James Edward Smith had worked as tarot card reader, as a self-described voodoo priest, and as a taxi driver before he robbed and killed an insurance agency executive in Texas. Smith was sentenced to death, and in the days before his execution, he asked for a final meal of rhaeakunda dirt, a kind of soil used in voodoo rituals. He believed that if he consumed the dirt, his spirit would be free to transition to the afterlife, instead of lingering around to haunt the shit out of prison officials.
His request was denied by the Texas Department of Corrections, but six hours before he was scheduled to receive a lethal injection, he was granted a stay of execution. Smith remained on death row for two more years, and was ultimately executed on June 26, 1990. His last meal was a cup of plain yogurt.
Neither ritualistic dirt nor yogurt are on the menu at the Ningen (or “Human”) Restaurant in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district, but several other inmates’ last meals are. According to Spoon-Tamago, the pop-up restaurant has been opened by the Chim↑Pom art collective and, for the rest of the week, it will be showcasing artwork, hosting avant-garde performances, and serving meals that hopefully you don’t have to be condemned to enjoy. (The restaurant is housed in the Kabukicho Book Center, a “squalid place” that has been slated for demolition later this fall, and the building’s own ‘execution’ seems to be the inspiration for Ningen’s entree selection.)
Some of Ningen’s meals include the final request of armed robber and double-murderer Gary Mark Gilmore, who reportedly downed a hamburger, a baked potato, a hard-boiled egg, and three shots of Jack Daniels before he was executed by firing squad in 1977. (And, for whatever reason, the restaurant has swapped Gilmore’s shots of Jack for Maker’s Mark. So much for historical accuracy.)
For the more health-conscious, there’s the Judy Buonoano meal: Florida’s so-called “Black Widow” ate a plate of broccoli, asparagus and strawberries before she was strapped into the electric chair in 1998. She had been convicted of killing her husband and her partially paralyzed 19-year-old son, as well as the attempted murder of her boyfriend.
Robber-turned-murderer Joseph Paul Jernigan’s final meal of two cheeseburgers, fries, a salad with Thousand Island dressing and a glass of iced tea is also available. (Jernigan reportedly refused to eat the meal when it was finally presented to him.)
Finally, Ningen offers an abridged version of John Wayne Gacy’s final meal. The scariest clown not named Pennywise requested a dozen fried shrimp, a bucket of KFC chicken, fries, and a pound of strawberries. (In the mid-1960s, Gacy managed three KFC restaurants in Waterloo, Iowa. Either he still craved that proprietary combo of herbs and spices, or he just assumed that much KFC might kill him before the state of Illinois could.)
Ningen isn’t the first restaurant to use the concept of last meals as menu suggestions. In 2014, a group of anonymous organizers promoted their own pop-up called Death Row Dinners. The one-night-only event offered a £50 ($64) five-course meal that was based on the final requests of other assorted death row inmates. (“Enjoy the idea of a last meal, without the nasty execution bit,” the organizers flippantly suggested.)
The backlash was swift and unyielding, and the event was ultimately cancelled after “serious threatening behavior” was directed at the person or people behind it. “Death Row Dinners was created to appeal to an audience who would not be offended by the concept,” the organizers said in a statement. “It seems there are plenty of people out there who aren’t, because they are buying tickets and supporting us.”
According to Reuters, the only G7 advanced democracies who still execute convicted criminals are the United States and Japan, and a 2015 survey suggested that 80.3 percent of Japanese citizens were in favor of the death penalty. That could explain why the collective who run the Ningen Restaurant haven’t faced the same criticism that Death Row Dinners did.
Enjoy the chicken, fries, and strawberries, I guess.