 4, 2007. No one will ever know why he asked for a pizza and birthday cake for his last meal.


In contrast, Timothy McVeigh, the domestic terrorist responsible for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people, was executed in 2001. His last meal was two pints of chocolate chip mint ice cream.

In 2011, Lawrence Russell Brewer, a white supremacist gang member, was executed for the infamous “dragging” murder. James Byrd Jr. a black man, was chained to the back of a pickup truck and dragged to his death on a rough asphalt road in Texas. For his last meal, Brewer ordered two chicken-fried steaks smothered in gravy with sliced onions, a triple bacon cheeseburger, a cheese omelet, a large bowl of fried okra with ketchup, three fajitas, a pizza, a pint of Blue Bell ice cream, a pound of barbecued meat, a slab of peanut butter fudge with crushed peanuts, and three root beers.

He didn’t eat any of it.

State Senator John Whitmire wrote to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice after Brewer’s execution. “It is extremely inappropriate to give a person sentenced to death such a privilege — one which the perpetrator did not provide to their victim.”

Now Texas no longer offers death row inmates a final meal. Is that why the Cowboys are haunted?

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