At some point today, Georgia woman Kelly Gissendaner could sit down to a dinner of two Burger King Whoppers with fries, popcorn, cornbread, a salad with Paul Newman buttermilk dressing, lemonade, and cherry vanilla ice cream. If her meal seems excessive, that’s because it’s also her last one.
In 1997, Gissendaner was convicted of successfully plotting the murder of her husband with her then-lover. At 7 tonight, barring a last-minute clemency decision, she will become the 16th woman to be executed in the United States since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976 and the first woman to be executed in Georgia since 1945.
The last meal is a strange cultural custom and a hell of a one-two punch for any prisoner: First, the state makes a rare display of generosity, often procuring a mélange of favorite items for the prisoner from various restaurants. Then it insists on a syringe for dessert.
But as archaic a practice as it is, the last meal provides us with a fascinating glimpse into the appetites of the world’s most dangerous people, women included. Last meals reveal gendered differences in culinary indulgence that persist even in the face of death. It’s no secret that men and women eat differently, but it is remarkable how true they stay to their habits with just one meal left to savor.
For one, you might think that women on death row would finally throw caution to the wind in the hours preceding death. Not so.
Although executed American women often order a decadent fried protein for their last meal, many of them, like Gissendaner, are sure to include vegetables in their diet. Christina Marie Riggs, executed in Arkansas in 2000 for the murder of her two children, feasted on a supreme pizza but also asked for a salad and pickled okra. Teresa Lewis, executed in Virginia in 2010 for murdering her husband and stepson, ate two fried chicken breasts, but didn’t forget to request sweet peas on the side.
Two of the 15 women who have been executed in the last 40 years have even selected meals entirely composed of fruits and veggies. In 1998, Jody Buenoano munched on a light sampling of asparagus, strawberries, broccoli, and tea before taking a seat in a Florida electric chair for poisoning her husband. That same year, Karla Faye Tucker was served a sparse supper of a banana, a peach, and a garden salad before being executed by lethal injection.
Ty Treadwell, co-author of Last Suppers: Famous Final Meals from Death Row, tells The Daily Beast that women’s death row salads come across “almost like a guilty afterthought,” speculating, too, that they can’t help but carry their “years of planning and cooking meals in their own households” to the grave.
Kelly Gissendaner might end up consuming a full day’s worth of calories from Burger King today but she’s not forgetting to eat her veggies—her salad will include tomatoes, onions, carrots, and bell peppers.
Executed American men, on the other hand, often order belt-busting meals with no leafy greens in sight. According to a press release from the Mississippi Department of Corrections, Gary Carl Simmons Jr.—who was executed in 2012 after dismembering a man in 1996—ordered a Pizza Hut supreme deep dish pizza, a family size bag of Doritos, two large strawberry milkshakes, two cherry Cokes, a super-sized order of McDonald’s fries, and two pints of strawberry ice cream, along with sides of parmesan cheese, nacho cheese, ranch dressing, and a side of jalapeños. He reportedly ate about half of the meal, which still amounts to over 14,000 calories.
And even if they are not quite as audacious as Simmons Jr., many men on death row skip the side salad and spring for meat and potatoes instead. David Thomas Dawson, executed in Montana in 2006 for murdering three out of four members of a family in their motel room, requested two double cheeseburgers, two orders of fries, a half-gallon of vanilla fudge ripple ice cream, and two bottles of Dr Pepper. That’s roughly comparable to Gissendaner’s meal except, of course, for the salad.
Not only do executed women tend to prefer more sensible last meals, several of them do not even make special requests in the first place.
Treadwell claims that “nearly half the women executed over the past 35 years haven’t ordered any meal at all.” He is referring to women like Frances Newton, Lynda Lyon Block, and Betty Lou Beets, all convicted murderers who forewent the ritual of the last meal. For her part, Lynda Lyon Block was on a fast of milk and water at the time of her death. Aileen Wuornos, the serial killer depicted by Charlize Theron in Monster, also declined a full meal, asking instead for a cup of coffee. Wanda Jean Allen had a single bag of chips.
But of the women who do request full last meals, nearly all of them show off their sweet tooth. Christina Marie Riggs selected strawberry shortcake. Teresa Lewis went for German chocolate cake. Lois Nadean Smith, who was executed in Oklahoma for killing her son’s ex-girlfriend, asked for a piece of strawberry banana cake. Another Oklahoma woman, Marilyn Kay Plantz, asked for cinnamon twists and a piece of pecan pie.
Executed men order dessert, too—Timothy McVeigh famously asked for two pints of mint-chocolate chip ice cream—but it’s much more common for them to lose sight of the sweet stuff and ask for a long list of savory items instead. Murderous women never forget cake.
One more weird trend: Two of the 15 women who have been executed since 1976 have also ordered cherry desserts. Riggs sipped on cherry limeade before her death and Smith enjoyed a cherry lemonade. With her choice of ice cream, Gissendaner has cemented cherry as the flavor of choice for the modern female murderer.
And of all the bizarre last meals in recorded history, the oddest arguably belongs to a woman. Serial murderer Velma Barfield, the first woman in the U.S. to be executed after 1976, selected a last meal so prosaic that it almost seems poetic: Cheez Doodles and a Coke.
Cheez Doodles and a Coke may be better known today as the “I’m home alone watching Netflix” special. Indeed, there’s an odd catharsis to be found in female murderer’s last meals—in the way they eschew the grill for the deep-fat fryer, the way that they always say yes to dessert, and the way that they, too, hold onto the belief that a token salad can right all wrongs.
These women have a lot to feel guilty about. But for once, they don’t have to feel guilty about eating.