On Death Row
The Strangest Meals and Last Words of Those Who Were Executed
It was my second year of college and I was in a lecture about homicide and serial killers. My professor was extremely passionate about all things morbid so this was probably my favourite class that I attended that year. She shared with us the letters she actively wrote to prisoners, recommended great documentaries, and provided us resources that not a lot of the general public would know about. These included websites containing every last detail of inmates who were executed on death row.
Following last week's heavy article about the Jonestown Massacre, I figured I'd write something a bit more light-hearted and fun (or as cheerful as this type of subject matter can be). Today, we're going to take a look at some of the strangest last meals and famous last words said by those who were awaiting execution.
From buckets of KFC to a single cup of black coffee, criminals make some pretty strange requests for their last meal. Let's be honest, if you knew you were going to die, you might as well make your last meal the wildest thing you could think of. Here are some criminals who had very interesting requests, both food and miscellaneous:
On March 7, 1983, James Edward Smith entered the International Trade Center in Houston, TX. Armed and masked, he made his way to the Union Life Insurance Company office. He approached the window where employee Debra Wilson was counting money and demanded she give him all of it. Debra panicked and ran behind a file cabinet. Insurance executive Larry Don Rohus walked up to the window and handed James the money. He went to hide behind the file cabinet with Debra but was ordered back to the window by James. Larry began to beg for his life but James didn't care. He shot Larry in the upper left side of his chest and killed him.
For his last meal, James requested nothing but a handful of dirt—rhaeakunda dirt to be specific. This type of dirt is associated with voodoo rituals. James said he wanted to use it to mark his body so that his spirit would move on into the afterlife and that he would not become a ghost. The guards denied his request and instead he received some yogurt.
Victor Feguer was a drifter originally from Michigan. In the summer of 1960, he ended up in Dubuque, Iowa. Shortly after arriving, he began phoning physicians from the local Yellow Pages and found Dr. Edward Bartels. He called him and claimed a woman was in need of medical attention where he was. Upon arrival, Dr. Bartels was kidnapped and killed by Victor. Authorities believed that Victor murdered Dr. Bartels in order to gain access to any drugs that Bartels may have carried to treat patients.
Victor was sentenced to death by hanging. He submitted an appeal to the court but it was denied. The only person who could change the severity of his punishment was President John F. Kennedy. Iowa's governor at the time, Harold Hughes, was against the death penalty and contacted Kennedy and requested he change the punishment. Kennedy thought Victor's crime was so brutal that he denied the request. Victor was the last person put to death in the state of Iowa.
For his last meal, Victor requested a single olive with the pit still in it. He said that he wanted to eat the olive with the pit in hopes that it would grow into an olive tree from inside his body. Reportedly, he kept the pit in his pocket and it was buried with him.
In October 1984, Ronnie Lee Gardner shot and killed bartender Melvyn John Otterstrom during a robbery in Salt Lake City. He was held in police custody for the homicide in lieu of a $1.5 million bail. In April 1985, Ronnie was being transported to a court hearing for the murder when he fatally shot attorney Michael Burdell in an unsuccessful escape attempt. Ronnie was convicted of two counts of murder and received life imprisonment for the first count and the death penalty for the second.
While Ronnie's last meal wasn't anything out of the ordinary, the events that followed were what made his final hours so interesting. Before facing execution, prisoners must fast for around 48 hours so that everything is cleared out of their system. During this 48-hour fast, Ronnie requested to watch the entire The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The guards granted his request and Ronnie happily enjoyed the films before he was executed on June 18, 2010 by firing squad.
On March 21, 1981, Ricky Ray Rector and some friends drove to a dance hall at Tommy's Old-Fashioned Home-Style Restaurant in Conway, Arkansas. When one of his friends was denied entry because he couldn't pay the cover charge, Ricky became enraged and pulled out a pistol and began firing several shots. Two people were injured and Arthur Criswell died almost instantly after being shot. A few days later, Ricky agreed to turn himself in but only if it was to Officer Robert Martin, a man he had known since he was a child. Officer Martin arrived at Ricky's mother's house to talk with Ricky and his family. Suddenly, Ricky drew his pistol again and fired two shots into Officer Martin's neck and jaw. He ran outside and put his gun to his own temple and fired, but unfortunately it was a failed suicide attempt. Officers found him and took him to the hospital. After he got out of surgery, Ricky went to trial for the murders of Arthur Criswell and Officer Martin. He was convicted on both counts and sentenced to death.
For his last meal, he requested steak, fried chicken, cherry Kool-Aid, and pecan pie. He left the pecan pie on the side of the tray, telling the guards who came to take him to the execution chamber that he was "saving it for later."
In the early hours of July 8, 1984, an intruder broke into the home of Herbert and Sonja Knippers. Sonja got up to use the bathroom and suddenly found herself fighting for her life. The intruder attempted to rape her and began stabbing her with a knife. Herbert heard the commotion and tried to break down the bathroom door but was unsuccessful. The intruder fled through the bathroom window and Sonja bled to death.
