Image—Folsom Death House, circa 1933
“Any final requests?” Some of these men never thought about this until asked the question. Warden James Johnston in 1912 granted most requests (within reason) while refusing those that involved drugs or alcohol, sometimes even tobacco. The condemned inmate also received two final meals: dinner and breakfast. Typically, the dinner came with music from a phonograph that the warden brought in. For many, the night carried on with music, singing, and noshing on a lavish dinner.
Number 27, Edward Delehanty asked for pies, cakes, chickens, candies and other delicacies. “Fetch on yo chicken and chocolate cake and bring me a watermelon so big I can hide mah head in it.” Fellow inmates played guitars and banjos while Delehanty danced. That night in 1912, the usually dark and cold Condemned Row brightened with laughter and singing. Delehanty then fell morose and without touching the food, insisted Warden Johnston give it all to the musicians. As a final contribution Delehanty asked officials to put a record containing William J. Bryan’s speech, “Immortality.”
Charles Peevia, Folsom’s 54th execution, dined on pork chops and watermelon.
Kosta Kromhold, Folsom’s 37th execution, hanged for killing a police officer. He requested to hear the tune, “If I only had a thousand Lives to Live.”
Jake Oppenehimer, number 28, spent his last night smoking cigars and listening to his favorite music. “Play lively tunes,” he ordered, particularly favoring John Philip Souse’s band selections. “Taps” ended the concert at nine o’clock and the doomed man fell asleep with a handkerchief over his face. He decided to forgo his last breakfast, as his stomach ached from the rich foods and candies outside supporters sent to his cell the day before. The usual breakfast consisted of pancakes, ham, eggs, and coffee. Although bacon, omelets, and toast were often served in addition to the usual fare.
In 1930, when Walter Burke and James Gregg, two of the five men executed for their role in the Thanksgiving Day Riot of 1927, learned they could request anything for their final dinner, they ordered an elaborate feast. Burke called for chicken croquettes and Gregg for bacon and eggs. In addition, their riot cohorts, Anthony Brown, James Gleason, and Roy Stokes savored sweet potatoes, baked squash, bread and butter, peach pie and homemade donuts and coffee. In the morning, they enjoyed a hearty breakfast of cereal, fried eggs, fried potatoes, corn griddle cakes and maple syrup, peaches, hot muffins, buttered toast and, coffee.
Number 57, Willard Shannon had toast, strawberries and chocolate. A borrowed phonograph played “The Sidewalks of New York,” over and over again in Shannon’s cell while he sat smoking nervously and listening, waiting for the death hour.
There were some who couldn’t stomach the idea of eating just before dying, many refusing to partake in the privilege. Ivan Kovalev, executed in 1896, declined his last meal. The warden then offered him whiskey. He opted for a glass of milk.
Quite possibly, one of the strangest requests came from Wilbur McCabe, number 69 in 1931, who asked for a head of lettuce. He of course, received it.
Although not all requests involved food and entertainment. In 1927, Ray Arnold became the 55th execution after a jury found him guilty of complicity. Stoutly declaring his innocence, he stood on the scaffold, legs and arms bound, and made his final request:
“I am innocent. Please cut this noose into 13 pieces and give one to each juror and the judge who convicted me.”
The State Board of Prison Directors refused to honor his request.
WHAT WOULD YOUR LAST REQUESTS BE?