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Last Meals on Death Row, a Peculiarly American Fascination


“For me the death penalty was no longer an abstract thing,” Mr. Hargreaves told me recently. “The detail of death-row meals brought home the human aspect. I thought, if I can empathize with these people through their last meals, other people can, too.”

He set about recreating last meals in his Brooklyn apartment and shooting them. Here was the Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh’s order for mint chocolate-chip ice cream. Here was the bucket of fried chicken requested by the serial killer John Wayne Gacy, once a Kentucky Fried Chicken manager. And here was the meal requested by Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, the Italian immigrants executed in 1927 for the killing of two men in an armed robbery; their case elicited protests around the world, and 50 years later, the governor of Massachusetts proclaimed that they had not been given a fair trial.

“With these images, I didn’t want to preach right or wrong,” said Mr. Hargreaves, whose collection, titled “No Seconds,” was exhibited at the 2013 Venice Biennale. “I wanted people to look at them and think about the issues involved. That’s what art should be about.”

Except perhaps for “Last Supper,” a 2005 documentary by the Swedish art filmmakers Mats Bigert and Lars Bergstrom that includes testimony from prison guards in Thailand, South Africa and Japan, all of this material is American. This may be because many of the other countries that impose the death penalty, like China, Iran and Saudi Arabia, do not have news media free enough to report the details of executions.

The fascination in the United States stems in part from a well-established true-crime culture, said Ty Treadwell, an author of the book “Last Suppers: Final Meals From Death Row,” first published in 2001 and still in print. “The line between news and entertainment in the U.S. has become somewhat blurred,” he said in a phone interview. “And people are interested in lives very different from their own, be they the Kardashians or death-row inmates.”

Michael Owen Jones, a professor emeritus at the University of California, Los Angeles, interrogated the subject in his thoughtful 2014 paper “Dining on Death Row: Last Meals and the Crutch of Ritual.”

Reporting about death-row meals is not new, he wrote, quoting from an 1891 editorial in The Fort Worth Gazette that railed against the fascination: “Some day some newspaper will forget to report the articles of food comprising the last meal eaten by a murderer under sentence of death and then the whole bottom will fall out of newspaper enterprise.” It continued, “There is too much attention paid to sickly details in setting forth the fact of the execution of a man too dangerous to live.”

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