Notice how Dobie Gillis Williams' name wasn't used in that paragraph? That's because many people believe that authorities got the wrong man, claiming that the police were racially profiling "some random black guy who just happened to have a criminal past." While he did have a history of an attempted burglary, Dobie claimed he was innocent. After a four-day jury trail, he was found guilty and the jury unanimously recommended the death penalty.
Dobie ate twelve chocolate bars and a pint of ice cream for his last meal. While it isn't anything crazy, it shows that he definitely had a sweet tooth. In his final statement, Dobie said, "I just want to say, I don't have any hard feelings against anybody. God bless y'all. God bless."
Velma Barfield, a.k.a. the "Death Row Granny," was convicted of one murder but eventually confessed to killing six people in total. She poisoned her victims, including her mother and two elderly people for whom she had been hired to care for. She was the first woman in the United States to be executed after the 1976 resumption of capital punishment. She was also the first woman to be executed by lethal injection.
Before she was executed, Velma requested a bag of Cheez Doodles and a 12-ounce can of Coca-Cola. To be honest, I just threw her on this list because I think she's a monster for requesting crappy off-brand Cheetos for her last meal.
In the summer of 1981, Philip Ray Workman hitchhiked to Memphis, Tennessee where he then robbed a Wendy's restaurant at gunpoint. During the robbery, an employee triggered the silent alarm and three police officers showed up. Upon their arrival, Philip attempted to flee and in the process, he shot and killed Lieutenant Ronald Oliver. The jury found him guilty and he sentenced to death.
For his last meal, Philip requested that officers deliver a large vegetarian pizza to a homeless person. Prison officials denied his request and Philip refused to eat anything.
Following his death on May 9th 2007, homeless shelters across Tennessee received massive amounts of vegetarian pizzas from people all over the country honouring Philip's last meal request.
Death row inmates certainly have a way with words. While a lot of people give sentimental speeches prior to their death, I mainly want to focus on the funniest, wittiest, or just plain psychotic last words spoken by some of the most notorious criminals.
James French was in prison for life for killing a motorcyclist who had picked him up while he was hitchhiking. He allegedly wanted to die but didn't have the courage to commit suicide and apparently his cellmate compelled the state to execute him. As a result, James murdered the inmate and was sentenced to be executed by electrocution. He was the last person executed under Oklahoma's death penalty laws and the only prisoner executed in 1966.
His last words (and in my opinion, the funniest) were "How's this for your headline? French Fries!"
Thomas J. Grasso was in prison for murdering two elderly people: 87-year-old Hilda Johnson and 81-year-old Leslie Holtz. He strangled Hilda with her Christmas tree lights and stole $8 from her purse, $4 in loose change, and her television set before fleeing her home. Six months later, Thomas moved to New York where he murdered Leslie and stole his social security cheque.
For his last meal, Thomas requested two dozen steamed mussels, two dozen steamed clams, a double cheeseburger from Burger King, a half-dozen barbecued spare ribs, two strawberry milkshakes, one-half of a pumpkin pie with whipped cream, diced strawberries, and a can of SpaghettiOs. He got everything except the SpaghettiOs; he received a plate of regular spaghetti instead. His final words were, "I did not get my SpaghettiOs, I got spaghetti. I want the press to know this."
George Bernard Harris had recently purchased two machine guns after winning money playing craps. He gave them to his friend for safekeeping and his friend decided to hide the guns. When George asked for the guns back, his friend refused and George ended up shooting him in the face with a .41 revolver. Two weeks later, he was arrested for armed robbery and additionally was found guilty of killing his friend. As he waited for the injection to take his life, he angrily muttered, "Somebody needs to kill my trial attorney."
Alright... I get that he wasn't happy with the outcome of his trial but come on dude, you killed somebody.
John Wayne Gacy, also known as the Killer Clown, was a serial killer and rapist who sexually assaulted, tortured, and murdered at least 33 teenage boys and young men between 1972 and 1978. He was sentenced to death for 12 of those killings and spent 14 years on death row before finally be executed in 1994. His final words were short and to the point: "Kiss my ass."
If you want to read more about him, be sure to check out my article "Serial Killer Deep Dive: John Wayne Gacy."
George Appel was convicted of killing a police officer in New York City in 1928. He was sentenced to be electrocuted to death and while being strapped to the chair, he maniacally laughed to the officers. Before they flipped the switch, George's final words were, “Well, gentlemen, you are about to see a baked Appel.”
There is no available photo of George; if you search up his name, all the photos are of John Appel, an Australian politician. (And this is why it's important to do research!)
Peter Kürten was known as the Vampire of Düsseldorf and the Düsseldorf Monster. He committed a series of murders and sexual assaults between February and November 1929. He believed he was a vampire after drinking the blood of a killed swan. Allegedly, he would also drink the blood of his victims.
He was scheduled to be executed by guillotine on July 2, 1931. While there are definitely some creepy last words uttered by death row inmates, I personally think Peter's are the most sinister: “Tell me. After my head has been chopped off, will I still be able to hear, at least for a moment, the sound of my own blood gushing from the stump of my neck? That would be a pleasure to end all pleasures.”
If you'd like me to do a deep dive on any of the criminals mentioned in this article, send me a message on Twitter @xjennaayx. And don't worry. Next week we'll get right back to the darker material!